The following is a longer version of an article I published recently in NewEurope.
If 2010 is the year when Brussels started taking social media seriously, then 2011 may be the year when Brussels realises that the biggest social media challenges are old, not new.
Combining social media and EU affairs is not new – the first online EU Community of Practice to successfully support an EC programme was launched in 2002. It and its followups, however, targeted specialised audiences, with a professional interest in EC programmes and policy.
The first ‘Eurobloggers’, who appeared in 2004-05, did more or less the same thing. Their specialisation, however, is the EU itself – from the wonders of the Lisbon Treaty to the details of the budget, some eurogeek somewhere is showing traditional journalists what rigorous research and attention to detail really mean.
Although Margot Wallstrom’s blog gave the EU its first human face online in 2005, the vast majority of EU blogs seem to be focused inwards, written by people in the Brussels Bubble, for people in the Brussels Bubble.
A sort of virtual version of Brussels is emerging, projected into social media but unconnected to much else, where people meet online to continue their conversations from last night’s Place Luxembourg cocktail party. The Bubble even has its own hashtag: #bxlsbbl. And it’s not even one bubble, it’s a EurosplInternet.
Of course, this is a simplification. These conversations are now more accessible, at least in theory: some of my favourite Eurobloggers write from Helsinki, Ethiopia and London. But while anyone, anywhere can now join in these conversations, their gaze remains fixed on Brussels – they know the difference between the Council and the Parliament, understand the mysteries of PRE-LEX (and can read and write in English).
The conversation, however, is impenetrable eurojargon to everyone else.
Puncturing the Bubble
People are having fun, but what’s missing from this picture is the main opportunity which social media offers the EU Institutions: a channel through which they can reach out to people beyond the Bubble.
This is not rocket science – it’s been clear for years that people no longer visit destination websites, and that communicators must go where the audience is. When it comes to EU policy, that means joining existing online communities, where people have already come together to discuss issues, and engaging them: explaining what the EU is doing in the field being discussed, how EU action adds value, and (preferably) how people can get involved.
It’s called online community management, and – in the US at least – it’s been an established profession for years. As has the idea that an organisation with 20,000 staff has 20,000 spokespersons.
This sounds simple, but it’s worth remembering that this is also revolutionary. Before social media came along, people simply could not easily self-assemble into these “Communities of Interest” – the organisational costs were too high. This, in turn, made it impossible for the EU to reach people directly – you can hardly address a group or Community of Interest if it doesn’t exist. Short of carpet-bombing Europe with brochures, the EU was left with indirect communications – press relations. And we all know how accurately most national press report EU affairs.
So online community management is a revolutionary opportunity. It also requires a new communication style – you don’t talk to people at a dinner party as if they were journalists reading a press release, or viewers of your television ad. But that’s not hard. Twitter’s not hard. Neither is Facebook, or blogging. That’s why they’re successful.
The hard part is getting organised enough to be able to deliver the content.
Social media is not a panacea – it must be integrated into a wider online communications strategy, which must in turn be just one part of an overall strategy. And that means being able to write in a Facebook Group or blog comment: “More on what the EU is doing in this field is here“.
This link must point to a high-quality, user-centric, up-to-date, multilingual interface to EUROPA, organised according to topics rather than Institutions or DGs.
Because this audience are not EU geeks. They don’t understand the difference between the Parliament, Commission or Council, let alone DG X, Y or Z. Social media engagement thus means talking to people about how the EU (not DG X) adds value to the topics they care about, where they discuss them, backed up by multilingual, topically organised material on EUROPA.
Building this interface takes organisation, coordination and cooperation. To start with, it’s difficult enough for people within the Commission to discover and then track everything their own organisation does in a field like, say, eHealth, let alone what the Parliament, Council and the Committees are up to.
And just to make it interesting, you have to then factor in that the Units and DGs which must work together to ‘communicate Europe’ (because their policies touch the same topics) are also policy rivals … because their policies touch the same topics.
“I’ll get back to you”
These obstacles make effective social media engagement harder than most seem to realise. The problem is compounded by the reaction times that social media engagement demands.
Imagine Dave of DG D, engaging online about a conference his colleagues are organising about, say, road safety. And let’s say someone in the community asks a question about intelligent highways. Fair enough. But Dave works in DG D, and intelligent highways are done by DG E.
What does he do? Say “Sorry, not my department, try Europe Direct“? Or respond after two week’s of internal emails?
Another, simpler example: Eve from DG E is engaging online, discussing agricultural reform. Someone asks a pointed question about national-level fraud which just reached the front page. Even if she knows the answer, can she respond? Does she have to send a note to her Head of Unit, with notes for the Director and Director-General annexed, asking for guidance? Perhaps the spokesperson, or someone from the Cabinet, should be brought in?
There are solutions for Eve, but they involve writing and approving detailed “Lines to Take” documents for every situation, which risks turning the 20,000 advocates into 20,000 robots. And they can’t be updated quickly enough to keep up with the news agenda.
Dave, however, is in even worse shape. He needs to be able to call on a cross-Institution network of communication specialists, organised along topical lines, with enough autonomy and resources to provide a publishable answer within 24 hours. In 20 languages.
Such networks were first piloted in 2002 to keep EUROPA’s upper levels up to date. There’s no sign of them yet – the only member I know of the once-touted “Internet Correspondents Network” didn’t even know she was a member.
Dave, in other words, will probably be waiting for quite some time.