Mathew Lowry

At last, an opportunity to blog about gardening and EU comms in the same post.

Those who managed to sit through some or all of my Prezicast on the EU online public space would have picked up the fact that my day job involves helping various parts of the Commission communicate their policies and programmes.

These are quite specific – in the last week of November, for example, I helped a client finalise a new information architecture for a Commission DG; outline a social media strategy for an EU agency; explore technical approaches for a semantically-powered knowledge centre for energy research; and start work on a stakeholder platform to improve policymaking and stimulate exchanges & project proposals in the field of smartcities.

Fortunately for us, our clients have specific audiences and goals, and see the online tools we develop for them as operational: like email, or physical workshops, they support their work, rather than just sell it. Also fortunately for us, they have something to offer their audiences: input to policy development; project funding; networking; maybe even multilingual, cross-border, curated online communities, although that’s still rare.

And because they have content to offer, their specialised audiences will listen and talk back – there’s a basis for a conversation. Wider audiences are welcome, but the focus is on people who care enough about a particular field (smartcities, energy research, whatever) to pay attention to what the EU is doing within it. Which is why those involved in EU programmes and policies are generally more positive about the EU than the wider population – because it’s their job to understand EU Added Value in their sector, they can see it more clearly.

And the general public?

But none of the above projects aim at the ‘general public’ – at least, not primarily. As David Ringrose, Head of Communications for DG Information Society & Media(1), said at a conference last month:

“when someone tells me they want to communicate to the general public, I’m guessing they haven’t thought about their audiences for more than 3 seconds”.

I for one will never forget the Unit that wanted a brochure “for the general public”. Print run: 500 copies. Languages: one. Yeah, right. That’s one brochure that won’t get beyond Places Schuman and Luxembourg.

So what does the general public get? Giant karoakes in front of the European Parliament? This is what Simon Anholt calls EU propaganda – as he points out, expensive wastes of time that can only discredit the EU in this era of austerity.

How about an alternative?

So how about an alternative ‘wide public’ communication strategy for the EU’s Institutions, particularly the parts which care about the wider public: support the emergence of the EU Online Public Space.

Why? Because a healthy EU online public space will carry the EC’s message out more efficiently, particularly to non-specialist audiences. As a bonus, if you care for such things, it might also even help improve democracy within the European project, the lack of which is currently the cancer eating away at EU legitimacy in the eyes of the population.

The flipside, of course, is that such spaces are independent – they simply won’t work if they’re not – so they will work just as well for the EU’s critics. This is not, however, a reason for the EU Institutions to shy away … as long as they are sure of their arguments. And if they’re not, then no amount of comms will help anyway.

Note that this is not a call for yet another failed Web2.0 EU website aimed at the wide public. It means supporting an ecosystem: a fabric of platforms, websites, people, events and self-sustaining, independent media – without trying to own it.

And while this support should come from all Institutions, cooperating – not competing – for attention, it is also not a call for a centrally controlled Plan. We’ve had them, and they haven’t worked.

So how can the Institutions help support the emergence of this space without suffocating it? How does one stimulate the emergence of any ecosystem?

Nutrients, light and pollination

I’ve often thought that all this needed a good metaphor, so let me push this one a little further: all ecosystems need nutrients, light and pollination to thrive. (I know, water is essential too. Consider it a nutrient, OK? This is a metaphor.)

The light represents the attention the EU Institutions pay to the ecosystem.
The EU Public Space will only really flourish if those contributing to it can see that quality contributions can be taken on board, rather than being seen as a communications Key Performance Indicator (“Look, we got lots of comments! Let’s ignore the content and make a graph for the hierarchy!“). See the EUCO Twitter Wall for what happens when you take citizens for granted.

The nutrients are the content
Appropriate, when you know what most gardening nutrients are made from ūüėČ By content, of course, I mean the raw material that underpins the conversation, not the conversation itself. So the EU’s reports, studies, white papers and regulations – even their glossy, brochureware websites – are contributions to the garden, not the garden itself.

The pollination is the conversation
OK, this is probably too cute by half, but think of the conversation as bees, flitting from one flower to the next, spreading ideas in a process akin to pollination. I’m stretching the metaphor to breaking point, but no matter.

And the gardeners?

Ecosystems are, of course, wild places. Enter the gardeners to tame the wildness. Gardens are still ecosystems, but they are more ordered and productive, thanks to the gardeners pushing in nutrients and (in this metaphor at least) light, and encouraging pollination.

Gardeners also prune and weed. At the risk of pushing the metaphor well past breaking point, this is the equivalent of increasing the signal-to-noise ratio through content curation and moderation. It is not censorship; more a form of content provision.

