Expert: Brussels needs ‘mind-shift away from traditional communications’

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A “mind-shift away from traditional communications” is required if Brussels-based public affairs professionals are to embrace the potential of blogs and other online tools to help “break the cycle of one-way communication,” Helen Dunnett, eCommunications manager at the European Crop Protection Association, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Helen Dunnett is eCommunications manager at the European Crop Protection Association. 

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

How has the evolution of blogs and other online tools changed the public affairs landscape in Brussels? 

It has had an effect in so much as Brussels-based communications and public affairs professionals are aware of the importance of the web. As for how it’s affected their work, I’d say most are still holding firm to their traditional working styles. Although with the launch of Blogactiv I can safely say that EURACTIV does not fall into this category! 

Communications in Brussels still tends to be one-directional, with a stoic resistance to using online tools to enrich press conferences, releases and events. Which is understandable, as it’s a model that’s worked for years and communications professionals are not quite sure how to approach the web. Nonetheless, I’d say it’s a wasted opportunity, especially because it’s so easy to add value to traditional communications channels by using the right online tools. 

Regarding blogging more specifically, to many I think it seems like a lot of hard work for very little return. I hear a combination of reasons, from the web not being a serious or appropriate channel to communicate to their target audiences, or they believe that their audiences aren’t online and only read newspapers. Others are concerned about the extra work of writing blog posts and getting them approved, and knowing how press releases are treated, while still more are fearful of a huge amount of misguided feedback, such as negative comments from their potential readership. 

What I’ve found instead is that our blog is being read by all our target audiences. Blog posts can be short and snappy too so don’t necessarily take ages to be written, and the feared backlash has never occurred! 

Change is happening though. The way the presidential campaigns in the States were fought online has clearly helped, although it should be said that the web strategies of the French presidential candidates in 2007 were already fairly advanced. Companies, organisations and politicians across Europe who want to be in the public eye and are constantly fighting for press time are increasingly seeing the benefit of building a robust online presence through a good website and blogging (and even micro-blogging and social media sites, like Facebook and MySpace). They can control and build their own momentum and are no longer totally beholden to traditional media publishing them. 

What is the European Crop Protection Association doing to harness the Internet to make itself heard? 

Last year, we sponsored a web platform called pesticideinformation.eu, which aims to raise the level of debate on pesticides in Europe. The platform has two primary functions. The first is to collate the various conversations taking place online about pesticides and their future. This includes positive, neutral and negative information, which we group by theme, and most of it is generated automatically via targeted keywords. The second objective is to provide a platform for our stakeholders to express their views and to engage in serious debate on the future of pesticides. 

It is really not a platform for the crop protection industry to express its views or push key messages. At this point, it is more important for industry to listen to public concerns, learn and engage. pesticideinformation.eu is a great start, as it provides one central, high-quality platform for all external stakeholders to provide expert opinion and stir debate. 

Content is generated by volunteer guest bloggers who write opinion pieces: so far we’ve had academics, scientists, NGOs and an MEP. They are required to follow our blogging ‘code of conduct‘ to ensure that their articles are fact-based and avoid emotional claims. It is very important for us that the site showcases neutral, expert opinion, not emotional pleas, as this would defeat its purpose. I also add blog content, primarily in the form of video interviews with stakeholders or written entries to cover key legislative milestones, and am very careful not to give an opinion. 

I had originally assumed that most people would not like to go on the record and be filmed, but I was wrong. Hardly anyone has said no; in fact they’re usually very pleased to talk to us. And why wouldn’t they be, I suppose: they’re experts in their field and they’re simply expressing expert opinion. Which is great for us, because the power of the spoken word in the form of a video interview can carry much more than a mere quote in a press release. 

What moved ECPA in particular to start its own blog? 

I wanted the crop protection industry to participate in the online conversation on pesticides and break its own cycle of one-way communication. Despite its important role in the food supply-chain, it’s always been fairly closed-door with regards to communication. I felt it was important to be more open and engaging, so as to confront our reputation, and indeed even challenge industry itself. 

We enlisted the support of online communication agency ZN to help devise our online strategy and assist in running the campaign. They’ve been in this game in Brussels for ten years, so know the ins and outs of bringing issues online and helping organisations adapt their communications to the web. 

What tangible benefits of doing so have you recorded so far? Are there drawbacks/risks of this approach too? 

We’re beginning to build a sizeable following, which we feel means we’re succeeding in our efforts to build a platform where serious, open and scientific discussion can take place on the issue of pesticides in Europe and beyond. That’s been the most important benefit, because on no other communications channel could this be possible. 

