EU communication chief: Understanding national audiences is key

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Cooperation between the European institutions could be improved if the European Commission and the Parliament were more mindful of the realities in EU member states, Reijo Kemppinen, director-general for press and communications at the European Council, told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

A former journalist, Reijo Kemppinen served as chief communicator in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of his native Finland in the late 1990s.

He is currently director of communications at the European Council and has previously been spokesperson for former European Commission President Romano Prodi and director of communications at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

He was speaking to EURACTIV's Georgi Gotev and Christophe Leclercq.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

You are responsible for communications at the Council of Ministers. What is new in this institution since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty? The biggest novelty appears to be the permanent Council president, Herman Van Rompuy, under whom you work. But by nature he is not a person who speaks much to journalists or indeed to a wider audience…

Well, there are two things that are new. One is that as a consequence of the Lisbon Treaty, we no longer have just the Council but also the European Council as an institution, and we have, as you said, a permanent president of the European Council.

So the secretariat of the Council serves not only the Council and its presidency, but also the European Council and the president of the European Council. And that is certainly a new situation for us from the communications point of view as well.

The second thing that is new, but unrelated to the Lisbon Treaty, is that the media environment has changed radically. It would be a great mistake for anyone to believe that social media is a passing phenomenon.

'Social media' is a name given to a development that is a consequence of digital evolution and it can take many forms and shapes, but it will continue to mould and change the communications environment in a radical sense in the future. And that change I think is only just beginning. And one of the trades or professions to be affected profoundly will be journalism.

Indeed, one source of information is Mr Van Rompuy tweeting himself: it helps journalists to learn a little bit in advance important decisions in the middle of summits. But the summits themselves are a media event which the international press has difficulty covering, for various reasons. One is the growing distance between leaders and the press. Another one is the global crisis, which has cut media budgets. How would you assess the difficulties that the international press has in following the Council?

Your question has many aspects to it so I will name three.

First on Mr Van Rompuy: his media activity is very much in the hands of his spokesperson, Diederik De Backer. We have, from my services, started to support him with certain social media tools like Twitter. They are typically tools that a person like him is comfortable with, because it allows him to use his voice in a manner that he's used to.

Secondly, he is a person who is averse to the idea of declaring bold intentions beforehand. He'd rather communicate the facts and the decisions in an accurate form as he can see them.

Thirdly, I think it's an excellent tool, namely Twitter but also Facebook and other tools, because it underlines what I think is a big gap in communication at the moment. Everybody talks, but people no longer know who to trust. To develop trust in communication I think is one of the key aspects that social media also bring: to bring back trust.

Twitter is an excellent tool if you use it carefully. You can also use it as a means of communicating facts. One of the better cases of that use was at the European Council, when a deal relating to the euro was born and Twitter was used as the first means of communicating it. And even the agencies appreciated that. Because in an environment where you have tens of different sources competing, even the most knowledgeable journalist struggles to know which of the bits of information is the most accurate and reliable one.

So our aim is also to build trust.

The second thing is when it comes to the change to the media structure. I've been absent from the Brussels scene for the last six years in London and Helsinki, in two different institutions: the European Commission and the EBRD, and when I came back I noticed that there are certain changes.

And I think that the change in the structure of journalism is not in the number of correspondents. 

The sources are probably the competition that has been brought about by the evolution of the media. So traditional publishers are struggling. People who are sent here are younger and they are put under more pressure more quickly than was the case in the past.

So it seems gone are the days when a new journalist is given six months to settle down and look around himself or herself and learn the language, learn the place and learn the people. Now, not only do they have to start immediately, but they have to do the same story in three to four different formats: print, audiovisual and websites.

And even in the hands of the most skilful, and journalists are skilful, it cannot but have an impact on the quality of the journalism. It may not become less accurate, but it becomes faster and it becomes less deep.

You seem to be focusing right now on the Brussels correspondent. But is he or she really the communications target of the institutions, especially the Council, which is driven by member states?

I think the answer is again in two parts. On the one hand yes, I do think it is, because the impact of the communications can be measured in many ways. But one of the things we have to take into account is the relationship between us as the source and the journalist as mediator or communicator in between. And it's a physical relationship: it has to be a physical relationship as well.

