Inward-looking communications and technical jargon prevent citizens from having a real conversation with the EU, but that might just be what the union wants
Many companies, organisations and political institutions are present on social media. With the ongoing communication struggle and ever growing democratic gap that the European Union is facing, a few years ago a gift from heaven landed in Brussels: social networking. The EU institutions provide their audience with several profiles on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, EUTube
and even LinkedIn
. The information flows almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and engagement appears high. The Facebook
page, for example, has hundreds of thousands of fans and on micro-blogging site Twitter
, many profiles are successfully pushing information on the worldwide web.
An analysis of Twitter
shows that there is indeed a constant 'push' of information. Legislation, technical concepts and parliamentary subjects that a normal citizen cannot easily digest without any given knowledge about European affairs are spread across micro-blogs. But people who benefit from the social media accounts of the EU are, in fact, the Brussels Bubble residents. Instead of providing a platform to EU citizens, something else happened. Faster than anyone could ever imagine, those who were already interacting and conversing offline received a second 'tool' to showcase their skills; to network and to hold highly technical conversations. In essence, the online Brussels Bubble.
Besides pushing updates, EU social media accounts also engage with the online Brussels Bubble inhabitants. This creates a situation where 'normal' citizens are excluded from highly technical 'jargon', debates and conversations. But the language barrier -approximately 50 per cent of European citizens cannot have a decent conversation in English - and access to Internet, one in four people have never used the internet, are two extra reasons why the online EU sphere is so tiny.
On the one hand it seems that the union is not ready for a conversation on Twitter
, but it has nevertheless been putting a lot of effort in engaging with citizens on Facebook
for example, and other platforms like Flickr
as well as a number of blogs. On the other hand, do citizens really want a conversation with the EU? Proximity and relevant communicated information seem to be important factors explaining why the citizen is not always interested in the conversation. The union does not offer products, but intangible services and that partly explains the non-interest.
Although the EU seems to somewhat lose connection with citizens; there are still opportunities for people to engage in online conversations. The message needs to be better, more relevant and clear for the target audience - namely the citizens. The union has to unify its message, not via various accounts – like the European Parliament, European Commission and European Council - but via one EU channel. A lot of confusion is caused by the numerous accounts that all have varying messages and a different look and feel.
Bridges need to be built with bloggers from different member states. It would, therefore, be a good idea to connect to bloggers who are writing about EU affairs in their own language. These bloggers reach out to a more specific but, at the same time, no less relevant audience. And EU officials should track what is being written in these forums and provide extra background information to the writers. The authors would feel honoured that an important political body picks up their blog and in return, the reader would pick up the message faster because a third party, more independent source might be better placed to communicate European affairs.
Finally the four conversation management principles - developed by communications guru Steven Van Belleghem - need to be taken into account and further fine-tuned. The customer experience - or in this case 'citizen experience' - has to be stronger, more interactive and above all clear. The citizen needs to be more involved in decisions and dialogues, in the most entertaining way possible. The channels are out there but the execution is almost non-existent at the moment. Further collaboration between the EU and its citizens has to be encouraged. Taking advantage of the crowd to empower the message is the most effective way to communicate. We must also not forget the power of bloggers in this section.
They are the ones who can act as information multipliers because their audiences trust them as experts and opinion leaders. Instead of only talking to Brussels Bubble inhabitants - the conversation needs more punch, immediacy and openness to citizens. A citizen cannot be ignored via social media and deserves an answer to its questions or remarks, especially the negative ones. Once people have received a fruitful answer, they will certainly show their appreciation. The last aspect of an effective conversation-management strategy is to have good content. The union needs to get rid of its technical jargon and finally reach people with content, which they are actually interested in. The Brussels Bubble has been carrying the conversation. It does not make sense to get involved, if nobody is interested. Or is that just the intention?
Kwinten Lambrecht works on digital communications at the Cambre Associates public affairs consultancy, in Brussels
A perceptive article with many insights, thanks. Just for the record, of the nearly 400,000 fans of the European Parliament's Facebook page, more than 95 per cent of them do not live in Belgium. We think that's a reasonable indication that this platform at least has broken out of the bubble and that there is an appetite for information and interaction about EU issues and politics among non-technocrats.
May I also suggest that 'one EU channel' is anything but the way to go. The false impression of the EU as a one-track monolith, without checks and balances, internal debate or political fights, is deeply rooted and extremely damaging. We should rather seek to open up, reveal the messy, democratic, human nature of the place and make space for people to see scope and reason to get involved. As an example, the bloggers you so rightly want to mobilise will not be cheerleaders, but will thrive on conflict and real debate.
Steve - EP Web Team