Mathew Lowry

Last year, in the runup to the first EuropCom conference, I gave it a bit of a hard time. My cynicism was confirmed by many I knew who went, describing it as a conference about Web2 and social media which allowed little or no participation. Oops.

The organisers of Europcom 2011 seemed less ambitious, at least online: ideas were submitted by email(!?) and there was no online community. So they didn’t even try to walk the walk, preferring to talk and talk and talk. I was too busy to attend (how do people who go to all these events get any work done?), and the Tweetstream led me to believe that it was uneven at best.

Then, with the serendipity which social media makes so wonderfully common, earlier this week I:

  • watched the Keynote speech by Simon Anholt, embedded within A speaker, a video, a strategy, a thoughtful post from @Tayebot on the Parliament’s blog (video also embedded below);
  • discovered Building the EU without Europeans by Gareth Harding, one of the best posts I’ve read this year;
  • enjoyed refreshing discussions with EU staff who are ‘intelligently sceptical’, as opposed to starry-eyed, about the value of social media to EU comms (Yes! They exist! And I’ve found them!);
  • watched Part 1 of Apocalypse Hitler, which in part explored the importance of propaganda in the rise of Adolf Hitler.

You may think putting these first and last things together in a blog about EU comms is a bit of a stretch, but my very first post here proved Godwin’s law that the odds of an online conversation invoking Hitler rises to 100% if it goes on long enough, so I thought I’d get in early and get it over with.

Besides, it got me thinking about propaganda before I listened to Anholt, who started by breaking the word ‘communications’ into “three completely different things: … providing information, advertising and propaganda“.

From Information…

This reminded me about a point that @nieuwenhuis used to forcefully remind fellow EUROPA webmanagers several years ago – as a public institutional website, EUROPA has a public duty to inform. Not to sell, advertise or propagandize – but inform people about What the EU does, How, and Why.

I still strongly believe that. The EU was born as a rational response to the irrational horrors of WWII. As the world evolved, the EU provided rational answers to many of the international issues nation states face. And those answers boil down to basic common sense: that it makes sense to tackle some challenges at a continental scale.

The EU has a duty to explain that logic – the Why of EU Added Value. As a governmental organisation, particularly these days, it must be transparent – the How. And if it wants to show that it creates results, it should show What it is doing, and has achieved.

So I totally agree with Tayebot when he says that “the institutions have the duty to provide information about the EU affairs“. To say, as Anholt does, that this is a waste of time because “noone is asking for it” simply begs the question: how can we know what information people want? Besides, what’s the alternative – spend taxpayer money behind a veil of secrecy?

… to Advertising & Propaganda

So we must not lose sight of the basics (i.e., EUROPA). But are rational arguments enough these days?

Logical arguments on a subject like EU Added Value do work amongst small groups of specialists, focused on the detail. Throughout the first years of EU construction and the long decades of the Cold War, that’s exactly what we had: a small group (political leaders, civil servants) built Europe in the backrooms of Brussels, with little interest shown by their populations. With the end of the Cold War, populations started to ask questions, just as the EU embarked on an expansion from 12 to 27 members.

But what about when you present logical arguments to 500 million people, 99% of whom are not specialised in governance?

As Jacques Delors observed, “it’s difficult to fall in love with a Single Market“. Gareth Harding’s post reminded me of Chris Patten’s belief that “The nation … is the largest unit, perhaps, to which people will willingly accord emotional allegiance”.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that we’ve started to see EU communications venturing into new areas, with giant karoakes in front of the European Parliament and Flash Games to make EU look cool and fun. All aiming to make us all ‘feel European’.

This may be groupthink in action. As Harding pointed out in his search for a truly ‘European culture’:

“I don’t know anyone – even in Brussels – who celebrates Europe Day and a common European culture is the preserve of a tiny band of young, well-educated and often rootless cosmopolitanites.”

Most of the Europeans doing comms in the Brussels Bubble are exactly those rootless cosmopolitanites. It probably seems obvious to them that everyone feels European – after all, everyone they know does.

But such a group may not be well-placed to make anyone else ‘in the provinces’ feel the same way.

Misusing social media

The irony is that these projects also profess to use social media. This massively misses the point, and the potential, of today’s online world.

Social media conversations offer the EU the chance to outreach to people interested in a specific subject, bypassing national media/politians, and explain the Why, What and How according to their interests. This can carry the logical argument of EU Added Value to people prepared to listen to it – if engaged properly, without propaganda or advertising.

