Mathew Lowry

Julien Frisch blogged about a very thoughtful post on writing for (y)EU by Steve, a web editor from the EP, who sounds distressingly like me (white, British, 40s and sceptical about the Generation Y definition of ‘friend’ despite having many) and seems to be coming down from a post-holiday Web2.0 overdose.

The key paragraph, highlighted by Julien, is where Steve asks himself whether the EP does too much Web2.0, thus leaving the vast majority of internet users behind. Is another digital divide, this time between digital natives and the rest of us online, emerging just as the original divide (between digital haves and have-nots) begins to close?

Damn.

Of course, there will always be early adopters and laggards when it comes to the Posterous v. Twitter debate. But this is an important point when it comes to public access to information and services. He’s right to ask not only whether the EP’s pre-election experiments were a good idea, but also whether EU institutions (and governments in general, I guess) should live anywhere near the cutting edge, for fear of favouring early adopters and leaving behind everyone else.

This reminds me of a few posts I tagged elsewhere for later consumption. In Social Media Experts Are Scary, for example, Michelle Trip observes:

this whole “social media expert” thing is getting really out of hand. And not just because every other person with a Facebook account, a plane ticket to Austin, and a Twitter badge is claiming to be one … Social media experts scare me (because) by definition they’re not marketing experts. For all the flashing lights and shooting stars, social media is simply a tool.

I was reminded of this when reading Steffen’s blog, where he wrote of a dilemma: communicators don’t get it and online consultants who aren’t communicators. I had some issues here (which we worked out amicably enough) – not with the dilemma, which exists sure enough, but with the solution, which was to hire:

young PR or marketing professionals who have grown up using the web and are very comfortable with technology. They get the content and message side and also get the web, but they see it as an end rather than a means.

He clarified what he meant in the comments. I personally think Michelle’s right. Social media is just an evolution of the Web. Others are on the way. But radio didn’t replace theatre, and TV didn’t replace radio, so you have to integrate these successive waves of innovation into your entire communication strategy – not just your existing online strategy.

This is particularly the case with Web2.0, and particularly when communicating a massively complicated and misunderstood subject as the EU to non-specialists. Here, a Web2.0 strategy – no matter how well it’s implemented – without a good Web1.0 presence in support is like building a sportscar but forgetting the wheels. It’s not going anywhere.

Reflecting on Steffen’s prescriptions, here are two things I think you need when integrating Web2.0 into an EU communications strategy:

  • first and foremost, overall communications strategy experience. Coming at EU communications with a hammer labeled ‘Web2.0’ is only going to end up hurting your thumb. It has to be integrated. And the web is a means, not an end.
  • secondly, a deep understanding of the EU context. There are a lot of social media experts who can quote chapter and verse from Dell’s and IBM’s experiences. And there’s a lot to learn from them. I do, and I hope to post a lot over the coming weeks on this. But these lessons have to be refracted through the unique prism which is the EU. The EU doesn’t sell soap powder. It pools sovereignty. In 23 languages.

The EP obviously get the importance of an integrated online strategy:

As we found during the election campaign, different online and traditional media are not sealed off from each other, but feed off each other constantly.

But resources are tight, they can’t be everywhere, so just wanting an integrated communication strategy doesn’t in itself doesn’t answer how far down the road to Web2.0 hipdom a public organisation like them should go:

People still organise themselves into their own little worlds. One of our jobs is not to limit ourselves to yet another little world of our own.

This is of course at odds with the Web2.0-induced trend of micropersuasion, but they’re right.

Against the danger of a web2-based digital divide, however, must be balanced the massive advantages of seeing European Institutions truly engage via social media, which has enormous potential to open up the ‘little world’ the EU policy community is. So I think the EP was right to experiment – you have to ‘just try it’, despite the risks – but I feel they’re let down by a Web1.0 site (EUROPA) which doesn’t support the long-term engagement that’s needed.

Which brings me to the oft-repeated observation that the one thing the EP does need to do is keep doing it. If all we get is another 6-month burst of activity in 4 years time, I doubt the result will be much different.

Scrolling upwards, I realise this is not my most coherent post. I apologise. I’m still figuring things out. So all comments are gratefully received.

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  1. Mathew,

    You said, “Which brings me to the oft-repeated observation that the one thing the EP does need to do is keep doing it. If all we get is another 6-month burst of activity in 4 years time, I doubt the result will be much different.”

    I can’t agree more. As someone that follows this place pretty consistently, in the run-up to the EP elections in June, we suddenly had a number of blogs established by MEPs – I won’t name names, but if you spend time here you will know them – and a flurry of activity.

    But 6 months? More like 6 weeks. And then suddenly the posts stop. To the Web 2.0 generation – whatever they / we are being called right now – this is all very transparent.

    Persistence is important in any endeavour and I fear that if the EU tries to communicate mainly in advance of an election, it will remain an irrelevance to the vast majority of the population.

    I can also recall a very heated debate with a journalist friend before the elections. She had visited Blogactiv and was disgusted to see the visibility we were giving to 2 MEPs from the left. Where was our balance? How credible did that make the platform she asked?

