Hill+Knowlton Belgium’s Chairman Thomas Tindemans recently celebrated ten years with the company. To commemorate this milestone we sat down with him to discuss how public affairs have evolved, how the EU has changed and how H+K has transformed in the past decade.

You were leading the PA practice in a law firm for many years. Do you feel there is a different approach to PA in communications consultancies like H+K compared to in law firms, including but beyond the communications perspective?

I would say there is a difference in approach and methodology. When you are talking about legal advice aspects, they tend to be structured around reasoning and arguing the basic texts and precedents, rather than looking at the societal context, the mood and the emotional aspects that come into play. Public affairs is less a matter of whom but what you know. It’s an exercise in intellectual activity and analysis, formulating and underpinning your arguments in such a way that they are heard by the audiences you are trying to reach.

What I learnt in my time in the law firm was to formulate and write precisely, that the meaning of words is important, and to ensure whenever you have to explain things you make them as clear and concise as possible. That discipline is of course also important in communications. I do believe that to be effective in communications you essentially have to apply the same quality criteria. The impression may exist that a superficial quick fix is sufficient but in reality it’s not. In EU public affairs you have to win the argument and so it remains utterly important to formulate your arguments accurately.

You’ve said in the past that ‘no’ is not a negotiating strategy.

Absolutely, and that’s particularly true in European law and policymaking. The EU is one big compromise machine. Compromise in the Commission between different DGs; compromise in parliament between different political groups; compromise in the Council between 27 different member states, and then compromise between all three institutions. So successful public affairs is based on helping craft and achieve compromise that is carried by majorities in the member states, in the European Parliament, and preferably also by public opinion. Just opposing a proposal without offering an alternative does not contribute to compromise. Compromise may sound negative to some ears, as if one were surrendering or abandoning principled approaches. But the reality is of course that as a public affairs expert one has to help Commission officials, elected politicians and government ministers to solve the issues they need to address. Just opposing is no contribution to solving their issues, and that’s a recipe for failure.

In your ten years at H+K has the craft of public affairs changed, and how has the EU changed in the past decade?

There has definitely been dramatic change. For one, when I joined H+K ten years ago we were just coming out of a deep financial and economic crisis the effects of which were still painfully felt. The period before had been much more optimistic and forward-looking: the internal market was created in the 90s and early 2000s, all this new harmonisation legislation came about, new member states joined and Europe was expanding its footprint globally. The drive was very much inclusive: we had enlargement and economic growth.

All that seemed to come to an end with the financial crisis. So public affairs changed a lot because the agenda changed. Rather than huge packages of new legislation it was about damage control, it was about implementation of EU rules in member states, and it was about recovery plans to save the economy. And that’s a different mindset, if you will. It’s not shaping the world, as used to be the case, but rather trying to protect the fundamentals.

There’s been a recent upswing in EU legislative initiatives – are we back to a more activist EU?

The reproach often made of the EU is that it runs ahead of people and countries to come up with all these new rules and laws, but doesn’t take enough time to ensure that they are properly implemented and applied and to take stock of the lessons that can be learnt from what works and what doesn’t. But these things come in waves. There are periods with lots of new initiatives because they are necessary, and we’re currently living such a period with the von der Leyen Commission and its ambitious climate and digital agenda. Plus we have the Corona pandemic recovery programme and its unprecedented financial backing. These waves marked by periods of lots of new initiatives are followed by periods of implementation and fine-tuning.

As you say the current Commission has set a very ambitious agenda. Will we see the massive transformations promised or will the EU run out of steam?

The EU in itself has always been an ambitious project. To bring together former arch-enemies that used to slaughter one another’s youth every 20 years – and we in Belgium would often be the site of those massacres – to discuss, decide and agree on their common welfare and wellbeing is possibly the highest political ambition there can be. The EU brought long-lasting and solid peace, and those who think that the EU is just some pragmatic economic arrangement, well they err. It is fundamentally still a peace project. I only have to refer to the situation on the island of Ireland, where belonging or not to the EU still has a strong peace connotation. So the EU has always been ambitious.

That the magical structure – a Commission that proposes in the interests of the whole, a Council that defends national interests, and a parliament that reflects the variety of political preferences – continues to function and produce policies and negotiated compromises remains in itself remarkable.  But if we look over time we see that each crisis has helped the EU improve its machinery to make decision-making process more effective. Despite the deficiencies, the EU model can come up with solutions and convince member states and their citizens – some more reluctant than others – of the way forward. The challenge for me is how to ensure that those who stand for election in EU member states continue to support the EU’s method and fundamental purpose. I remain optimistic but I do recognise that it’s an enormous task and a daily battle to keep people on board.

