PR’S RISING EURO STAR - As corporate borders within Europe break down, it seems natural that multi-lingual Brussels should become the nerve centre of the European public relations industry. John-Pierre Joyce investigates

The fact that PR is now firmly established in the UK as a prime career choice for university graduates comes as more than a little surprise to Belgium’s PR fraternity. Jan van Heuversvyn, senior partner at PR agency Interel, for example, jokes that most people take PR to mean perfume and recreation. ’They don’t take it seriously,’ he says.

The fact that PR is now firmly established in the UK as a prime

career choice for university graduates comes as more than a little

surprise to Belgium’s PR fraternity. Jan van Heuversvyn, senior partner

at PR agency Interel, for example, jokes that most people take PR to

mean perfume and recreation. ’They don’t take it seriously,’ he


Attitudes are changing but, in a small country with a population of just

ten million, ignorance about an industry that only began to take root in

the mid-1980s is perhaps understandable. From a global perspective, the

local PR profession has also been overshadowed by the presence in

Brussels of international players like Hill and Knowlton and The Rowland

Company which have grown largely as a result of their work for European

Union institutions. However popular perceptions mask a vibrant local

market which can claim to be one of the most sophisticated in


In 1995 fee income for the 16 members of the Belgian Public Relations

Consultants Association (ABCPR/BGPRA) totalled #14.8 million - a 6.3 per

cent increase on 1994. The average number of retained clients was 15

while staff per agency averaged at around 13. Most agencies are based in

Brussels, although some small outfits and branch offices operate in

Antwerp, Ghent and Liege.

The ABCRP/BGPRA is now actively campaigning to develop the perceived

professionalism of its members while also promoting a detailed client

understanding of the nature of its members activities. The association

is currently redefining its criteria for entry with a view to developing

association membership as a ’quality mark’. Joint initiatives, however,

have been relatively slow to get off the starting block, the domestic

market being marked by intense competition and division.

’Because we are individualists in Belgium there was no communication

between professionals for nearly 20 years,’ says Jean Luc Pleunes

president of the ABCRP/BGPRA and managing director of Communication

Partners. Recent joint industry efforts such as the association’s

commitment to ISO 9000 have received a lukewarm response with a less

than 50 per cent sign up to the quality accreditation procedure, despite

a universal concern with increasing the professionalism of the


The domestic market

PR activity among domestic agencies is dominated by corporate

positioning, although shrinking marketing budgets are compelling

consultants to combine disciplines in a more fluid way.

In the field of product promotion, for example, Ine Marien and Partners’

managing director Ine Marien thinks that straightforward press relations

and events are a thing of the past. ’We do more environmental programmes

to create a positive reputation, which is much closer to corporate PR,’

she says. ’There is a terrific increase in strategic marketing PR. Big

brands are losing their market share, so it’s more about reputation,

which is the only thing that can cover the difference in price.’

Jean-Leopold Schuybroek, president of Interel, acknowledges that Belgium

lacks the range of specialist agencies common in the UK, but sees this

as a necessity in a comparatively smaller market. ’In the UK we know

that being a generalist can be a dangerous position, but here our

strategy is to go from being generalist to multi-specialist. You can’t

grow faster than the market.’

But the real strength of the Belgian PR industry is its international

expertise. Around 60 per cent of consultancy business is billed abroad

to foreign companies and most agencies are members of at least one

international network.

Schuybroek, who is also president-elect of ICO, the international PR

consultancy association, says this is largely because of Belgium’s

strategic location at the heart of the European Union. Belgian PR itself

grew up in the wake of the single market and the flood of companies

setting up their European headquarters in Brussels.

’Most of the agencies started about 15 years ago,’ says Schuybroek.

’Quite a few others have disappeared in the last three or four years and

they were the ones who had already been there for 20 or 25 years but had

difficulties in adapting because they serviced a very small, parochial


’There is quite a lot of business here with professional associations

and federations which need to raise their profile with European

institutions and need to organise campaigns for their own members. You

also have regional development agencies which are in Brussels because of

EU grants. These organisations need help approaching European

institutions and their constituents within Europe and that is an

expertise we have developed here in Belgium.’


Despite this, Belgian consultancies tend to steer clear of the big PR

campaigns run by the European Commission. Although Interel is working on

the Citizens First campaign and Beauchez won the domestic olive oil

promotion account, most local agencies are content to leave the big

pan-European assignments to international rivals like Hill and Knowlton

and The Rowland Company.

’We do occasionally participate in tenders, but it has always been a bad

experience because it doesn’t really depend on the quality of the

proposal,’ complains one agency chief.

