Communication Professionals as Bridge-Builders: Lessons from Senator Mei Li Vos

March 30, 2023

On March 22nd, party leader of the ‘Partij van de Arbeid’ (Dutch Labour Party) in the Senate, Mei Li Vos, visited the office of Omnicom PR Group (OPRG). OPRG invited her to gain more insights into the work of the Senate. She also shared her advice on how communication professionals can deal with polarization around complex issues, such as climate policy. Finally, she looked ahead to the future. How does the Senate deal with complex subjects, such as ESG (environmental, social and governance) policy? And how does communication contribute to this? You can read that in this blog.

Passion for work

Mei Li Vos has held her seat in the Senate with great enthusiasm since 2019. The Senate is responsible for checking laws in their final phase, and is therefore part of the system of checks and balances in our legislative process. She calls it ‘nerd work’ and finds it more rewarding work than her work for the House of Representatives – where she was previously a member. In her current role, Vos cannot always lose her militancy. “I recently encountered the problem that service dogs are very expensive for people who benefit from them. If you are convinced that it makes sense, you can submit an initiative memorandum in the House of Representatives, but not in the Senate.” That is because proposed laws are only tested in the Senate for feasibility and their coherence with other laws; the Senate takes no initiatives. Nevertheless, Vos considers this form of politics indispensable.

“Every year we remove a number of laws that, for example, are against the constitution or are simply not enforceable. Our task as a checkpoint is necessary to properly safeguard democracy.”

Polarisation in the Netherlands

As a politician you come across many different points of view. For example, climate is a topic where groups are very opposed to each other. The recent Provincial Council elections also made it very clear how polarization divides the Dutch people today. After all, BBB was elected as the biggest voice against politicians in The Hague and the nitrogen approach. According to Vos, the way to deal with polarization is seeking connection and understanding why people think what they think.

Speak understandable Dutch

According to Vos, this is a task for both politicians and communication professionals. She believes that complex issues, such as the recent, critical IPCC climate report, should be made tangible for everyone in the Netherlands. “Make that translation. Explain why there will be a flood of climate refugees. Or that we can no longer go to Italy in the summer because it is too hot if we do not act now. Because we have the means to solve the climate problem; we just don’t use them.” Vos also argues that the environment is not a ‘left’ subject: “Ultimately, we all have to deal with the environment and its consequences. It is a subject of all parties and every company, but the way we deal with it differs.”

Mei Li Vos at the OPRG office in Amstelveen

Together we go further

She applies this both politically and in her personal life. She understands why action groups, such as Farmers Defense Force and Extinction Rebellion, arise. “The sounds of these organizations sometimes go far, but what the activists stand for is understandable. Of course you want your family business to continue to exist. At the same time, the planet must also continue to exist. It is up to us as politicians to find solutions in this.” Vos is also confronted with polarization in her personal circle with a friend; with further differentiating viewpoints. Still, she continues to appreciate his presence at dinner parties and believes that “it is precisely by entering into a conversation that you learn from each other. If you listen carefully to each other, you will automatically understand the core of someone’s concerns. Only then can you move forward together.” We have to get rid of the label ‘wappie’ anyway, says Vos.

“We shouldn’t write off people with a critical note. Remain open to each other’s different perspectives; as long as we agree on the facts.”

A view on the future

The future? Vos envisions a scenario in which sustainability is added to the criteria for assessing relevant laws: “About a third of the parties are currently taking this on board. Ideally, we are moving towards a future in which this becomes the most normal thing for the Senate. After all, climate change is everyone’s problem.” According to Vos, we all ultimately want the same thing: a liveable Netherlands. Everyone has to contribute to that. According to Vos, we all ultimately want the same thing: a liveable Netherlands. Everyone has to contribute to that. “Politics is often not fun, but it is relevant. Make sure you do something yourself, keep talking to each other, even if you don’t agree” she continues. The turnout of around 58% for the Provincial Council elections on March 15th, which indirectly elects the members of the Senate, is not very high. The challenge remains to get people on board in the interest of politics, especially for the Senate.

Jacques Bettelheim, Director of Public Affairs at OPRG, looks back positively on Mei Li Vos’ visit: “As a communications consultancy that allocates great importance to the integration of public relations and public affairs (PA), we advise our clients to integrate PA into their communication strategies. That is why we involve ‘the political game’ in advice to our clients. Where possible we involve companies and their target group in complex matters, such as the importance of an active ESG policy, for example. With the lessons of Mei Li Vos in our pocket, we will ensure even stronger bridges between widely separated parties. We apply this approach by, among other things, conducting thorough research into the needs and viewpoints of the target group and all other relevant stakeholders of our customers. Our strategies are then further nuanced by these different views.”


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