Mathew Lowry

More than one social media observer has taken their time to react to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer’s statistic that “people like me” has taken a tumble. What does it mean for EU communications?

For those confused by the first sentence, let me explain that for many people involved in the early days of social media, the Edelman Trust Barometer of 2006 provided an important validation – a statistic that they could brandish with people still getting to grips with the blogosphere … or still trying to avoid it. That was the year “a person like me” rose dramatically to become the most credible spokesperson for companies, surpassing doctors and academic experts for the first time.

As I blogged back in 2008, this offers important possibilities for the EU, which has its fair share of difficulties when it comes to getting its messages across via intermediaries such as the media and national governments, to say the least! Given that so many people benefit, in one way or another, from EC programmes, social media clearly opened a new channel.

Fast forward to 2010, and the figure has dropped.

“Trust in information from friends and peers, “people like me,” dropped by 20 points, from 47 to 27 percent ” – SIliconValleyWatcher


social media bandwagon image

SVR sees this as ‘bad news, big time’ for a whole range of players, including my favourite (social media experts, left), so it can’t all be bad news.

The actual presentation of the report by Edelman is more nuanced (in fact, I couldn’t actually find SVR’s statistic in any of the videos):

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The key points I got – both from Edelman themselves and a few other commentators (see Edelman’s page for a helpful list) – are that:

  • there has been a “substantial” drop in trust of traditional media (TV, radio, newspapers), but specialist media appear as trusted as ever
  • this probably reflects the fact that “Credentialed experts” (business media and financial analysts) were the only sources of information where trust levels remained stable (they’ve always been near the top)
  • so social and other online media appears to be “carving mindshare from traditional media

Experts reign supreme

This leaves academics and experts the most trusted sources of information. As Richard Edelman points out, the financial cataclysms of the recent past has hit people’s trust in all sources of content, so that:

“People are looking for expertise. … academics, doctors, financial analysts, NGO heads … people who have objectivity and expertise … not CEOs or heads of government … traditional authority sources cannot carry a story themselves”

As discussed in an FIR podcast last month, the 2010 results also resonate with last year’s Trust Barometer, which apparently showed that people need to hear something 3-5 times before believing it. So if you can get your message out through different channels, people are both more likely to hear it, and more likely to believe it.

This tactic – what Edelman terms ‘building a mosaic of trust’ – is still as relevant to EU communications as it was when user-generated content first started getting traction with people five years ago.

So bring on Europe’s experts

The recent drop in ‘people like me’ also has to be seen in the context of its recent surge upwards to top spot – as Shel Holtz said on FIR last month, peers are still important. What ‘someone like you’ says about a subject is still an important factor in whether you’ll treat it seriously, it’s just not as important as it was in the heydey of social media newness.

But if it’s still important, then EU communications strategy remains way out of synch with where its priorities should be, because the EU is still hardly doing any social media at all. Unless you count one decent blogsite (not even mentioned on the Parliament’s home page? How can that be?!) and a few Commission officials on Twitter and Facebook as a coherent social media strategy.

What I take out of the latest Trust Barometer is the emphasis on experts as a trustworthy source, coupled with the abovementioned potential of social media to bypass traditional channels.

Just consider how many of the people involved in EC programmes and policy developments are credentialed experts. A strategy that empowers and encourages these academics, policymakers, researchers and others to talk (offline and online) about what they do, and how and why the EU adds value in their field, has got to be a good idea.

So where are they? Like everyone else, they need motivation. And they’re not getting any.

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  1. As you have said, they need to engage with people where they meet – and where misconceptions are spread – which is not reading press releases written by committees, but on comments pages to newspaper columns, blog posts, political discussion forums etc.

  2. Hi Ralf, thanks for commenting.

    The key question – which I perhaps should have ended my post with – is how to motivate this group to contribute “comments to newspaper columns, blog posts, political discussion forums etc”?

    It’s a similar issue to the ‘herding cats’ problem (on motivating nationally-based bloggers to cooperate in creating an European online public space).

