Mathew Lowry

Astroturfing the Berlaymont

One of the topics I’ve been developing on this blog for quite some time came up at last week’s get-together organised by the Belgian IABC chapter: the need (or not) for social media guidelines for EU staff.

I actually think such guidelines are needed not just for EU staff, but for everyone serious about using social media to improve the effectiveness of EU policy development, programme implementation and communications. If I’ve learnt anything from following (at a distance) the private sector’s developing love/hate affair with social media, it’s that such guidelines are absolutely crucial, as are accompanying training support. My fear is that without them, most staff will feel unable to contribute to social media conversations, while at least one person will inevitably make a mess out of everything for everyone else.

But perhaps I’m just getting pessimistic and crotchety in my dotage. It was fascinating to see the diversity of opinions among the EU staff attending last week regarding their freedom of expression online. This issue was clarified in a followup comment on the IABC’s site (see Should the EU Institutions have a blogging policy?) by Benedictus Nieuwenhuis, who “stumbled on an internal presentation given earlier in the year from which I copy just one part” (my emphases):

“Can we use social media?
Staff as Ambassadors(ref: administrative notice (38/2007 from 17/07/2007)”
Comment on the slide
“You have the mandate to speak on the behalf of the Commission. Also in social media.
The Commission allows its staff to be active on the web in a professional capacity. This is clearly stated in the administrative notice (38/2007 from 17/07/2007) on “staff as ambassadors”. This administrative notice does give staff greater freedom to speak on the internet as long as they observe:
– the Commission’s position is the point of departure
– clear frame of reference in terms of subject matter
Objectivity, impartiality, loyalty to the institutions and non-divulgence of not yet public information
‘Speaking’ on the Internet
There is essentially no difference between a Commission member of staff attending an event, visiting a school or delivering a speech and the same person taking part in a discussion forum or contributing to a blog. When ‘speaking’ to external audiences via the Internet, the same guidelines apply as mentioned above (remit, clear frame of reference, key staff obligations). Likewise, you are strongly encouraged to introduce certain personal elements and structure, relying on your good judgement and common sense.

This is better than I’d assumed. I’d be interested in finding out how many Commission staff know they have this freedom, and how many understand what the phrase in italics means in the context of social media. Commission staff are no more prone to forgetting common sense than anyone else, but as I argued earlier in poisoning the well, someone naively “introducing certain personal elements” in the wrong way could set back the adoption of social media by the EU.

The thing is that social media guidelines are generally a lot more detailed than the above few paragraphs. I was reminded of this today when I was listening to a recent edition of For Immediate Release, the podcast done by two switched-on PR folks which has become part of my staple podcast diet.

In edition 494, Shel Holtz reported on the latest astroturfing scandal, where – according to Tim Karr on the save the internet blog:

AT&T has “asked’ its employees to fake it in the fight against Net Neutrality. The company’s top policy officer sent a memo to workers on Monday urging them to hide their company affiliation before posting anti-Net Neutrality comments to the Federal Communication Commission’s Web site. … Cicconi urges them to choose from a list of talking points sanctioned by the PR department — fearful perhaps of what employees might say if they went off script.

So this is astroturfing – the practice of faking the impression of a grassroots movement when there is none. (Astroturf is fake grass, so astroturfing is creating fake grassroots, got it?) More on astroturfing on the AntiAstroturfing HomePage – a quick poke around will provide you with any number of horror stories, and it really is amazing that people still try this on, as it’s almost inevitably discovered.

But they do. Sometimes its a executive-level decision, like AT&T, but here in Brussels I reckon we should be more concerned about someone, somewhere, not knowing anything about social media, doing something like this on his/her own initiative, and getting a rather nasty shock when it blows up in the collective EU face.

Which is why so many organisations have developed detailed social media guidelines for staff. Not just to reduce the risks to the organisation, but also to encourage staff to engage online productively, as once most people understand the issues they are more likely to feel empowered to use these channels.

As Shel pointed out in the podcast (paraphrased), “Most organisations are starting to recognise that there is value in having employees act as the front-line of public relations“, but this takes education and training:

“more and more organisations are starting to use internal comms to educate employees both about the company’s issues and initiatives, and about the ways they can talk about those, which is by simply adding a disclaimer ..”

[an employee could then go to a website and write] “… I’ve been studying this issue, the company has been communicating with us, and this is my own opinion and not the company’s and here’s what I think ..”

There are so many resources out there for composing social media guidelines. The biggest is probably Social Media Governance’s policy database, which contains over 100 documents, a full page of which are classified under Public/Non-Profit. Worth a read.

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  1. As I understood it while preparing EC officials headed out on the enterprise experience programme, the term ambassador was intended to make them aware of representing the institution, not as a mouthpiece, but as an individual: putting a face on the institution simply by virtue of identifying oneself as working for it (as corporate entities have been heard saying “our staff are our best ambassadors”).
    I encouraged people to realise they could respectfully but distinctly distinguish their personal view from that of their employer. However, this often encountered resistance. It was almost as if some officials instinctively felt obliged to lay astroturf wherever they went.
    If social networking helps counter the communications paralysis engendered by this corporatist attitude, it may not only lead to the institutions engaging with a wider public, it may also make them healthier places to work and ultimately more effective.

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

  2. Thanks for the comment. It seems to confirm what I suspected, and also points out some of the other side-benefits of having a workface active in social media.

    Do you think that properly elaborated guidelines, backed up by some internal training (or just training material, an intranet, something), would help break down that instinctive resistance, ‘freeing up’ some of those officials?

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

  3. The tools will only be useful when there is a desire to wield them. Officials often see communications as something that should be handled mainly by specialised staff and will probably require top-down encouragement before feeling they should participate in the process. I imagine an active intranet, backed by training and heirarchical incentives, would be a good place to get people moving in the right direction and practicing finding their voice.

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

  4. In general, of course, you’re right – you’ll probably never get officials who are not interested in communicating to use social media tools. I was thinking about those staff who may be interested in doing so but feel like they haven’t got the guidelines to provide them with a framework within which they can operate safely (and they may be right). So they hold back.

    I don’t know whether these staff exist. Perhaps a survey should be organised.

    On the other hand, there are potentially many areas where social media engagement could be a useful professional tool for the core area of an official’s work, providing a ‘communications bonus’ as a useful byproduct. So if you don’t tell them it’s communications (and thus the job of another unit), perhaps they’ll do it.

    But that would take a sea-change in the way most EC websites are built and managed. As I argued here when supporting EC-focused events with interactive websites and social media strategies, such sites could be a very important building block of the European online public space, and so should be the rule, not the exception.

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