January 16, 2012
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 😉 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.
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 😉 – 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 — 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.