    About the only carrot I can think of is visibility, which may not motivate many, and also runs slap bang into the chicken and egg problem. This can be partly addressed by the creation of Community of Practice platforms by the EC programmes funding their work – there are a number of win-wins there.

    But if people aren’t interested in sharing their expertise outside their own national professional circle, then they won’t, and it’s as simple as that. Some would then reach for the stick, arguing that they shouldn’t then be getting EC funds in the first place, but we mustn’t let the tail wag the dog….

  3. Mathew

    Like you the ”Fast forward to 2010, and the figure has dropped’, needs to be nuanced. For example I remember when email was new, and if you emailed a politician they would be more likely to respond than to a written letter. Then spam arrived… However email is still the best way to keep in touch with people clsoe to you. (along with social media)

    With social media, there are so many people (including experts with websites) that have adopted sleestack methods to promote themselves and their causes, that just pumping out stuff in social media wont work. But social media reamins a great way to maintain and build relationships.

    Note all: I dont have a website ūüėČ so listen to me at your own peril.

  4. So … I need to be nuanced? Sounds kinda interesting, I think.

    I remember when email first arrived at the Commission, and you’d send someone an email which they’d never see because they didn’t know where to find their inbox.

    Going further back, and more off topic, I remember hearing about someone digging up and republishing old newspaper articles which warned about the timewasting perils of allowing employees to use the latest communications technology. Which was the telephone. Clearly not good for efficiency – people might use it to talk to their friends! And then there’s all them pesky wires, and that irritating ringing noise from customers and suppliers …

    Thanks for the sleestack meme, btw. And agreed that social media is here to stay. It’s recent tumble is an overdue correction – I personally have always been more influenced by experts than by other schmucks like me, so it’s nice to see people get real. The potential of social media to EU communications remains undiminished, and unfulfilled.

  5. “I personally have always been more influenced by experts than by other schmucks like me,”

    Given the current climategate issue, i think you might be in the minority.
    see Your square jawed hero is in fact the scientist

    ”In the end, this controversy is illuminating not because of what it reveals about the IPCC’s research but what it tells us about ourselves. Yale University and Nature magazine recently published a finding that people react to scientific studies based on their own personal values and predispositions rather than on the scientific soundness of the study in question. More simply, we see the world as we want to see it, not as it is. Human-caused climate change challenges us to move beyond this self-centredness in order to make progress for ourselves and the generations that will follow us. It is not how any of us wish to see the world, but it is the nearest thing to a fact that science can provide ”

    P.S to avoid being accussed of being a sleesack, I work at WWF.

  6. Matthew
    I was concerned that the conclusion of communications specialists was that you have to set up a network of communicators to reinforce the (unspecified) message because the receiver needs three to five repetitions. This is just another way for going back to propaganda wars of 1930s — that is drowning out the opposition whether they spoke the truth or not. The rot started (restarted) decades ago when governments thought they could use PR firms for campaigning their one-sided political point of view — at national and EU level.
    Trust and truth go together, as do other values like justice and morality. This value based communication is the best filter to provide confidence in communications. It is what the old school used to teach about public relations — long ago.
    The main problem is not repetition, or ‘people like me’ , but encouraging each individual to think critically and objectively. How ever else would you convince physicists and a large proportion of the public anything about Quantum Mechanics, that solid objects are really waves and that two objects at the opposite end of the universe are communicating with each other? Yet QM is the basis of the communications IT technology. It works.
    The original European Community information policy (as distinct from the EU one) encouraged this critical thinking in a more honest network system.
    However, now at the EU level, it is difficult to convince people that their affairs are being handled democratically under the Lisbon, Nice or the recent distortions of the Community idea, when people have a gut feeling they are being taken for a ride — no matter what paid EU “experts” say. It would be a signal of trust that the EU communicators actually discussed what Community democracy was all about (supranational democracy debate of the late 1940s and 1950s) and how it generated an unprecedented wellspring of trust after WW2 and changed the whole outlook for the globe. They don’t speak on these essentials, therefore I do not trust them that they know what they are talking about. The EU won’t publish these foundational documents. Instead they EU spent millions on campaigns by “EU experts” saying the Birthday of the EU was in 1957. Objectively that is a lie (The founding fathers said it was 18 April 1951 see ). People see through fibs eventually. Trust declines dramatically. “Experts” all wrote our nationalistic history books in the past. Now we can begin to see what they left out by comparing them. That fall of confidence was the experience of the 1930s and 1940s lies and propaganda campaigns. A few more facts and a little bit more truth and honesty would have prevented this sour taste we are now experiencing in the crisis of communications.