So who are these gardeners? Well, we all are – if this garden is to thrive.

There are in fact several different types of gardener. Each wants something different from the garden. And each gardener is able to provide different, unique inputs. The garden will only thrive if it offers each gardener what they need, in exchange for what they have.

Every corporate interest and NGO, of course, wants the garden to evolve in a certain direction. For this they already provide content ranging from studies to press releases, and engage in conversation. By taking ideas on board, they also help bring them attention from policymakers.

But this is a community garden, so individuals and civil society are also required, taking part in the conversation mainly via blogs and social media. Increasingly, individuals and small organisations also curate content in their niche. The problem here is not the lack of activity, but the fact that the vast majority of this politically engaged audience are engaged at 27 national levels, and that there is very little overlap between them and their (few) counterparts in the Brussels Bubble. Multilingual bridges between the 28 bubbles are therefore essential.

Tipping point

If conversation is represented by the bees, then the traditional media is probably the beehive – lots of buzzing, the odd queen, and frequent stings. The single biggest problem facing the EU public space, of course, is probably the lack of attention paid the EU by traditional media, caused by a classic chicken-and-egg problem. However, conversation = traffic = income, which is why the media increasingly follows the conversation.

Perhaps if they see policymakers and increasing number of readers engaging in the EU online public space, they may pay more attention themselves. A virtuous cycle then begins – the more the media pay attention, the more the policymakers will, bringing more media attention.

But we need to kick-start the EU online public space first to get to that tipping point. For that to happen, the garden needs something that the above gardeners cannot provide: light.

Only by having EU Institutions and other official organisations, national governments and so on pay attention to the conversation can growth be encouraged across this particular garden. Through assigning Online Community Managers (see OCM posts, or the June 09 job description), these organisations can:

  • provide a lot of raw nutrients ūüėČ – i.e.,:
    • publish their content onto their own site and – through outreach – elsewhere;
    • in forms suitable for supporting non-specialised conversations and for sharing;
  • be the voice of their organisation to the community (pollination);
  • be the voice of the community to their organisation (light) – i.e., having ears, as well as a mouth.

As mentioned before, this won’t happen through centrally planned strategies and websites – it’s more of a long-term philosophy that should underpin everything the EU Institutions do.

And it is underway – some parts of the EC of them began this journey 10 years ago; others have not taken the first step. As William Gibson said:

“The future is already here ‚ÄĒ it’s just not very evenly distributed”

And remember – it’s all just a metaphor.


(1)PS Disclosure: David Ringrose is a client of one of my clients, although he made the above observation at an event which I attended in a purely private capacity.


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  1. All this crap about “nutrients” and “pollination” seems to assume that conversations between governors and their subjects – or with the “community” – are reasonable and polite affairs.

    Once people *actually become interested* in the EU’s workings (i.e. gain a proper sense that its decisions directly affect people in a way that those people would like to control) the “community” will be shouting obscene abuse at the EU constantly.

    I would not expect some kind of reasonable garden of online conversation on internet blogs.

    If it starts to gain greater control of whole nation states, as looks like will be the case, the EU will get the forces of hell unleashed upon it. You’ll be trying to control people’s thoughts through fear of the consequences of failing to do so, not fertilising pretty little discussion blogs like it’s still 1999 and everything is all rosy and nice.

    And we all know how much EU officials love to hear the voice of the people – isn’t the mere idea of listening to ill-educated oiks just “populist”? Why not go on a 10-hour seminar/lunch/talking shop and listen to some completely dippy NGO folk witter on about crap instead.

  2. @Ron, thx. From what I could read about the Paris workshop, the Institutions seem to still be in the ‘wake-up’ phase, where they are realising the importance of online conversations, and have identified those lists of the sort much-loved by civil servants and consultants alike (5 reasons, 5 risks, etc.).

    But based on what I’ve read, they don’t yet appear to have begun tackling some of the critically difficult organisational issues such engagement implies (see under ‘Getting organised’ in this post. Either that, or they’re not talking about it publicly.

  3. @Martin J, you must be new to my blog, or you’d never think I assume such conversations would be polite (see my experience 4.5 years ago launching Blogactiv)!

    Back then, I also heard people say that the “EU is trying to take over the blogosphere” and other such paranoid crap. But if you read this post and others, you’ll see that I am against EU propaganda as much as any died-in-the-wool eurosceptic.

    And you must be new to the Brussels Bubble, because there is already “some kind of reasonable garden of online conversation on internet blogs”. A good starting point can be found on

    The problem, as I have always seen it, is that this is more or less an echo chamber of Europhiles, while Eurosceptics inhabit a strident echo chamber of their own. Only very rarely do I see ‘intelligent scepticism’ in the Europhile bubble – a shame, because it needs such a perspective.

