Localisation is the key to better communicating EU policy issues to journalists, EU officials and media professionals agreed at a conference in Brussels yesterday (14 October).
"We need to make information available to journalists on how what we're doing will affect people on the ground, and we've got a bit of work to do on this," Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, chief spokesperson at the European Commission, told the EuroPCom conference – billed as the 'First European Conference on Public Communication' and hosted at the Committee of the Regions.
"It's extremely difficult to cover European, national and local news at the same time, so local media need our help to make EU matters accessible, or they're going to be reluctant to cover it, preferring to leave it to experts," said Hansen.
"We're not expecting the media to uncritically swallow everything we put out there. We're just one voice, and it's up to the media to use that voice to paint the wider picture," she added.
The idea that communication must be targeted and concise if it is to attract journalists' interest was supported by Erik Hansen, director of communications for Norwegian capital Oslo.
"It's easier to write about football or reality TV than the European Union in the Oslo region. We discuss with local journalists from newspapers, TV and radio how they would like us to communicate with them, and continuous communication with editors is essential," Hansen said.
He was echoed by Christian Gsodam, head of press and communications at the Committee of the Regions, who said "we need to think about how we can decentralise communications to regional and local media".
"People at home see Europe as remote, so you have to act locally to reach public opinion, rather than have a press room in Brussels where you communicate to the same people every day," Gsodam said.
Other participants also stressed the importance of adapting your message to fit the audience.
"People receive information in different ways, so you need to communicate differently depending on if you're talking to the Sun or the European Voice," said Paul Statham, a professor in the sociology, politics and international studies department at the University of Bristol.
"Sometimes the EU institutions seem to presume that the average reader in Europe is an Economist reader. But if you go popular, you also lose the message," he warned.
Not everyone agreed with the notion that EU news must always be localised if it is to attract the public's attention.
"My experience is that when you try to go local, you're often told to contact colleagues in Brussels, who are overworked and in any case are declining in number," said Gundi Gadesmann, media and external relations officer for the European Ombudsman.
Moreover, Christophe Midol-Monnet, chief editor of European affairs at Euronews, said "Euronews is based on the presumption that there is such a thing as European TV viewers, be they in Finland or Portugal. We're based in Lyon, but we don't think that's a disadvantage [compared to Brussels]," he said.
Differences between Commission and Parliament
"There's a huge difference between communicating in the Commission and communicating in the Parliament. The Commission is like a government, but in the Parliament there are so many issues in one day that you need to help journalists find out what is relevant for them," said Jaume Duch Guillot, director of media at the European Parliament.
"When the issue is institutional, we focus on everyone, but when it is national, we focus on the relevant press people in Brussels and the country concerned," he said.
The many layers of parliamentary communication complicate things even further, Guillot explained. "The European Parliament is different because there is its central communication, and then there is communication by the political groups and the MEPs themselves."
Meanwhile, Commission spokeswoman Ahrenkilde Hansen warned against the danger of letting so-called 'Euromyths' about what the EU is doing build up until they take on a life of their own in the media.
"We have extensive experience of rebuttals in our London office, as Euromyths are quite prevalent in the UK press," Hansen said.
The Commission official explained that setting the record straight often requires a lot of time and resources.
"You need to get the facts from within the Commission and from national authorities. It's very important not to let these myths build-up and to stop people getting the wrong idea about the EU. But you need to prioritise and pick your fights carefully," Hansen said.
Duch Guillot of the European Parliament said his department also spent time correcting Euromyths, but stressed that policy was more important and should always be the main focus of EU communications.
"Since the Lisbon Treaty there's been a sea-change and real policy is being made in Brussels. When the Parliament says 'no' to a 65-hour working week the press reports on it. Witness the Roma situation. When things happen, journalists will report on it. It's not about the shape of bananas any more," he said.
'Multilingualism key to accessibility'
The Parliament official stressed the importance of multilingualism in decentralising EU news and making it more accessible for citizens, as well as being present in the field by opening offices in the member states.
"Informing journalists is crucial too and the EU institutions should offer more training to allay their fears and give them contacts here. Otherwise they'll be tempted to reuse press agencies," Duch Guillot said.
However, other EU policymakers are wary of intervening in the editorial affairs of independent media companies. Controversial plans to introduce a European training programme to produce a "taskforce" of journalists covering EU affairs and a fund to support student media in covering EU matters were recently removed from a European Parliament resolution on EU communications (EurActiv 08/09/10).
"Keep it short, delicate and elegant. Prepare the news like a small snack. If journalists like it, they'll come back for more. Don't prepare a nine-course meal because you don’t know what they'll like," said Erik Hansen, director of communications for Norwegian capital Oslo.
"One of the reasons that Norway isn't in the EU is that we don't like all the bureaucracy. Like America, our Declaration of Independence is one page long. We don't need a 425-page document telling us how to make chocolates," Hansen added.
"I would contest the assertion that Europe is about elite politics. Europe is not just communicated from Brussels. It is – or rather should be – communicated by national leaders in the member states, but they don't always do this," said Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, chief spokesperson at the European Commission.
"If leaders communicated what they had done with European colleagues [after summits], it would make our job easier," she added.
Refuting her namesake's claims that EU documents are too long, Hansen said "we actually have rules limiting the length of the documents we send to journalists".
"You find very little support in the editorial newsroom for covering Europe, so it's up to the EU to communicate better to raise interest," argued Paul Statham, a professor in the sociology, politics and international studies department at the University of Bristol.
"When we joined the EU in 2007, we quickly discovered that it is far too expensive for small TV channels to cover Brussels news. We need to find away to make it more edible," said Grigore Virsta, European affairs editor for Romanian public television in Bucharest.
"At national level in Romania there is low interest in the Danube Strategy, but regions located on the Danube are much more interested," he added.
"The situation today is a lot better than it was 10 or 20 years ago. While you have to respect what the press does – and we know that there has been a shift towards more populist reporting – that doesn't mean that we should be telling people why [Council President Herman] Van Rompuy used an EU car to transport his family instead of communicating about climate change or the G20, " said Jaume Duch Guillot, director of media at the European Parliament.
Communicating with EU citizens has long been a primary concern of the European Commission, with the need to boost popular trust in the European project becoming more important following the rejection of the EU constitution by French and Dutch voters and more recently rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by the Irish (see EurActiv LinksDossier on 'EU Communication Policy').