Dedicated web2.0-powered Communities of Practice and Interest, moreover, offer the EU to engage more people on the development of policies and programmes (more on the EC’s first experiments). This is exactly what Anholt refers to when he says:

“Creativity [in communications] only works when it’s exercised at the development of policies”.

There are of course many synergies – outreach can swell contributions to policies and programmes, and open policy processes have higher visibility – but mix these up at your peril.

Launching a social media account and pretend to your new friends that they can now influence EU policy is disingenuous and will blow up in your face, as the #EUCO Twitter Wall demonstrated so vividly. As I argued at the time:

“Does anyone really think that EU leaders… are going to be glancing at a Twitter stream for policy ideas? Few of the people Tweeting did. People aren’t idiots. They know they won’t have any constructive influence via Twitter, and probably agree they shouldn’t…

If someone is not expecting their constructive contributions to be taken seriously, then their contributions will not be constructive, nor serious. Quite the opposite.”

Hence the Tweets on the Wall about Berlusconi’s sex life.

Designed to fail

In no way does social media allow one to transmit propaganda – as Anholt points out:

“Propaganda only works if it is never contradicted. One of the wonderful things about globalisation and the age we live in today is that propaganda has become impossible”.

So using social media for propaganda purposes is a contradiction in terms which has failure built-in. Such exercises will only provide fuel for eurosceptic resentment of wasted taxpayer’s money and drive suspicion of the EU. My head was literally nodding as Anholt concluded that the EU:

“… does advertising when it has nothing to sell and doesn’t know who its consumer is, and it does propaganda almost all the time despite the fact that it’s patently a waste of money”.


A primarily organisational, not communications challenge

The other danger, of course, is that such exercises are another way the EU Institutions risk poisoning the well for the constructive use of social media by the EU.

This requires these techniques to be integrated into the organisation – online community managers who are “the voice of the community within the organisation, and the voice of the organisation within the community“.

Does this contrast with Tayebot’s image of EU social media communications staff?

“[we are] not the senior officials and politicians Mr Anholt rightly targeted … we’re the waiters and maître d’ in the European restaurant, and we deliver the food cooked by the Master Chiefs.”
– A speaker, a video, a strategy by @Tayebot;

However, there is probably not a contradiction. Such specialist teams are essential, particularly for the outreach, and for supporting the Web2 Communities. But such teams cannot work in splendid isolation from the policy expertise elsewhere in their organisation if they are to be useful to the people they are conversing with. Pretty soon in any decent online conversation, people will start asking questions which generalists cannot answer. They need to be backed up with an internal network of policy wonks who are prepared – and mandated – to help answer.

And that network must span the Institutions, because people Out There, beyond the Brussels Bubble, just don’t care that their interlocutor from Brussels is from DG X and needs to draft a formal note to get help from someone in DG Y. By the time the answer is forthcoming, the audience has disappeared, frustrated and disappointed.

Social media therefore requires more than a team of enthusiastic writers, Facebookers and tweeps – it requires major organisational change. And a lot less propaganda.

Deeds, not talk

And, finally, a lot more substance. To end with one more quote:

“Places are judged by what they do and by what they make, not by what they say about themselves… We live in an age of gigantic, shared, common, planetary problems. Every country, city, region must answer this question: what am I for?”

In other words, the Why.

There was more, notably on the gap between deeds (‘symbolic actions’) and talk (‘communications’ and ‘branding’), which brings me full circle back to the gap between people talking about social media (at events such as Europcom) rather than actually doing it.

But this post is long enough. Listen to the man:


PS Right near the end, when he claims that “survey after survey show that the only people anybody trusts is somebody like them“, he’s a couple of years out of date. The reality is much more nuanced (specialists are now more trusted than social peers) – see That Edelman Trust result – implications for EU communications?

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  1. Great post Mathew. The sad reality is that all-pervasive institutional denial undermines any genuine outreach. I went to two workshops where the euro crisis was not mentioned, surprisingly as they were on crisis comms and branding. Apparently the euro crisis does not exist officially, which makes it a bit tricky to talk about the issue that concerns most people in the Union. Sigh…

  2. A workshop on EU crisis comms which doesn’t mention the euro crisis? Lol. An image of an ostrich, head buried in the sand and kickable arse high in the air, springs irresistibly to mind. And people wonder why I don’t go to conferences on EU comms! 😉

    Having said that, Anholt’s intervention was great. Moreover, I can watch it from my desk. So why do people bother with these events?

    Thx for dropping by …

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