    Meanwhile, when I crossed the frontier in the other direction (to set the facts straight regarding Blogactiv in Eurosceptic Land), I got called a Hitler apologist for wanting people to be able to express themselves about the EU. It appears Eurosceptics are all for freedom of speech … unless its the freedom to express a nuanced opinion regarding the EU.

    So it’s a shame that EU discussions are so balkanised. If, as you say, a growing EU online public space would be noisier and less polite, so be it. People are free to say what they want. In arguing for an EU online public space I am not pleading for more Europe. I am pleading for a better informed discussion. If that discussion leads to less Europe, so be it.

    As for calling my metaphor ‘crap’, reread the last line of the post. If you have a better metaphor, suggest it.

  4. Beyond the financial crisis: preparing 2012 – 2013 – 2014

    Good thoughts Mathew, because based on practical experience.

    I believe one should focus more of the online discussion on actual policies rather than on the tools & process (which I’m not doing just now!).

    We have the EU in deep crisis, the indignados etc in the street, and – apart from frequent Summits on the euro-debt – EU policy making and communication is hardly changed… Do people learn?

    More on this on another BlogActiv post, building on newsletter EurActiv et Vous, here:

  5. Mathew,

    Excellent post. I love your ecosystems metaphor as you will understand.

    That said, I think Christophe is right and I have been repeating this also over the last ten years in all big “communication” debates. The EU project is not failing because of lack of or bad communication but of failing policies which people do no longer support. The vision of Europe 1992 with its exclusive focus on building the “internal market” which would lift all boats has led to where the EU is now and has estranged EU citizens (except those who profited from this neo-liberal vision and who are now trying to save “business as usual”). .

    We need first and foremost a debate about a new vision for Europe: what is its role and place and responsibility in a world with shifted geopolitical axes and plagued by resource constraints and other “limits to growth”. To use your metaphor: we need to know first what we want to do with our garden: do we want to make it a flower garden, a vegetable-growing garden, a wild ecological garden? Once we have decided that, we can see how we have to manage that garden i.e. what tools and processes of communication to use.

    This debate about the new vision for Europe (what I have called in my own blog “Project Phoenix Europe”) should be the focus of all the social media innovations that are indeed already present (blogactiv, eubloggingportal etc.). We have to focus these European chatting and twittering communities on this essential debate. Only then will the traditional media and the general public take notice.

  6. “the EU in deep crisis, the indignados etc in the street, and… EU policy making and communication is hardly changed‚Ķ Do people learn? ”

    Apparently not. A friend of mine attended a ‘social media training seminar’ (sic) in “crisis communications in an EU context” … and noone mentioned the euro.

    How is this possible? People in Brussels are not any stupider than anywhere else. How can one develop a social media strategy in the middle of an existential crisis, and ignore it?

  7. Hi Willy, thanks for dropping by and for developing this metaphor a little more.

    The problem with “We need first and foremost a debate about a new vision for Europe” is that this requires the EU online public space, which we don’t have.

    On the other hand, such a debate could form the seed around which such a space could grow, if – as you say – “all the social media innovations … already present (blogactiv, eubloggingportal etc.) … [are focused] on this essential debate … [leading to] the traditional media and the general public taking notice”.

    Yes, but it’s not enough. If we just focus these existing instruments, we will only get a more intense debate within the Brussels Bubble. Multilingual bridges need to be built between it and the national online discussions if this is to be a truly European discussion involving people who do not live and breathe EU policy.

    I have developed a few interrelated suggestions here over the past 4 years. In my recent Prezicast, for example, I discussed the role of ‘bridging bloggers’. We need to find motivations for people to take this up, particularly policy specialists (see Vacancies: Specialists required to build bridges.

    As always, it’s chicken and egg – we need these bridges to form the EU online public space, but only when that space is alive and healthy will there be any real rewards for being a bridging blogger. Particularly as the EU Institutions pay no attention (light) to this garden, so everything planted in it simply dies for lack of sunlight. Where’s the motivation in that when you can just pay a lobbyist or a PR firm?

    I’d also like to suggest that everyone involved in the Brussels Bubble support the use of the citizens‚Äô agenda approach for the next European elections. I really think this idea rocks, so tell me what you think.

    In both ideas, something like is essential – providing a guide to what people are saying about EU policy, and rewarding good posts. However, it needs more resources than the volunteers keeping it alive are able to give – it didn’t even win the EP’s bloody Charlemagne Prize, although it’s far more valuable than all the other entrants combined (although BP is not propaganda, which may be a clue).

