Martin Luther – a forgotten KOL for Public Affairs in Europe?

When planning communications on public policy in Europe, it is often easy to think of the EU as ‘one Europe’; to focus on Member States in terms of numbers of votes; to roll out a communications plan market by market which is conceived entirely at regional level. This is to forget Martin Luther.

We have reviewed the most effective communications work of the past few years, and we notice that communications in Europe works best when it remembers the Protestant reformation. Pharmaceuticals. Energy. Chemicals. Bioscience. All current policy debates are impacted.

This is not a religious point but a cultural one. Since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, two parts of Europe have spent nearly 400 years living with Protestant culture or Catholic/Orthodox culture. This drives attitudes to many issues, and it is key for communications; yet so many campaigns we looked at seemed to make no allowance for it at all. Attitudes driven by culture impact almost all current policy debates in Europe.

So, it is well known that environmental concern is strongly linked to Lutheran culture, and that REACH and other EU environmental legislation was born when Sweden and Finland joined the EU and ‘tipped the balance’ in 1995. Now this relates to issues from shale gas to endocrine disruption.

It is also clear that there is a connection here to the current Eurozone crisis. But it is perhaps less well-known that the European Central Bank itself, usually focused on numbers rather than culture, has recently been studying the effects of Catholic / Protestant culture on the Eurozone (read the study here).

The cosmetics and fragrance industries know that the North views fragrance with worry as the direct descendant of ‘bells and smells’; whereas in Spain it is a sign of good parenting that your baby smells of fragrance.

The Protestant reformation created different patterns of industry in the North and South, so an SME focus means different things in different parts of Europe. Attitudes to labour markets and social protection are again drawn on Lutheran lines. For the financial services industry, the two attitudes to credit started diverging 400 years ago.

So too healthcare. As the industry plans to engage with the next round of policy-making, keeping people at home rather than in hospital will mean different things in North and South. A shift towards greater caring and treatment by family will be easier in the South, where recovery rates from heart attacks are already higher because of greater family presence. Anyone working on the Information to Patients debate will have seen support coming from those countries which translated the Bible into the vernacular, and vehement opposition where only the priest – and therefore the doctor – should be listened to. So to the future. ‘Self-care’ will resonate better in half of Europe, as will ‘personalised medicine’ and the trade-off between personal privacy and targeted therapies.

The list goes on. Shame culture in the South, guilt culture in the North, and why therefore binge drinking happens where it does; attitudes to personal privacy; ‘attachment to the land’ and attitudes to PPPs and biotech; responses to ‘innovation’. Few policy issues are unaffected by the syndrome of ‘two Europes’.

This is important for public affairs and communications, another example of where strategy makes all the difference. For intelligence and war gaming, once an issue breaks somewhere, you know where it will likely break next. For advocacy, you can work out where the base, the opposed and therefore the swing Member States will be. It helps determine whether to have one product formulation or two, and where to pilot. It allows you to create the communications which best influence attitudes in each part of Europe.

HLC has a process which tests which messages work where, and how to develop two messages from one. We’re happy to work through this with you in creating advocacy or communications. The effectiveness of lobbying and public opinion campaigns is to be measured, in part, by the extent to which the audience has been understood. The old 80/20 rule applies here – 80% understanding the audience, 20% refining the case: this is the percentage used by politicians for election campaigns. If corporate communicators or lobbyists spent even 20% of a budget understanding what will sway the audience, this would be more than is done now. Knowing how the electorate of a given politician interprets information will make all the difference in communicating with her/him.

To conclude. Europe may have integrated politically, but political decisions every month reflect this historic contrast of cultures. Next time you’re planning your lobbying or comms, remember Martin Luther.

March 22nd, 2012