Why EU digital advocacy is more than social media

  
Disclaimer: all opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EurActiv.com PLC.
András Baneth, managing director, Public Affairs Council
András Baneth, managing director, Public Affairs Council

Engaging an audience around a message is now the rule, not the exception, in EU public affairs. Digital advocacy is here to stay, writes András Baneth.

András Baneth is managing director of the European Office of the Public Affairs Council, which is organising the 2014 Digital Advocacy Summit tomorrow.

When it comes to digital advocacy in European affairs, it’s important to differentiate between the range of digital communication tools and social media. The former is broader, and includes monitoring, interactive press releases, online videos and data-driven stakeholder mapping. Social media advocacy is somewhat narrower, since it essentially focuses on a unique channel for networking, increasing visibility and engaging policymakers, journalists and members of civil society.

We all remember the (in)famous ACTA story, when a pan-European campaign, including millions of signatures, has prompted the European Parliament to reject a trade agreement. Far from being a one-off effort, we see more examples of organizations using videos, online petitions, while also being active and visible on Twitter: in European public affairs this is no longer the exception but the rule for corporations and associations. If your organisation wants to raise awareness about policy issues that are key to your strategy, digital communication can help you in ways traditional lobbying simply cannot - but understanding what it can and cannot be used for, while following best practices, is key to success.

Who is your audience?

Speaking of social media specifically, the main reason for its use in terms of advocacy is to "raise profile". While traditional marketing and advocacy both aim to create a positive image for your product, organization or cause, advocacy has a very different, often more targeted audience: journalists, EU officials, industry peers and NGOs. The goals are also different: support or counter a planned piece of legislation, put an issue on the newly elected MEPs' radar, open doors for in-person meetings at the European Commission, gather intelligence on the direction EU policy is likely to take or to gauge the "public mood" in particular Member States.

Less trust, more regulation

The Public Affairs Council’s 2013 Public Affairs Pulse survey found that the less trust the public has in a specific business sector, the more regulation it wants to see in that sector. Ask any pharmaceutical, manufacturing, food industry or banking professional whether they think they have enough regulation in their industry or there should be more - and you can guess their answer. Trust in a sector has become a major factor in the regulation of that sector. Though far from unanimous, the external environment, such as the European public opinion, geographically fragmented as it may be, is increasingly shaped by online campaigns, petitions, debating platforms and social media conversations. This, in return, is increasingly affecting both the policymakers and the EU policies they put forward.

EU institutions and the public mood

At the same time, the popularity of EU institutions has reached an all-time low. This means that the European Commission, the European Parliament and EU agencies have become more sensitive to public opinion, which sometimes spurs them to set aside a proposal if it risks being overly controversial. Think of GMOs, binding rules on fracking, emission trading in aviation and many other issues. 

As a result of this trend, EU officials can no longer afford to see themselves as sitting in an ivory tower. The European Commission has invested heavily in setting up social media teams and in monitoring online conversations, and the European Parliament has produced dozens of infographics and explanatory videos to reach out to the public. Its Facebook page recently surpassed 1 million likes, making it one of the most popular public bodies online. The good news for stakeholders is that European institutions are far more eager to listen now than they were even a few years ago, and digital tools are well-suited to facilitate such discussions.

The value of social media EU affairs

How do you quantify the value of Neelie Kroes retweeting your message? Sceptics argue that it is simply not worth the effort to invest in having a stronger social media presence. This attitude was reinforced by a 2013 Burson-Marsteller study on effective lobbying practices, in which social media was determined to be one of the least effective ways to make “informed decisions.” After all, one cannot reasonably expect policymakers to form their policy positions based on 140-character messages alone. Demonstrating ROI is also crucial for internal purposes, since staff time is not free — even if most tools and platforms are available at no cost. 

That’s why “hard metrics” such as view counts, retweets and likes must be part of the equation, along with “soft metrics,” so you can assess the extent to which your digital toolkit:

  • Improves trust in and goodwill toward your company, cause or organization;
  • Helps you interact directly with relevant EU and national officials, journalists, bloggers and industry peers;
  • Monitors what’s happening (or will soon be happening) in your field that may not be covered by the mainstream media or trade publications;
  • Helps your organization become more visible (e.g. by being invited to more stakeholder consultations); and
  • Gathers informal feedback from key government officials, NGOs, coalition partners and other key stakeholders to help determine how effective your efforts have been.

What does it all mean?

Online stakeholder mapping, videos and social media in European advocacy are here to stay and will be even more influential in shaping public discourse about EU policies in the new EU institutional context. Decision-makers are keen to listen to public opinion, and since much of this conversation is happening online, digital advocacy is a worthy investment for EU affairs professionals.

External links: 

The Opinion was written on the occasion of the first European Digital Advocacy Summit, organized by the Public Affairs Council's European office on 19 June. Follow the events on Twitter via the #EDAS2014 hashtag.

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