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  • Stavros Papagianneas

Rebranding Europe: the book


In recent years the EU has spent a lot of time and money on communicating with its citizens, explaining its policies and its purpose. Nevertheless, this communication has been high on jargon and low on impact.

Winston Churchill once said that the difference between poor management and leadership is communication. During the Second World War, the radio was one of the few media for disseminating messages directly to the public. With his charisma and outstanding communication skills, the British prime minister managed to mobilise not only his own country but the whole world.

While he spoke, millions of citizens listened and supported him in the campaign against fascism, intolerance and discrimination. Churchill communicated in a clear, consistent, honest and transparent manner and provided a comprehensible long-term vision. His determination and the authenticity of his message made him trustworthy and a key person of influence.

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"The difference between poor management and leadership is communication."

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Many factors contribute to inefficient EU communication: the lack of leadership; the European identity crisis; the absence of a shared vision and a common European public sphere; poor knowledge of the EU; hostile media and fake news; red tape; unethical practices in politics; the blame game on Europe; multilingualism; austerity; populism. All contribute to the EU’s incapability to communicate its policies and achievements in a transparent and fair way.

Today, audiences are central to the success of an organisation or a project. People no longer accept being "talked at". However, EU communication is too often based on one-way information, not genuine dialogue.

The Parliament, the Commission and the Council often express diverging and even contradictory views, resulting in a cacophony. "Europe can only work if we all work for unity and commonality, and forget the rivalry between competences and institutions. Only then will Europe be more than the sum of its parts," said Jean-Claude Juncker in his 2016 State of the Union speech.

How can we make the failing communications of the EU succeed ? I provide various key recommendations in my recently-published book, Rebranding Europe, that may help the Union find its voice and connect with the people.

Communicate Europe in partnership and at EU and national levels

Communicating in true partnership is paramount. It needs to be based on common values, political will, transparency and honesty. The key players should operate on an equal footing. An innovative and sustainable public-private partnership would help; involving the EU institutions, member states, civil society, the media, political parties and the private sector. They would commit to presenting the EU as a useful brand, an entity that is seeking to collaborate with the citizens and make a meaningful difference in their daily lives.

Make EU communication a strategic priority

Strategic communication planning is a powerful management activity for identifying issues, setting priorities, defining strategies, and determining performance benchmarks as well as expectations. Branding and reputation need to be considered in the early stage of the decision-making process. Unfortunately, only the first Commission of Barroso (2004-2009), gave communication priority and a dedicated commissioner.

Send out a message of unity and recovery

The EU should send out a message of unity and recovery, to show that it's coming out of the crisis and focus on what matters to the people i.g. employment, education, security, etc. The EU has been too slow to react and not creative enough in their efforts to show local populations why a united Europe is relevant and beneficial.

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"The EU should send out a message of unity and recovery, to show that it's coming out of the crisis and focus on what matters to the people."

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Stop bashing economically weaker Member States

Despite being widely considered to be derogatory, the use of the highly offensive and inappropriate term PIGS/PIIGS by the media has contributed to a huge negative perception of the EU. PIGS/PIIGS is an acronym used to refer to the five EU Member States that were considered to be economically weaker following the financial crisis of the late 2000's: Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain. Its use was kerbed during the period of the eurozone crisis by the Financial Times. The eurozone crisis and the bashing of the PIGS has played into the hands of those campaigning against the EU: the populists and the neo-nationalists. In the case of Greece, the media coverage has been scandalous and irresponsible. Germany's Bild Zeitung has been the champion of the Greek-bashing campaigns. This kind of actions against economically weaker Member States has a boomerang effect for the entire Union. “Greece is de facto a colony,” Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszcykowski said in an interview with POLITICO, explaining his country’s resistance to joining the euro. “We don’t want to repeat this scenario.”

Recognise the importance of communication

The EU started communicating in a more professional way only after the disappointing participation at the EU elections of 2009 and 2014. Inside the EU, communication itself is still considered as a secondary, administrative task , which implies a low recognition of communication. To be successful, the European message needs to be interesting to the media and understandable to citizens. There is still much to be done in order to transfer skills and expertise from the private to the public sector. The EU should invest in the communication function and in expanding the mandate of communication officers.

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"To be successful, the European message needs to be interesting to the media and understandable to citizens.”

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Support quality journalism, press independence and challenge myths and populism

Quality media and press independence play an important role in communicating Europe. The EU should provide better support for media reporting, as the information distributed to the press is very technical and not always easy to understand. Adapting press releases to the specific contexts of the member states or groups of citizens and creating a helpdesk for journalists seeking background could be solutions. In addition, the EU should organise and fund specialised training for journalists.

Cut the crap

Good communication is like good journalism: it creates transparency by making important things clear and relevant to stakeholders. Good communication helps create dialogue and is the basis of beneficial decision-making. It is necessary to make messages coherent, clear, concrete and jargon-free, and to connect them to particular human needs and expectations on EU, local and regional levels.

Go local

Centralising communication in Brussels is counterproductive. Local and regional authorities should be given more responsibility and be considered as key partners in providing communication aimed at building bridges between the EU and its citizens. Engaging at the grassroots level can help people in different countries to understand that they are not as different from their neighbours as they think. Europe needs to talk differently to its different audiences by different content, different voice and different authors.

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"Engaging at the grassroots level can help people in different countries to understand that they are not as different from their neighbours as they think."

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The increase of Eurosceptic and nationalist parties in Europe, populism, Brexit and the antipathy towards institutions and politics in general are all alarm bells for immediate action. Brexit alone should have been a huge wake-up call to inspire better communication. If that is not clear to the EU leaders now, they have not understood what is happening and the EU will implode, just like the USSR did.

Nevertheless, Brexit and lately the Trump paradox may turn the tide towards a better Europe. History, especially during periods of constant change like the one we are living in, is often shaped by random events. Taking a more serious approach to communication and rebranding could stimulate the engagement of citizens and restore public approval.

The book Rebranding Europe is available at ASP Publishers, the European Bookshop and Amazon.com & Amazon.de

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