    Of course I had to reply that the platform could only promote what it had. If MEPs from other parties aren’t taking part, we can’t promote them, therefore the other candidates have the field to themselves.

    To bring this to a point, one would think that the EP and MEPs need to communicate from all sides and consistently in many online and offline locations if they are truly to be heard and relevant.

    Best wishes,

    Stuart

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

  2. Interesting stuff. There’s a lot to say on this, but I’ll just summarise and say that whatever the success of the campaign for the 2009 elections and the importance of keeping Generation Web 1.0 interested, there are huge image benefits to the EP from being at or close to the cutting edge. The EU’s image isn’t particularly modern, so I think on balance it’s probably a good thing.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

  3. I think it’s about what you and many people I respect have said all along: it’s not about social media, it’s about how your audiences change, grow and evolve. You have to use the right message and the right tool to reach the right audiences – and there are more and more, smaller, audiences to reach as they become segmented across an increasing amount of media. So a communicator should – as was always the case – start with a vision and some goals, then a strategy to accomplishing these goals, which includes defining the primary audiences and the right tools to reach those audiences… If the EP has done this and is indeed using Web 2.0 at the expense of other means of communication, they have perhaps defined a certain segment of the population as the one they need to communicate to most – perhaps the ones that need to be convinced more than others who might have already set, unchangeable views of things.
    But perhaps I’m just giving them too much credit…

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

  4. @Caroline, it’s very difficult to tell, really. Perhaps they’ve done a careful examination of their audiences and decided to focus on those they can reach via social media at the expense of Web1.0-only audiences.

    On the other hand, perhaps they’ve realised that adding a social media angle to their work is good value – i.e., it makes their web1.0 work more effective at low additional effort.

    I suspect they’re simply doing what everyone has to do when they enter social media. Experiment. Learn by doing. Let’s hope they keep it up, and start integrating it with the Web1.0 material, particularly the just-relaunched top layer of EUROPA and any offline campaigns (there was no integration at all, as far as I could see).

    Hopefully what they’ll find is that even if (for now) social media activity only directly reaches a small percentage of the total online audience, it can have an important indirect effect, through for example the mainstream media picking up stories from the stream.

    If they continue to develop their social media presence, I hope they already have – or will develop – some real-time monitoring tools, coupled with rapid response internal procedures, because I think they’ll be needing them.

    @Stuart: you make a really good point. Surely, the most important Parliament players in social media should be the MEPs! If/when they engage properly (all of them, 5 years in 5), it will be interesting to see how the role of the EP team discussed above will evolve.

    @Insideur: the image benefits would be positive towards those, like us, who like and use social media. However, isn’t there a backlash risk – of looking elitist – if they focus disproportianely on Web2.0 at the expense of Web1.0?

    Another risk is of looking like they were simply jumping on a bandwagon. I think they’ve avoided this one quite well, but if their effort tails off for 4 years, followed by renewed enthusiasm just before the next election, this risk will definitely resurface.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

  5. Don’t worry, my post-holiday Web 1.5 blues on Writing for y(EU) did not imply that we’re going to ease off on the Web 2.0. Indeed, the issue now is more of how we take it to the next level in an environment where more and more people will come into the picture, creating (I hope) a true parliamentary Web 2.0 ecosystem.

    As Stuart points out, the key will be the involvement of politicians, as Web 2.0 users will increasingly feel the need to get political responses from parliament (meaning parliamentarians). The interesting point is what role we play in this as institutional communicators. I see us in the future as a “hub” or facilitator for interaction between MEPs and real people out there. We need motivated MEPs and a way of doing this which doesn’t compromise our institutional neutrality (on which our credibility and hence usefulness depend) either from the point of view of our visitors/users or with the politicians. Could be tricky, but is necessary.

    Meanwhile, to return to the original subject, we must not however neglect our “base”. This is where most of my own frustrations lie at the moment, as upgrading the main website (in 22 languages and counting) is a huge and resource-costly enterprise, and one involving many, many players. By comparison, the Web 2.0 stuff is cheap, easy and fun – hence my concerns that its siren call will cause us to forget about good old-fashioned home-cooking.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

  6. Hi Steve, and thanks for the comment. A European online public space clearly needs engaged MEPs (and MPs), so your role in getting them engaged is absolutely critical.

    Do you then see your role evolving more into online community management? I ask because it seems clear from your comment, but I’ve been talking about OCM so much these days that I risk seeing it wherever I look.

    In many ways, OCMs need to show the same neutrality and fairness in dealing with their community managers as you would have to show. However, such communities need to be built from a core of ‘high-performance’ members. And OCMs must always reward ‘star performers’.

    Would this pose problems for you as part of the Institution? It wouldn’t be fair, but I can easily see some MEPs complaining when you don’t promote their non-existent contributions.

    OCM, finally, can be highly time-consuming, so I agree absolutely that the base must be maintained – that’s why I found your post so thought-provoking. I do not envy you the task of balancing one against the other!

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

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