"New media are changing how politicians communicate with the public and vice-versa," Welsh Labour MEP Derek Vaughan declared at the launch of an Edelman survey in November 2009.
"I'm certain that politicians and their staff will look to digital media in future, with new ideas like online advice surgeries and digital conferences. There are lots of things that politicians and their assistants could look at," Vaughan said.
"Many of us use online surveys, and have websites and blogs. I don't use a blog because I don't know what I'd say every day, but many of my colleagues do," he continued.
However, the Welsh MEP also warned against neglecting established communication channels. "I cannot ignore traditional media like newspapers, magazines and TV, because only 60% of the Welsh have broadband access," he said.
For Jere Sullivan, chairman for global public affairs at Edelman, online platforms like blogs, Facebook and Twitter "are no longer just passive tools".
"When it comes to policy development and public affairs, we’re seeing a digital about-face as staffers and elected officials move from face time to Facebook and other social media to research and communicate on critical issues," Sullivan said.
"Digital communications is no longer just a young man’s game," he added, expressing his belief that "the digital advocacy gap will get narrower each year".
"Traditional communications and advocacy channels remain important and effective in all countries, but the growing influence of online cannot be overlooked and needs to be included in the mix of tools for communicating about and forming consensus on important policy issues," Sullivan concluded.
In a post on her blog that attracted many reactions, former European Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström, responsible for communications policy in the Barroso I Commission, wrote: "In Sweden, there has been a debate about bloggers being subject to mobbing, threats and hate-mail. What is it with the Internet that makes people lose all their senses?"
John Suler, an American psychologist and Internet expert, has studied the phenomenon and calls it the "online disinhibition effect". "In real life, how we talk and what we say is very much dependent on the reaction that we get from our social peers. But the Internet frquently undermines such etiquette. Instead, there are often six different effects, reinforcing each other."
1. Anonymity: "This gives some Internet users the belief that they can post anything they wish."
2. Invisibility: "The recipient's reaction is not visible."
3. Time lag: "It may take a long time before you get a reaction to what you have written."
4. "The rest of the world doesn't exist: Some Internet users believe that what goes on there exists only in their minds."
5. It is a game: "Life on the Internet is not for real."
6. Lack of authority: "On the Internet, all users are equal."
Suler states that the sum of these effects can be very influential. Some share their private life and experiences, while others use the opportunity to voice their anger and frustration, without any self-control.
In its 'Guide to the blogosphere for marketers and company stakeholders', consultancy Edelman wrote: "We are moving away from the traditional pyramid of influence with its top-down, one-way information flow to a more fluid, horizontal peer-to-peer paradigm, in which brands and corporate reputations are built by engaging multiple stakeholders through continuous dialogue."
"Under the traditional model, public relations professionals brief a select group of opinion-leading elites, and then they reach out to a broader audience through the mass media and industry press. In the new model, employees are briefed about company decisions through in-house newsletters, internal emails and town-hall-style meetings," the consultancy said.
"Today, rank-and-file employees will blog about their companies while consumers will speak directly to people who share similar interests. These individuals have not been media trained. They are on the Web sharing ideas and collaborating. They are co-creating tomorrow’s products, brands and corporate reputations continuously and spontaneously. In this environment, investors and regulators are likely to read about a company's plans before management has released them," Edelman concluded.
Natalie Sarkic-Todd, managing director at the Brussels office of PR and public affairs firm Ogilvy, said: "In today's stakeholder society, it is no longer enough to engage with policymakers to influence public-policy outcomes. Politicians are increasingly influenced by the media and the public demand for democratic accountability. Citizens are empowered by the Internet to make their voices heard and hold politicians to account."
"Blogging has become an important tool in the online communications world where opinions count and word-of-mouth travels across the globe at the speed of light. New media allows us to express our opinions and engage in conversations with a wider range of stakeholders than ever before," Sarkic-Todd added.
James Stevens, senior consultant at the Brussels office of consultancy Fleishman Hillard and a contributor to the company's Public Affairs 2.0 blog, said: "Politicians in Europe are beginning to grasp the opportunity that blogs offer to connect with citizens. As public affairs continues to focus on putting issues on the political agenda rather than taking them off it, the use of online tools such as blogs to shape the public policy environment is only likely to increase. Brussels' issue focus provides fertile ground for blogs as well as an increased use of online grassroots activism."
Karlin Lillington, a technology journalist with the Irish Times, believes that the main difference between blogging and traditional journalism is that bloggers need not care about being neutral. However, bloggers should not think that they are exempt from libel laws: "These court cases are waiting out there."
Aidan White, secretary-general of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), runs a blog on the IFJ's website that features issues on which an IFJ official position would be difficult to reach. For him, blogging is a positive development, because for the first time, it has triggered widespread public discussion on questions of quality in journalism. There is no contradiction between blogging and journalistic standards, White said, but bloggers should learn to adhere to the principles of quality, most importantly when stating their sources.
Thomas Burg is an academic at the University of Krems in Austria and the initiator of the BlogTalk conference. He stresses that blogging is not so much about content but more about building networks and forming groups. Blogs, he believes, are a tool that in itself is neither positive nor negative, but that certain basic principles are required.
Former UK Labour MEP Richard Corbett was the first MEP to launch a blog. He first used it as an online diary, illustrating his daily life as an MEP, but later switched to a more topical approach, reaching out to voters and rebutting Eurosceptics. Corbett thinks that there a lack of quality control in the blogosphere, but fears there is not much that can be done about it: "I am not optimistic there."
Blogging on Café Babel, Adriano Farano considered what he referred to as the 'SWOT' (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) of the European blogosphere. He found interactivity and the ease of setting up a blog and publishing on it to be the main strengths, whereas ideological and linguistic exclusivity were a weakness, citing censorship of comments and the exclusion of positions which are not along the same lines as those of the main bloggers as an example. Farano found, however, that blogs had an opportunity to "invigorate the European debate," even if they were threatened by "the deafness of politicians".
Giacomo, a commentator on Jon Worth's blog, wrote: "It seems the problem is a little circular: because we lack a really European public square, so we try to use blogs for building it, but we have discovered that we lack a really European virtual public square where we can aggregate our blogs."
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