8 strategic ways to communicate Europe
Updated: Jan 28
“Accuracy, Authenticity and Interest” was the slogan of Ivy Lee, one of the founding fathers of public relations, creator of the press release and pioneer in the field of crisis communications. Almost 100 years later, this slogan remains at the core of sustainable public relations.
Though it takes long years to be built, an organizations’ reputation can be rapidly damaged. This can happen to any kind of organisations including a supranational union like the EU.
In spite of the fact that the EU has given more than 65 years of peace in Europe, the euro crisis has paradoxically been its biggest media breakthrough. People from all over the world started to follow EU-related news because of the consequences of the euro crisis.
During a networking dinner in Brussels a few months ago, I was sitting next to Maria Damanaki, EU Commissioner 2009-2014. As communications expert I was asked if I had any suggestions for re-branding eurozone countries in financial trouble.
My answer was that successful nation branding needs to be based on a collaborative process between government and main economic sectors. Great brands are mainly built on PR, not advertising. The practice of public relations starts with policy and performance. PR works properly when the product is good and the message is clear. (see also my post on Nation Branding)
In recent years the EU spent a lot of time and money to communicate with its citizens and explain its policies and its “raison d'être”. Nevertheless, the information and communication messages were full of jargon and the impact was poor.
Let’s look at a few strategic suggestions for making EU PR more sustainable:
It is all about democracy Transparency is essential to democracy. People need to see how leaders are elected. Despite efforts to improve transparency, the process of selecting the president of the European Commission is still not transparent. The whole Brussels bubble is not very transparent and only few understand what’s going on there - except those inside the 2 square km around the Schuman Roundabout. There is urgent need of more transparency where EU affairs are concerned.
PR works when it is legitimated
“This time is different” was the slogan for one of the largest EU campaigns in regard with the May 2014 European elections. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. The votes for eurosceptic parties increased and the abstention rate was historically high. The restoration of public approval for the EU and boosting the engagement of the people are political and communication challenges that should become top priorities. The citizens should be brought closer to the EU.
Support quality journalism and challenge myths and populism A few weeks ago I attended the #Media4EU event on EU strategy for independent and sustainable media in Europe. The event was organised at the European Parliament by Euractiv, a European media network focusing on EU news. The debate revealed strong support for an EU strategy for the media sector. I couldn’t agree more with (1) the principle to support quality journalism and scrutiny and challenge myths and populism and; (2) the overall opinion that most actions should be decentralized and the press corps should not compromise its independence. Furthermore, I was surprised to hear Connie Hedegaard, Commissioner 2009-2014, saying that the European Commission is too slow and inefficient in policy-making as well as in communication.
Be visible and create a European public sphere For most of the EU citizens Brussels is too far away from their bed. A new pan European communication plan equal to the Plan D from the period 2004-2009 will help. During that period the European Commission tried to create a European public sphere. The aim was to better anchor European debates in the parliaments and media of the member states. Another difficulty to overcome is the multilingualism aspect. Information and communication should be made available in all the official languages, The EU should communicate more and better on local level.
Use more social media and face-to-face communication The EU should use more social media to reach out and connect with citizens and stakeholders in addition to the traditional communication channels. People should be actively involved in the debate. They want to see that there is a face behind an organisation like commissioners, spokespersons, officials etc. EU representatives should visit all EU countries and meet the citizens face-to-face in open debates, schools, markets, civil society and professional organisations, etc
Be careful with viral videos The tendency to use viral videos as communication tool in a union with 24 languages is a little bit ambiguous. The European Commission’s campaign video “Science it’s a girl thing” from 2012 is an example of a PR nightmare. The video was described by Curt Rice of the Guardian as a "viral fiasco" and was quickly taken out. Originally meant to encourage young women to go into science, it received huge criticism and has been condemned as sexist and demeaning.
Choose professionals Communication itself is often considered inside the EU as a secondary task proceeding from the administrative staff and often subjected to it. As a result, any communications project is essentially focused on management and is too self-centered. Using external agencies or consultants gives more flexibility; it brings in specialist skills and an extra source of ideas.
Forget the fluff PR is like good journalism. It creates transparency by making important things clear and relevant to stakeholders. Good PR helps create dialogue and a basis for beneficial decision making. It is necessary to make messages coherent, clear, concrete, and free from jargon and, connect them to particular human needs and expectations. Messages to send out should be carefully thought and tailored based on the target audience. Don’t forget: you have about 5 seconds to capture media attention.