It's not to contest the independence or the critical nature of journalism when I say that I hope that in the future journalists based in Brussels will see the Council building as a home working environment, where everything that is good about Europe flourishes: the debates, the differences of view, but also the 'Europeanness'. It also has various services, wifi, and everything that comes with that.

The other part is that we need to think beyond websites as a means of communicating in countries where we don't have a presence or where the journalists do not have a presence here. And that way we come to an online strategy that we are starting to build now: how do we build an online presence and interactivity between the media communication communities in the member states and ourselves?

And there social media is part of the answer but it's only the start of the answer. It has more to do with kind of a 'networking of governance'. And how you build this kind of networking of governance. There was a recent World Economic Forum study looking into this, looking at how you build network forms of governance with the world outside that you are trying to influence.

And I think we are all at the very beginning of a very steep learning curve, which will affect not only the way we communicate, how it's physically expressed, but also the skills which all of us need to acquire.

I can say that if you are engaging in this, you can count on EURACTIV's experience. We have been busy doing that for the last 11 years. I remember you were a journalist and you still speak like a journalist. Then you became the chief communicator in your country, Finland, in 1999, when your country held the EU presidency. I think many journalists will remember for a long time the December summit.

I certainly remember the 'Turkish invasion'!

The Turkish delegation indeed arrived with three aeroplanes…that was the historic moment when several countries, including Turkey, were invited to launch accession negotiations. It was a time of generous decisions, of very lavish spending. We are not in that zone any more. What has changed?

I think the immediacy of where we are today is hugely influenced by what is happening in the world economic and financial crises and how that affects the political reality around us.

But it is so hugely influencing where we are today that it's to give an impartial objective assessment of what has been changed. Today we don't have distance. I would be very cautious to say anything about what has really changed.

Enlargement 2004 has changed things a lot. It has changed things in many ways. It's not only numbers but culturally as well. But on certain things, when I come back to my beloved theme of communication, I think the only real change is that we are at risk of ignoring what hasn't changed.

Despite and irrespective of technological or other evolutions, the basics of good communication cannot change. They are time-tested. They transcend borders. They transcend languages and cultures. It is the same questions. Who? What? When? How? And why?

I know part of your philosophy on this, which is to 'go local'. Now we have this paradoxical situation where the Council is closer to the member states, but it does not have its own representation in the countries. So how can you decentralise the communication and reach the 'multipliers' at national level for the Council? The Commission and the Parliament, which are more integrated institutions, do have local and national presences.

On the one hand, I think that all good communication starts with the ability to understand your audiences. The Council ironically – and that includes the president of the European Council – has to struggle with a certain shortcoming, which is not having your feet on the ground.

So we have the member states and we have a closer relationship with them. But you will still need to have some sort of a semi-independent capacity to act as the events, evolutions, public opinion, elections and so on evolve.

In that respect I certainly would hope that views inside the Commission will evolve and mature in time to allow us to share the intelligence that the Commission's offices in the member states acquire. So far this has not been the case but I think this is more a question of maturity than difference of view.

I have heard that the press clippings organised by the European Commission do not get to you.

No, they don't. But to be fair, there's an issue of copyright as well. Copyright is something we have to be very mindful of nowadays.

But marginally there are things in place, like the inter-institutional agreement on communication. There is the strategy of communicating in partnership with the member states. What kind of improvements can you see either in the agreements or in implementing them in the run-up to 2014?

I would hope that when it comes to inter-institutional cooperation, it could be improved on two accounts. The first is that the other big institutions would become more mindful of the realities in the member states.

And secondly, their communication and their choice of priorities would even more stem from the recognition of what is going on in the member states, rather than their internal means.

Do you mean there would be different communication strategies in different countries?

Diversification, yes, in the sense that even when you have common policies, common objectives and common decisions, the way you communicate them in different member states, without changing the facts, should be adapted to the needs of local populations, local media and local languages.

And one is not in contradiction with the other. 'Going local' should not be an empty phrase. It should be based on empowering communication at the level at which it is understood and trusted by people.

Do you think an institution like the Council can reach citizens directly or should it use intermediaries?

I don't think that the Council as an institution can ever do much more except to communicate and explain the decisions that the Council and the European Council have taken, as simply and as qualitatively well as possible, using all modern tools.

When it comes to explaining and discussing what has been decided, our institutions have to become more open and receptive. But the real act of explaining and taking responsibility belongs in the hands of those who have been elected.