How has H+K evolved in the past ten years?

We have changed totally! When I arrived H+K and similar agencies were often structured as a very hierarchical pyramid, with a few people at the top visible to the outside world and an army of juniors toiling away in the metaphorical basement! We were structured like the European Commission, with an organigram, sector silos, and small pyramids within larger pyramids. When a client request came in we would pull out the organigram and decide where that request fit into our structure. The financial crisis forced us to rethink that model. For one, longer-term large, retained contracts became very rare – clients wanted projects with measurable results in the short-to-medium term. We also saw a completely changed communications landscape with the massive influence of social media, digital channels and the ability of people and organisations to become their own broadcaster, less dependent on the press to address the public. As a result, the influence of organised and professionalised civil society has become more significant.

So we adapted and broke down hierarchies and silos in our office. We adopted a much more horizontal structure, composing project teams with the expertise required for a specific client brief. So now when a client approaches us with an issue we think ‘what does it take to solve this problem’ and put the team together based on the required skills and talents, and not on the basis of an organigram.

Is H+K unique in this approach?

I can’t speak for others but I do think that the fast-moving, very practical and pragmatic solution-oriented approach is where the future lies. I also think that hierarchical organisations in the service industry have had their time. We all now have digital access to information so no longer need an army of supporting resources. More importantly, and this is really the big change, is that clients come to us with problems they encounter mostly only once in their lifetime, be it a threat or opportunity from new proposed legislation, a merger or acquisition, a new CEO appointed, a restructuring or an international trade dispute. There are no handbooks or pre-set methodologies to solve these unique issues, and that’s where we come in. We bring in proven approaches and learnings from previous challenges and apply and adapt them, for no two issues are the same. We offer structure and flexibility. I like to say we’ve moved from being an ‘agency’ to becoming a ‘consultancy’, and consultants are deeply engaged with clients’ challenges and invested in trying to solve them.

May I dare you to predict how the consultancy, communications and policy worlds will evolve in the next decade?

Let me first say that the basics will remain the same. Decision-making procedures determine when and how one can interact with decision makers. At the EU level it’s the treaty, which foresees consultation, business impact assessment, stakeholder involvement and so forth. That’s not going to change. What is going to change are the tools and instruments at our disposal. The pandemic has made digital engagement the norm and no longer a fancy avant-garde approach. The other aspect that’s developing greatly is how we assess sentiment. In the past one would read all the newspapers as an expression of public opinion. We now do data analysis, and have to talk to a lot more people to find out what the nuances are. So the filters are no longer there, it is much more based on direct interaction, and that trend is going to continue.

The last point I’d like to emphasise is that the global context has completely changed in the sense that we see now political leaders who would have been unthinkable 20 years ago – leaders with autocratic tendencies, and populists appealing to people’s lowest impulses rather than their highest ideals. So that will continue to bring a real challenge to our work – how do we ensure that bringing the right, considered arguments to the table will be effective in a context when political leaders are appealing to the lowest common denominator?

There are many important qualities one needs to cultivate to be successful in public affairs, but I would say that the most important is passion. One really has to be interested in what, in our case, EU policies are and what they aim to achieve. One has to understand the cultural differences and different histories of the European nations, and preferably one should speak a few languages. But all of that needs to be underscored by genuine enthusiasm. I always say you have to be a friend of the institutions in order to be able to work with them, and I think that remains valid. The second thing I’d say – and I don’t want to discourage anybody – is that public affairs work is primarily an intellectual exercise: we read, we think, we argue, we distil, we write. Counter to what popular perception may be, it’s not a matter of cocktails and dinners, it’s hard but stimulating brain work.

What I’d like to say by way of conclusion is this: I have been very lucky in my own professional career to have encountered great mentors and masters. That’s how I’ve learnt what I know and what I do. The clarity of reasoning and expression, the need to be convincing and not just passive, the discipline of producing quality documents, true engagement in human interaction, a real interest in people and what motivates them, all of these I learnt from my mentors. I would hope that with my own experience I am transmitting some of these professional lessons to the next generation of public affairs practitioners with whom I work.