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23/08/2016

Blogs: Filling the EU’s ‘communication gap’?

Public Affairs

Blogs: Filling the EU’s ‘communication gap’?

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Recent years have seen the emergence of a wide variety of blogs on EU affairs, and even European commissioners have begun to post daily messages on their websites under José Manuel Barroso's tenure. But will blogs really lead to more intelligent European debate? 

Background

A 'blog' or 'weblog' is an Internet site in which individual citizens express their ideas and talk about their experiences in the form of a personal online diary.

Trends show that blogs are growing in popularity all the time, and their use has exploded in the past few years. In February 2009, the Sunday Times estimated that there were almost 200m blogs online worldwide, while blog search engine Technorati declared in December 2007 that there were over 112 million blogs in existence.  

Blog users interact as part of a web-based community frequently referred to as the 'blogosphere' (for an introduction to blogs, see Wikipedia).

Some blogs offer commentary or news on global, international, national or local political developments, and are increasingly perceived as a new form of "grassroots" or "citizen journalism". 

Sometimes, blogs on a particular subject are grouped together on a blog aggregator, while bloggers create their messages on so-called blog platforms or content management systems like WordPress.com or Blogger.com.

Blogs are just one form of the new social media employed by Internet users to share their opinions and experiences. Other examples of social media tools are video, podcasts and wikis, and include sites like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Digg.

Ahead of last summer's European elections, the European Parliament created profiles on online social media (Facebook, MySpace and Flickr) in an attempt to reach younger voters. 

However, the core message of the sites remained the date of the elections and the impact of the Parliament's decisions on the daily lives of Europeans. Little genuine two-way communication with politicians took place. 

Indeed, a survey published last May by Fleishman-Hillard, a public affairs consultancy, found that while Congressmen on Capitol Hill are already tweeting with Americans across the United States, MEPs are still making scant use of social media and fail to fully grasp the potential of digital politics to engage with voters (EurActiv 20/05/09). 

This was confirmed by another survey carried out by StrategyOne and public affairs consultancy Edelman, which found that members of the European Parliament are lagging behind when it comes to online engagement with EU citizens (EurActiv 10/11/09). 

Despite high levels of Internet awareness, many parliamentary officials still prefer traditional text or graphics-based websites for professional applications, and primarily embrace Web 2.0 innovations like blogs, wikis, video, social networks and podcasts only for personal use, the survey found.

Issues

The emergence of blogs and the growing popularity of online citizen journalism pose a huge challenge to traditional media. 

Nevertheless, the quality of blogs on the Web varies widely, and while some publish content on a daily or regular basis, others only feature a few posts per month.

Indeed, many full-time journalists consider the new generation of bloggers to lack the same professional standards and ethics as traditional media professionals.

For their part, some bloggers question the independence of certain media outlets, which sometimes shy away from taking a critical stance on institutions or corporations from which they receive funding or advertising. 

Indeed, blog followers often ask whether it is ethical for a journalist to write a 'mainstream' story for an employer and then publish a blog post that adopts a more critical and subjective tone.

Journalism associations (IFJIPA/API) have had problems adapting to web-based journalism. In Brussels, for some years online journalists were denied official accreditation to the EU institutions. What about the new bloggers? How should they fit into the Brussels press corps? What rules should they be subjected to?

At an EU stakeholder workshop in Helsinki in December 2006, traditional media experts and professionals had a difficult time defining the role of blogs and other new trends in relation to established EU journalism (EurActiv 07/12/06).

Reconnecting EU with citizens

Some Brussels lawmakers see blogs as a way of reconnecting the European Union with its citizens following the disappointing turnout in the June 2009 European Parliament elections, the rejection of the draft EU constitution in France and the Netherlands in 2005 and Irish voters' decision to vote down the Lisbon Treaty in June 2008. 

In the Barroso II Commission (2010-2014), Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes and Development Comissioner Andris Piebalgs keep their own blogs.

Others maintain Facebook pages, including Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik, Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier, Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki and Financial Programming and Budget Commissioner Janusz Lewandowski.

Poto?nik, Piebalgs and Damanaki are on Twitter too, while Lewandowski also uses YouTube, Flickr, Picasa and Blip.    

As for the 2004-2009 college, following the early example of European Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström, other members of the Barroso I team including Poto?nik, Mariann Fischer Boel, Vladimir Špidla, Stavros Dimas and Meglena Kuneva also ran regular blogs.

New European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek regularly tweets on Twitter and has his own Facebook page.

Individual citizens have also started EU-related blogs and even journalists and media professionals have created their own blogs to comment on EU affairs (see the FT's Brussels Blog, run by Tony Barber and Joshua Chaffin, 'Gavin Hewitt's Europe' on the BBC and Jean Quatremer's Coulisses de Bruxelles blog for Libération).

In November 2006, the Commission's communications department organised a special workshop on 'empowering citizens' in the context of its White Paper on an EU communication policy (see EurActiv LinksDossier). The conference, held in the Italian town of Bergamo, also included contributions by citizen bloggers on how they use this new medium to inform and comment on the Union (presentations available here).

How effective is blogging?

Nevertheless, questions must be asked as to how far blogging can help the EU to communicate with citizens.

  • First, it is questionable whether blogs will actually reach citizens who are not already knowledgeable about the EU. As they are primarily specialised in nature, they are particularly adept at raising the interest of an elite with a previous enthusiasm for EU affairs.
  • It is also hard to measure the audience of EU-related blogs. Commissioners' blogs receive up to 150,000 page views per month. This is still relatively low compared with the websites of traditional newspapers, which can attract more than ten million page views per month.

Contrary to the US, where bloggers have become influential, European bloggers are still relatively unknown. Nevetheless, in accordance with US trends, European blogs are becoming increasingly relevant for public affairs and corporate communication. This poses a number of challenges to companies:

  • Initially, corporations and lobby groups saw blogs as a threat. They were afraid of rumours being spread and feared that little could be done about wrong or misleading posts, which could come from disgruntled employees or clients. Reputation and brand assets are hugely important for corporations and take less time to damage than to create. Previous cases of this happening have led some companies to monitor blogs, either themselves or via consultants.
  • Progressive companies quickly realised blogs' potential to engage clients and other stakeholders in healthy debates and give the impression that they are open to criticism and suggestions. Some corporations pay employees or consultants to post blogs, but since fellow bloggers are often inquisitive, any attempt to misrepresent the relationship can backfire. The tone of such postings can be fact-based rebuttal, but more often it is humorous and self-critical, gaining goodwill and creative ideas from readers and fellow bloggers.

Positions

"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."

These are:

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 BabelAdriano 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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Timeline

  • 29 May 2005: French public rejects draft EU constitution in referendum.1 June 2005: Dutch voters reject draft EU constitution. 
  • Nov. 2006: European Commission public workshop on 'empowering citizens' in Bergamo, Italy.
  • 21 Dec. 2007: Commission publishes its Internet strategy, entitled 'Communicating about Europe via the Internet: Engaging the citizens'.
  • 12 June 2008: Irish public rejects Lisbon Treaty in referendum.
  • 2 Oct. 2009: Irish voters approve Lisbon Treaty in second referendum.

Further Reading