Mathew Lowry

RTFB*! Part I

I had a few visits last month from people interested in my thoughts on the EU’s social media strategy, but who couldn’t be bothered plowing through my blog. I for one can’t blame them.

After all, this is where I think in public, and noone else should be expected to assemble it into something coherent. Those conversations, however, forced me to put a lot of my ideas into a coherent structure, so I’ve now used that as a skeleton for a rehash post. It’s so self-referential I’m almost too embarrassed to publish it, but at least I have not committed the grievous sin of not linking to other euroblogs… 😉

*RTFB: like RTFM, substituting ‘Manual’ with ‘Blog’.


Why and Who?

A lot of discussions around EU social media (recent example) focuses on the use of shiny new toys – how best to use Twitter, or Pinterest, or whatever else was profiled on Mashable last week. There’s a “ToolsTuesday” series on Waltzing Mathilda, and the guidance for proposals for the EuropCom 2012 “Web communications / Social media Workshop” opens with:

What’s hot and what’s not? Latest trends, technologies and applications and their relevance for public sector communications …

While playing with new tools is easily one of the most fun parts of the job, the hard truth is that any communications work has to start with the Why and the Who, not the How.

Why would the EU do social media? Who are they trying to reach? And why should that target audience pay any attention?

The problem here is that the current answer to “Why?” seems often to be: “Broadcast propaganda!”, something which just doesn’t work, particularly via social media – see Simon Anholt on EU propaganda, or the comments to the latest EU video to see how this sort of thing is received (88 likes, 352 dislikes and accusations of racism in at least two places before they took it offline with commendable speed).

Who and What?

Social media is actually most suitable to reach audiences interested or specialised in a particular subject (see Vacancies: Specialists required to build bridges), and is ideal for outreach to those audiences who are specialised in a topic but not familiar with what the EU is doing within it.

So rather than some vague “Europe is Nice!”, the message should be that Europe is useful to the audience targeted.

But that means targeting people according to the subject that they are (at least) interested in. That means being specific, and focusing more on operational stakeholder communications – communications in support of a specific EU programme or policy, aimed at people who care about the topic – rather than feelgood, generic branding.

A worthy goal would be to bring those outside the Brussels Bubble into contact with EU programmes and policies, demonstrating EU Added Value to them in the process and involving them in their development.

This requires more than social media, by the way – it involves greater interactivity on the EU’s own websites (either EUROPA or elsewhere) to exploit the possibilities offered by Communities of Practice and Interest – see Building Communities of Practice with Event-in-a-Box & Not losing sight of the basics.

Two layers of Online Community Management

It also requires a change of mindset in staff not involved in communications. As Bert (head of the EC’s social media task force) pointed out:

The tools are easy enough to use and there are enough people in the house that can use them. It is the context in which they can be used that is not yet changed“.
– Bert, commenting to 10 things the EU should probably know about social media

But there’s more to it. Why should a subject matter expert (e.g, EU lawyer or engineer) be bothered with learning Twitter? After all, it’s just so much easier to talk to a few people within the Brussels Bubble – that’s why the Bubble exists.

Let’s face facts – the only subject matter experts who are going to plunge into social media will do it because it interests them. The others won’t, whether “Tweeting” is added to their Job Description or not. And any social media guru who rolls his eyes and mutters “those guys just don’t get it” in a smug, superior way should get a reality check – “those guys” are doing the work that needs to be communicated. Carts don’t go before horses.

So this brings us to a second ‘Who’ question:

Who does it?
An online community manager who doesn’t know the policy in depth?
Or a subject matter expert who doesn’t know social media?

You need both. Borrowing models from the world of technical support, you need a first-line team of OCMs (see Vacancy: EU Online Community Manager), backed up by a second line network of subject matter experts, to whom the first line escalates difficult questions from the community. This allows ‘translucency’:

“Some staff, moreover, are specifically tasked with taking questions into the depths of the building, and returning with answers. While they do this, people outside can see movement through the translucent walls, so they know something’s happening. When an answer takes some time, the staffperson will occasionally return to the window to assure the questioner that they haven’t been forgotten”
Does more transparency make better comms?

Internal organisation

The bad news is that the way this is currently organised is all wrong – nobody seems to be really thinking through the problems of scale, for example. And it simply cannot be organised by Institution or Commission DG – outside the Brussels Bubble, nobody gives a toss; it’s “Europe” reaching out to them.

The good news is that the internal networks required for this are identical to those required to organise EUROPA along the thematic lines required for presenting Europe according to their interests, rather than an administrative organigramme (see So, farewell thematic portals on EUROPA).

Focusing interactivity on EUROPA at this thematic level would ensure people can discuss an issue with Europe, rather than having to hold separate discussions with different Institutions and DGs on different sites.

Similarly, the same internal networks can help ensure that Europeans don’t find themselves discussing the same topic with DG X on Facebook, DG Y on LinkedIn and DG Z on Twitter.

Without these internal, subject-oriented networks, “EU social media outreach” will be a cacophony.

More: The Brussels bubble may be growing, but it’s still a bubble


The thematic approach required to organise EUROPA also makes feasible the multilingual ‘discussion documents’ required for any intelligent conversation about the EU’s activity in any given area. They also make excellent multilingual landing pages.

Of course, performing outreach and online community management in 23 languages is always going to be a challenge, but the above 2-level model helps.

EU Institutions need a Content Partnership: multilingual teams specialised in social media, backed up by internal networks of policy wonks prepared and mandated to help them respond rapidly.
So the US military is now more open in social media than the European Commission …

And the final strategy is …

Even then, it’s obvious that the EU cannot possibly hope to do this singlehanded. Consider the facts:

  • There are 500 million Europeans.
  • There are something like 25000 EU staff.
  • A small fraction of them are involved in communications.
  • And most of them work for the policy DGs, focused on specific stakeholders.

Do the maths. And then remember:

  • The tiny few trying to get a more general message out are working in an environment which is generally indifferent, uncaring or downright hostile.
  • And they don’t own the content – that belongs to the policy DGs.

So the EU needs to create the conditions so that it doesn’t have to do everything itself. Instead of carrying out a series of small disconnected projects, it’s time to Think Differently.

Smart companies already know that the single best marketing asset they have are happy customers – people recommend good products, services and customer support to their friends, and their friends listen.

Right now, this ‘customer brand ambassador’ effect only works for the EU inside the Brussels Bubble. Rather than trying to reach every European directly, maybe the EU should be thinking about stimulating the emergence of the EU Online Public Space:

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.
An alternative overarching EU communication strategy?

Only when this underlying infrastructure exists can the EU really hope to use social media to overcome the barriers of language and ignorance, and actually engage with Europe.

But – once again – it has to be part of an integrated strategy, not a cool add-on, so it needs to be balanced against everything else. One more from the vault: On the EP’s use of Web2.0 …


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  1. Thanks for the wrap up Matt.

    You know it’s not just e-gov that is trying to change its culture. It’s the same in e-ducation.

    I’ve been pointing the guys who run the edu (@terena) at what you’re contending with inside the Brussels’ bubble. Also pointing a few .gov people in Oz at your post.

    I see there’s a tender on at the moment.
    You going for it?

  2. Thanks for the kind words and links (both inwards and outwards!). I’m off for a week’s break today, so I’ll check out the jam properly when I get back, because it looks pretty interesting.


    PS My clients’ social media guidelines prevent me from discussing bids on my blog.

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