  7. Hi David,

    I think you misunderstand what I mean by experts, which sent you off on quite a tangent.

    A lot of my comms work has been for the Research DGs. The Research Programmes do excellent work, and moreover this is a story of EU Added Value that anyone, scientist or not, can easily grasp. It Just Makes Sense to cooperate on science and technology to some degree (and the entire EU research budget is tiny compared to the 27 national ones). Yet, most Europeans aren’t even aware of these activities.

    So when I was talking about experts, I was thinking of the scientists in the EU research projects. Or the environmental statisticians who are identifying best practices in reducing pollution levels through an EC-funded study. Or the town planners who are learning from their peers in other cities thanks to an EC-funded network. Or the doctors working in remote hospitals who are connected to distant specialists via fibre-optic thanks to EU funding.

    Experts in their field, in other words, doing stuff. And benefiting from cooperating via EC-funded initiatives which add value at the EU level – e.g., through pooling resources, and/or exchanging experiences, and/or identifying and disseminating best practices, and/or creating EU-wide markets to create economies of scale for new businesses, etc etc etc.

    If these experts were to talk about what they do, and where and how the EU adds value, those people listening might gain a better insight into the benefits of practical EU cooperation than they currently have. That’s all I’m saying – I’ll leave stolen democracy thesis to you.

    PS Good luck “encouraging each individual to think critically and objectively”, by the way – see Dale’s second comment, above.

  8. Matthew,
    I thoroughly agree that there is a great deal of value added that is unappreciated and communications are not as effectual as could be hoped. But this requires network solutions extending far beyond the expert groups to penetrate other areas of civil society. The Community has institutions to do this but they are not working at present — EcoSoc is supposed to be a democratic debating chamber for technical discussions, specifically on areas you mention. It should be a debate with and among what should be European lobby groups in a balanced reasoned debate. In this chamber expert groups — European associations, not commercial interests, should be active and politically responsible.

    There are other aspects of expert groups we should not ignore. Having worked in the research area and specifically in value added operations, I don’t think it is such a clear cut difference as you would make out. Psychology of crowds also applies to scientists. Pooling expertise can be conservative (leveling) improving (better standards and innovation) but it seldom pinpoints the visionary discovery and helps exploit it.

    For example a century ago if you asked scientists to put a programme together the consensus would not have seen any point in supporting what they then knew for a nuclear energy programme. There was enough coal for hundreds of years. Quantum Mechanics actually blows a hole in Greek philosophy that is the basis of most theoretical and applied science. Yet we have not yet assimilated the profound changes into our programmes. The consensus is still against change because even scientists have prejudices and large areas of non-expertise.
    The general public may be a generation behind because of the education system.
    The best of European research needs to be integrated both within the scientific community and also within the general public debate. In the case of what should be our most important research, a scientific study of how Europe made a peace system after a couple of thousand years of continuous war, the pooling of academic research has in many cases been a set back. Why? because few academics deign to learn about areas outside their specialisation. The solution to integrating the expertise of scientists and others can best be done in debating chambers which call on the widest groups of experts to discuss together at a European level with all other interest groups. Sadly although the Community system has these institutions, it is not using them. Now it has a massive comitology (often working in isolation) which too often make barriers for expertise exchange.

    The solution is simple. Activate the Debating Chamber as it was designed to work. It will open up similar reasoned debates across the whole community.

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