Mathew Lowry

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.

Getting organised

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.

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  1. Good stuff! Slight correction, though – I’m writing from Kenya at the moment. I left Ethiopia in September. 😉

    Bloggingportal is working hard to try to pop the Brussels bubble. The EU / UK blogging event in London in December will involve a mixture of EU and UK bloggers (according to the latest Wikio rankings, we’ve got 5 of the top 10 political bloggers in the UK attending).

    I think greater co-operation “outside the bubble” needs greater human interaction. That’s the point of the conference – so the EU and UK blogospheres can meet one another and – hopefully – build a few bridges.

  2. You’re absolutely right. Bloggingportal is the best tool we have for knitting together EU and national-level conversations on a day-by-day basis, but events like the one organised in London are also necessary, particularly to get the ball rolling. It speaks volumes that you have so many top UK bloggers signed up. Let’s hope they don’t kill each other!

    Still a very Brussels focus, though.

    My post was more about the organisational difficulties the Institutions will face when engaging via online communities. Noone seems to have noticed this – right now everyone seems to be Talking about Tools (Twitter, Facebook) as if they were ‘the challenge’. They’re not. If they were hard, I doubt anyone would use them, let alone Commission officials…

    PS Ethiopia, Kenya, that goblin gets around! Thanks for dropping by.

  3. This is exactly the task that faces us in Commission Representations based in EU countries, and in many ways we are part of the solution – we represent the commission as a whole, not Dir D or E, so we need to get the bigger picture. We in the UK have been trying to address this through our web and social media work – watch out for a launch later this month that I think addresses some of what you bring up here.

  4. Looking forward to it. You’re right that the Rep’s are an obvious place to start in terms of bridging EU and national debates, of course – the language issue alone shows that.

    But each Rep can’t be an expert in every single policy field. How do you solve the problems faced by Dave and Eve in my post? How good is the information-sharing across the Institution?

  5. Actually I’m more optimistic than you – we are often the drivers for getting people talking so that Dave gets his information. Because we’re dealing with how the world deals with an issue rather than the Commission, we sometimes make people work together to give us a line, where in Brussels they would do it separately. Certainly on the media side, where I work, we don’t really have Eve’s problem. Dave’s is a little more familiar, but as I say, I think we can force people in the bubble to think about how their things fit together in a way they might not do there.

  6. Mathew,

    Interestingly few of the active netizens had any schooling in how to blog, join Facebook or start Twittering – we just signed up and started using the tools.

    In other words, you quite right that the technical means are not the real challenge; on the contrary, because institutions have support staff many citizens lack.

    I think that there is a contradiction between the Commission communication policy instigated by Viviane Reding, i.e. to build president Barroso into the EU brand, and the needs for empowerment you point out, namely giving free enough rein to all officials to respond and to participate in real time out in the “trenches”.

    I hope that you get a serious discussion rolling inside the institutions and the “Brussels Bubble”, because they house only a fraction of the people affected by what the EU does and fails to do.

  7. @euonym: It’s good to hear that you can get the information you need so quickly and efficiently. Why is it so difficult, then, to get a decent thematic layer on EUROPA together, I wonder (see the conversation on the EC’s Waltzing Mathilda blog)? Perhaps it should be managed by the Reps?!?

    However, I wonder whether the same interactions seen in media relations, where you work, will cross over into online community management.

    Certainly, experience elsewhere suggests that it’s not exactly the same. As I wrote, the style is different, but the context is different too – while professional media may understand what government PR officials can and cannot answer, the people interacting with Eve on a Community site or on Facebook may not.

    @Ralf, If there’s a serious debate inside the Institutions, I haven’t been invited! 😉 Maybe I am too outspoken – they probably prefer their contractors to do Just Do As You’re Told and Not Talk Back.

    In any case I do all of this in my own time anyway …

  8. Sometimes I wonder if there is really demand for the EU information outside the Brussels Bubble (which includes for me the EU professionals in the member states).

    I mean this whole EU Communication debate is all around one thing: lack of demand. Except that many in the Bubble think (I don’t exclude myself here completely) that the citizens MUST show more interest in these important political discussions in the EU. But they simply don’t. So I think it doesn’t help much if the supply side gets better organised.

  9. You could be right that this is all a symptom of groupthink. I personally doubt it, but I only have anecodotal evidence – perhaps EuroBarometer has something on the demand?

    Of course, there are limits to that line of logic. Consumers didn’t see any need for mobile phones, either.

    I’m not suggesting, in any case, that there’s huge demand from everyone for more info about EU affairs. What I am suggesting is that if people are already online discussing policy in a national or international context, the EU should be there too.

    These audiences are not the wide public. They are already a subset of the population, and are interested in a specific subject – they’re known as either Communities of Interest or Communities of Practice, depending on the homogeneity of the group.