    BloggingPortal’s coming up to its 3rd birthday on January 26 (Australia Day, funnily enough), so you’ll be hearing a bit more about it pretty soon.

  8. This is a >140ch response to @andreaglorioso, who Tweeted “… I’d like to see some more operational suggestions. Which techs could we use?

    This is actually a debate I and a few BloggingPortal editors had a few years back – you’ll find the tail-end of that discussion in No dazzling projects required of December 2009. And in it:

    “all I‚Äôm suggesting is that we use the standard suite of Web2.0 technologies already out there, and perhaps bloggingportal if anything centralised proves necessary.

    And as I’ve said earlier this week, I do think bloggingportal is necessary, and that it needs some reasonably advanced technologies to play its role.

    Apart from that, the focus should not be technology. This is echoed in Christophe’s comment, above (“one should focus more of the online discussion on actual policies rather than on the tools & process”), and is why I very specifically said that “this is not a call for yet another failed Web2.0 EU website aimed at the wide public”.

    Why? Because an ecosystem like this cannot built on any one technology (excepting web basics like HTML, RSS, http, etc.). Such an approach is centrist – i.e., someone in Brussels deciding “this is how it’s going to be” … and then trying to impose that vision on everyone else.

    I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen that approach fail. Instead, we need to create the conditions for growth, and then let the EU online public space grow like all gardens do: bottom-up.

    PS You’ll actually find in ‘No dazzling projects’ the beginnings of a few of the ideas I’ve developed since: language-driven network effects, the language bridges required to defeat them; policy bridges operating on the long tail, how bridging bloggers could build both, the possibilities offered by machine translation, etc.

  9. My dear Tasmanian Tiger,

    I do like gardening.
    Not sure about the analogies though.
    Light is the attention citizens pay to their institutions; eyeballs.
    Nutrients are the attention lavished on a plant; a response might deliver fertilizer or manure.
    Pollination is the conveyance of content between of the same species of plant; not their ordering in a row.
    Cross pollination does the same between different species. So where a monoculturalist might order their blogs in a row, another will tend to a garden full of other species such wikis, moodles and other fashionable web (2.0) variants.

    I’ve found that some people want to eat where others just want to admire. Regardless I wouldn’t let anyone in my garden without some basic appreciation of aethestics. You know what happens when your tasmanian cousins are let loose. (I’m sure this doesn’t apply to your domesticated self).

    That said, if we are to have a gang of gardeners tending a communal garden, we should assure ourselves that junior european members don’t over feed or drown the budding shoots, or (more likely) bugger off when it gets a bit hot. Many northeners members have little experience of an Aussie or African summer. The light and heat are very intimidating for tender northerners, as much as it is for their preferred cultural blooms. Both wither and die on a vine.

    But don’t believe that any climate hasn’t the same challenges. Sure, in the more informal gardens of Oz we have more creative gardeners. But that’s only because they have a passion for keeping their indigenous gardens alive in the bushfire season, not just a training for the rare jobs in the well-controlled hothouses up north. So some of them will try all sorts of combinations of tools in attempts to feed themselves and impress their boy/girl friends.

    Maybe we should, with some of your hothouse dwellers, attempt some cross pollination. I’m bit concerned though, not so much for their highly sensitive EC blooms as their delicate complexions. Get em hat wil ya mate.

  10. @simonfj, Sorry for the delay – you were hidden among the animal porn and Chanel handbags in my spam queue.

    You really took the metaphor to heart, huh? I think you took it far outside its comfort zone, only to let it die (deliberately?) in the Australian desert.

    But it’s my metaphor, so let me restate it: this particular garden will not grow without the attention of the governmental level (light), as otherwise there’s not much reason for anyone to make a contribution to it (nutrients).

    Now there’s plenty of room for everything from (well-built) brochureware sites to Communities of Practice in there, using any technology or social-media-platform-of-the-month you want… but we need the conversations to flit across them all, as otherwise you end up with a series if hermetically sealed echo chambers (see groupthink). I chose to call pollination, but whatever you call it it’s a real issue in the EU online public space, where there are many linguistic and cultural barriers preventing the transmission of ideas. So it’s definitely cross-pollination.

    And I find it interesting that you say “we should assure ourselves that junior european members don‚Äôt over feed or drown the budding shoots, or (more likely) bugger off when it gets a bit hot. Many northeners members have little experience of an Aussie or African summer”. That’s not the first time I’ve seen Europeans’ and Australians’ online sensibilities contrasted – as soon as I reply to your other comment (also languishing in my spam queue), I’m off to reply the comment by Ryan Heath (EC spokesman and fellow Aussie-in-Brussels) on my latest post, where he discusses how EU Institutions should be able t “give as good as they get”. Join us there?

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