What’s more, as the blog isn’t about ECPA’s views, but about pesticides, stakeholders are much more willing to publicly discuss the issue from their perspective on pesticideinformation.eu than they would if hosted on ECPA’s site. They also know that we welcome their viewpoint, even it includes criticism or disagreement with industry. I think they value that openness and freedom: plus it gives them exposure in the wider debate too. 

We have a healthy and growing following from all the EU institutions, which stay on the site an average of three times longer than other visitors. From the site statistics, we’ve also detected visits from other stakeholders like key institutions, research centres, universities and agricultural/farming ministries from across Europe and beyond. Using video has been a great way to get high profile figures to accept interviews with pesticideinformation.eu. When we publish them on the blog, we attract a lot of visitors, who stay on the site far longer as they watch the complete video. Not only is it a welcome break to watch a video rather than read text, but seeing a key stakeholder express their views is very powerful. 

ECPA members are also avid visitors to the site, so industry is definitely listening to the views being expressed and I still regularly receive feedback from members who appreciate the content and nature of pesticideinformation.eu and how it’s furthering the debate on pesticides in Europe. 

When you mention risk, I assume you’re partly referring to negative feedback, as this is after all an open platform (users can comment on blog posts). In truth, it’s a complete myth that unpopular bloggers risk receiving a barrage of negative feedback overnight. It just doesn’t happen. Most people I think actually respect that we’re running a transparent and honest platform anyway and would not want to (but if we do receive highly offensive comments, we delete them). And anyway, we’re engaging in a conversation, so we should not pretend opposition does not exist! What would be the point? It’ll just appear somewhere else online. It’s far better to receive constructive criticism and have open conversations on a single platform. 

I’d actually say that the main risk of taking this approach would be if we stopped honouring our public commitment to transparency and open debate on this platform or including key industry messages. The power of the web also includes the power of the individual, who would discredit us overnight if we did that. 

How would you describe your target audience for online communication? What other channels do you use for other audiences? 

The blog is aimed at anyone interested in the pesticide debate in Europe, from those who are heavily involved in the drafting of the legislation, to those who are reporting or commenting on it, to the general public. And it’s working. As mentioned, we track traffic, and have attracted a very wide, often surprising, array of visitors. 

Although eCommunications is important at ECPA, we of course realise that it’s part of the communications package. Offline, we maintain relations with the press, produce reports, and organise and sponsor events. 

But it’s very important to emphasise that the target audiences are not necessarily different. It’s not as if we say, “stakeholder X is in the UK and likely to be online, so we target him/her with a blog post,” and “stakeholder Y is a Brussels-based journalist, so we’ll send him/her a press release and invite him/her to our event”. 

We strongly believe in integrated communication: offline communications adds value to online communications and vice versa. Stakeholder X should receive the press release and be invited to the event, if they’re likely to be interested. Similarly, stakeholder Y – the journalist – can learn a lot from our online channels and should be encouraged to visit the sites and use the material if relevant. 

How do you ensure that your blog provides a significantly different service to that of your other communication tools, for example your website? 

By sticking to our editorial guidelines. The blog is significantly different from ECPA corporate communications because the content is largely provided by our stakeholders, plus it contains a cross-section of views on the subject of pesticides including criticism of industry. We want the readership to see the varying viewpoints in one place and be able to make an informed opinion for themselves. 

How do you see the use of the blogs by Brussels-based organisations evolving in the future? What are ECPA’s own plans in this regard? 

Although nobody challenges the importance of the web anymore, online engagement, like blogging and being an active member of the online community, is such a mind-shift away from traditional communications and marketing. It’s about communicating less formally, fuller integration of all communications channels, and what you can give your community rather than what you can get out of it. So I fear that if this isn’t fully appreciated by an organisation, then the majority of blogs will be similar to newsletters or press releases full of well-crafted key messages. They will be quickly disregarded, but potentially could tarnish the organisation’s image. 

I think that the biggest shift that needs to occur is in mindset and culture. The key is to take small steps, be willing to experiment and educate, listen to your community and learn from them, and not worry if things aren’t perfect first time around. For most organisations, this might still be some way away (and it should be said that not all organisations need a blog). 

If done well, I can see issues being discussed in a more natural, lively fashion with all interested parties enjoying a healthy open debate. New stakeholder relationships could emerge in ways and with groups not previously considered, thanks to the web’s lack of boundaries. I sincerely hope that public affairs blogging will be dominated by reasoned, rational debate by experts in their fields, and this would in turn make any overly emotional campaign look ridiculous and manipulative. 

That’s just blogging though. Associations should remember that there is more to the web, and as I said before, it can really add value to their communications more widely, like improving outreach, helping maintain momentum following events, enhancing and showcasing content with, say, a filmed interview, or indeed helping to spread this content. 

As for ECPA, we remain strongly committed to investing in and developing more engaged discussions on pesticideinformation.eu, and our members are fully behind us. 

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