    They, I suspect, would welcome information from the EU: info about relevant existing or upcoming legislation, pointers to best practices in other countries, etc. Along with that, there needs to be a clear explanation of what the EU does in the field being discussed, and why.

    In this way the EU will be engaging people already interested in a subject, and explaining how it adds value.

    What there is NOT a demand for is eurojargon.

  10. Mathew, on the second part of your post:

    You’re absolutely right that Web 2.0 communication can only be as good as the Web 1.0 structures it builds on and refers back to.

    The institutions currently appear to be focusing heavily on questions of access – usability, accessibility, SEO, SMO and social media outreach. Much less attention is paid to the content that will be accessed – choice of subject matter, type of treatment, and architecture and organisation. Oh, and quality.

    The Europa portal’s content must answer real people’s real questions (“What’s the EU for?” and its multitude of sub-questions) AND it must be accessible.

    Getting this right will require real leadership. For all the reasons you evoke – turf wars, ‘not made here’ syndrome, and the fundamental mismatch between institutional structures and citizens’ perceptions of policy issues – creating the long wished-for thematic, user-oriented top level cannot be left to individual DGs, but will require their active cooperation. (Without it, the top level becomes nothing more than a lifeless PR shell.)

    If this can be achieved at the top level, however, a way forward begins to open up. First, it will make it much easier for Dave in DG D to provide spontaneous responses, even to questions outside his own area. Second, it will provide the type of common-sense, high-value content that non-bubblers might actually want to use and share. This will increase exposure, feedback and discussion – in turn exerting pressure on the lower levels managed by individual DGs to match the quality and the accessibility of the top-level content.

  11. Hi Simon, thanks for dropping by, and of course for supporting my point! 😉

    Given that your company is actually responsible for the top level, can you tell us how much involvement there is in its development from the individual DGs who actually do the work described within it? Are there active editorial networks for maintaining this level? Because if there were, then they’d also solve Dave’s problem.

    Which was, or course, the original point, back in 2001-2 (cf Farewell Thematic Portals on EUROPA).

  12. My comments were purely personal ones. I don’t speak here on behalf of the company, let alone its clients, sorry!

  13. Fair enough. It can be pretty difficult to take part in this conversation from within our sector, balancing personal views and professional discretion. Sorry if I made it harder!

  14. I’d like to add to Simon’s points above…

    The institutions may be trying things like SEO, usability and the like, but I don’t see that much from others.

    I never cease to be amazed that so many associations, federations and NGOs have awful websites but want to be on Facebook and Twitter. When you visit their site, it has about 6 pages with a total of 1,000 words and a contact form.

    They have had 10 years to not get Web 1 right, but seem to presume that Web 2 will work better. Ummm, no. Web 2 ought to build on Web 1 as a communication tool.

    Why do I say this? I think that civil society organisations have a big role to play – many people actually want information from them!

    In conclusion, all I can do is throw up my hands and recognise that there is still a long way to go.

  15. True. The recent plague of social media experts has a lot to answer for.

    Rather than advise their clients on getting their web1 presence right first, they let them believe that spending 10,000 euros for a Facebook page is a better idea, and laugh all the way to the bank.

    Result? Probably a wave of disillusionment with social media.

  16. I think the problem with facebook vs website is that many of these question are decided in very simple black and white way: are we having a website (yes –> good), do we do Twitter (no –> let’s do it), are we on facebook (no? –> go for it), and so on.

    There are no established guidelines on the quality of these undertakings. And many people higher up in the decision making process simply are not able to judge the quality.

    Related to the overal topic: I think that what the Commission has prepared for example when the auditors report came out this week is really good: It does answer many questions that Dave might get, doesn’t it?

  17. Yep, that’s the bandwagon effect, where people jump on it simply because other people are already there, without any thought of what the actual communication strategy should be. The social media expert will not disabuse them – why delay a juicy contract?

    The auditor’s report is a nice press pack, but it’s not enough for Dave, above, because he’ll be dealing with a thematic conversation – i.e., a conversation on a subject touched upon by many DGs. Because the people he’s having a conversation with don’t think in terms of DGs, or Institutions – this audience won’t go deeper than “what Europe is doing, why and how”.

    So Dave will need to know about everything the EU Institutions are doing in that theme … or, at least, must be able to pick up the phone and get an answer from the right colleague in another DG, who is prepared to answer quickly. Jammer would probably be a useful tool here.

    So just as good Web2.0 must rest on a bedrock of solid Web1.0, good external communications relies on efficient internal communications.

    Ideally, of course, Dave is able to simply point to a thematically oriented website which provides the answer. Building such a website, however, requires the same internal cross-Institutional communications networks.

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