The second thing I have to say about inter-institutional cooperation is more of a Brussels issue. I certainly hope we will be able to talk more about the projects that are physically transforming the Quartier Léopold and the image of the institutions.

Within the next three years you're going to see a completion of what all of us have been witnessing. All of us have been living on a construction site for 10-15 years.

There is a chance that this construction will come to an end in 2014. And that means that the huge building site that is now Schuman Square will become the site of the new headquarters for the European Council, and the Schuman Square, according to the plans the Belgian authorities have, will turn into a pedestrian area.

The new visitors' centre at Luxembourg Square for the European Parliament will open in autumn. And the Parliament is also now discussing if it will finally approve the plans for the House of European History in the Eastman Building.

So what I mean is that if you look at these four events together, it will happen physically, and I hope again that it's a question of maturity that the institutions will be able to look at the physical signs and symbols…

This will be important for TV. However, the challenge will remain to get more airtime, on TV, the Internet and so on: how do you increase that to make more of an impact for the EU in the run-up to the 2014 elections?

That will always be a struggle. I mean first of all, I think that you can defeat your own purposes in many ways. One would be to declare intentions that you're not able to meet. I do readily admit that the turnout in the elections, for example, will be an important yardstick to measure the European project's current stake.

I am less willing to predict that good communication on bad policy, on a bad state of affairs, could somehow positively affect that.

Could citizens' initiatives from 2012 liven up the debate and get more people engaged?

If we have citizens' initiatives that are a reflection of an increasing engagement in European affairs, definitely yes.

You spoke of buildings. There is something else which could be highly symbolic: how about an 'Air Force 1' for the European Union?

[Laughs] Well, I've been party to discussions in two Commission terms where this kind of issue has been discussed, even before the Lisbon Treaty. I think it's one of those things that early in the mandate of any president comes into discussion, and then the same arguments come back and forth, the reasons people don't want one.

It's a silly argument in a way, I'm saying it more as a private person but without any hesitation, because so much of that criticism is fuelled by this Anglo-Saxon tabloid journalism that so many people take as representative of European media or public opinion. I don't think that's the case at all.

This is one of the downsides, I think. I think it's a silly argument to shoot down the idea without giving it further consideration at all.

It might be cheaper than the private jet usage.

But you never seem to get to the point of really discussing it.

Journalists could probably do a better job in covering European Union summits with distant partners, global players, if there was such an instrument.

Going back to your original argument on the distance between us and some of the media: I think we are much better off at this stage focusing on developing our online communication. For example, for this European Council we are bringing two new tools for the first time. One that I am most proud of is a mobile application of the European Council agenda and documentation. We will launch it to media audiences here next week. The idea is that we start now.

The idea behind this is that we believe that in the foreseeable future most of our clients will predominantly use mobile devices, and therefore we have to focus in online communication on building tools that people can use irrespective of where they are accessing them.

But that also then means that even those tools, unless you can have symbols or simplify the language, in the hands of someone out there in Romania or somewhere further away from the hub, the bubble, will struggle to understand. So we have to be able to bring it down to the level of understanding it.

Much of our world is next to incomprehensible to anyone who is living away from it. So it has to be adjoined by discussion, by explanation, by interaction closer to national and local media.

And the second initiative?

The second one is mainly on asylum, immigration, where we have developed another device that allows people to see in a very projected form the issues relating to immigration, asylum and the free movement of people in their current state. It will be the subject of the European Council this week.

Are there other initiatives on the communication front that you have in the pipeline next year?

We have plenty but I'm not going to take the wind out of their sails by explaining them all! We have quite a big modernisation drive insofar as our communication is concerned. I have inherited excellent, really professional staff that I am genuinely happy and quite inspired to work with, both in terms of our press and our wider communication and transparency sides. Developing these modern tools is really a challenge for us.

Speaking of transparency, as you brought it up, the Council has not yet signed up to European Transparency Initiative-type initiatives and the joint registry between the Commission and the Parliament…

We have agreed that we will join the transparency register as observers from the beginning. We have to learn from that. I also say that the Council is working in a slightly different environment from the European Parliament or the Commission in terms of lobbyists or consultancies.

I think our challenge has more to do with the fact that in the weeks and the months and the years to come, we will develop a better understanding between ourselves and the think-think/academic institutions, civil society community, that is European, but in most cases already embedded in Brussels.

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