’To win a tender you have to know the right people and when to put your

paper on the top of the pile,’ adds another. ’Besides, it’s not always

rewarding work and it’s a big administration to deal with.’

Perhaps Belgium’s biggest PR asset is its linguistic diversity and mixed

cultural heritage. Formed only in 1830 and controlled at one time or

another by Dutch, French, Austrian and Spanish occupiers, Belgium has

long been at the confluence of European politics. In addition, Belgians

almost universally speak both French and Flemish, while fluency in

English, Dutch and German is common.

’Our language differences are a positive factor because you have the

Latin experience and the Anglo-Saxon culture in the same country,’ says

Alain Douxchamps, public affairs manager at chemical group UCB. ’It’s

the reason why Belgium is considered an internationally minded business


Ine Marien agrees: ’We are dealing all the time, even locally, in three

different languages and most of us speak a fourth or fifth, so it’s

easier doing a co-ordinating role. You understand why the Germans will

take a different approach from the French or if we have English clients

we have to make them understand that they can’t adopt the same attitude

as the Flemish.’

It is perhaps ironic that a profession which is so adept at servicing

international clients has, as yet, had little success in convincing the

domestic market of the need for good PR. In the case of private

companies, this is often because they either maintain their own in-house

departments or are too small to afford what they perceive as the luxury

of maintaining a PR consultancy. But state organisations have also been

slow on the uptake.

Marien reckons that only two or three per cent of agency assignments

involve government information work.

That compares to nearly 50 per cent in the neighbouring Netherlands.

This is despite the damage caused to the images of a number of

government agencies by last summer’s child abuse scandal and

complications arising from the federal constitution which came into

force in 1993. The reforms devolved power to the Flemish, French and

German speaking communities, three regions (Flanders, Wallonia and

Brussels) and the smaller provinces and communes. Although foreign

companies have called on consultants to help lead them through the

administrative maze, government bodies remain unresponsive.

’There is a big potential market for this kind of work,’ says Marien,

’but it is not a tradition. Governments don’t even conceive of calling

for this kind of help. It will take five to ten years and the

federalisation rather than the scandals will drive the process.’

Meanwhile, a commission of ABCPR/BGPRA members is addressing the

potential ethical minefield that a growing triangle between the Belgian

government, business and PR consultants would create.

But as the process of European integration gathers pace, Belgian PR is

set to reap most reward from the flow of companies, interest groups and

trade associations setting up shop in Brussels. Although international

subsidiaries still occupy the top three ranking positions, local Belgian

agencies are close behind.

’We are the perfect underdogs,’ jokes van Heuverswyn. ’People don’t

think the Belgians count for much, but we always find our way and know

how to get to our objectives.’

It’s official: language is no barrier

For Belgian PR practitioners the ability to speak another language is

not just an extra string to their professional bow. It is an essential

part of the job.

Around 60 per cent of Belgium’s population speak Flemish (a derivation

of Dutch) and about 40 per cent speak French. In addition, a small

German speaking minority of 60,000 lives in the east of the country.

English and Dutch are also widely spoken. Fluency in at least two

languages is therefore necessary not only to serve foreign clients, but

also to deal with domestic audiences - not least because all official

texts have to be in both Flemish and French.

Producing a press release, for example, involves a lot more work than

straightforward translation. ’If someone has written it in one language

at the start, the final contents can be the same but the arguments you

are putting forward will be different,’ says Ine Marien. ’You have to

consider people from different linguistic origins all the time to see if

what you want to do in PR matches with the population and the


Flemish journalists, for instance, will ask for much more facts and

figures than their French speaking counterparts. If hard information is

omitted or hidden on the second page, the press release will probably be


The French media, on the other hand, are much more interested in

emotional content and the social context of arguments.

’You have to teach junior people about this because they come from one

cultural background and don’t understand that you can’t just reproduce

the same thing for the other,’ says Marien. ’I think this is a good

basis for international PR because you have to work in this environment

all time. We often have difficulties in the beginning with British

companies because they approve a text in English and want to translate

the French and Flemish versions word for word. We have to tell them it’s

not the same.’

Jan van Heuverswyn was formerly head of group communications at

financial services group Fortis and remembers seeing 18 drafts of the

same press release: ’We started writing it in English because it was a

Belgian-Dutch company, but when we started translating the text people

wanted to change the way we said things and we had to start all over


’Staff need to know at least three languages,’ he says. ’You don’t even

ask if they do. And if you come as a company to Belgium you cannot

afford to communicate in one single language.’

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