Consumer communications: A more popular EU?

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Consumer policy is moving up the European Commission's agenda as the EU becomes increasingly concerned about its popularity level among citizens.

Background

Better communicating EU policies to European citizens has become more important for the Commission following the rejection of the proposed EU constitutional treaty by French and Dutch voters in 2005. What's more, communication is likely to become even more important for the EU executive following the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by popular referendum in Ireland in June 2008 (EURACTIV 13/06/08).

Criticism that the EU is cut off from the concerns of its citizens led Communications Commissioner Margot Wallström to launch a 'Communicate Europe in partnership' initiative in October 2007, which seeks to foster greater cooperation between EU institutions and national governments in communicating EU policies. 

Boosting popular support for the European project is also seen as critical to reversing the steady decline in voter turnout in the run-up to the European Parliament elections in June 2009. 

Issues

The EU executive has introduced a number of initiatives aimed at inspiring changes in consumer attitudes as well as boosting its popular image and stimulating debate on the future role of the EU. 

Boosting the Commission's popular image

As well as its strategies to promote healthy lifestyles (like anti-smoking campaigns and the promotion of sensible alcohol consumption), encourage the adoption of eco-friendly behaviour and urge consumers to buy 'green' products, the Commission has launched the following citizen-oriented initiatives: 

  • Consumer rights and information

Aiming to make EU citizens better aware of their rights, the Commission held a  European Consumer Day on 15 March 2008 to appeal to EU consumers to "take power back in their hands, to get informed and to use their power of comparison and of choice". 

The initiative included conferences, exhibitions, consumer debates, online quizzes, school presentations, 'mobile info centres' and other activities "to get the message out that consumers should 'Know their Rights and Use their Rights'". 

The Commission announced on 6 May 2008 that it intends to create an online information pool dealing with the rights of energy consumers - referred to as a 'European Energy Consumer Checklist' – ultimately constituting an online database on local and regional energy markets (EURACTIV 08/05/08). At the same time, it will set up a 'Citizens' Energy Forum', creating a platform for debating consumer protection issues between retail market stakeholders. 

Similarly, the Commission's 'Agathe Powerwebsite aims to raise awareness among EU citizens of their rights as energy consumers in the wake of the opening up of household energy markets to competition in July 2007. Users can click on an interactive map of Europe to access information on the state-of-play in their own country. The site also links to Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs' blog. 

The EU executive also held a conference on 6 May 2008 on the promotion of the rights of energy consumers, which was streamed live over the Internet. 

  • 'Collective redress' for consumers 

On 3 April 2008, the Commission announced it will propose corrective measures to address the legal and procedural obstacles which it believes are denying compensation to victims of antitrust violations, including businesses as well as consumers. 

The EU executive suggests small businesses and individual consumers should be able to engage in 'collective redress', making it easier for small claimants to take action by allowing a large number of small claims to be bundled together and brought to court by a third-party representative, such as a recognised consumer organisation.

However, to avoid what EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes terms "the potential excesses of the US system," such collective redress could not take the form of class-action lawsuits by individual law firms. 

EU Consumer Protection Commissioner Meglena Kuneva has also spoken out against the use of class-action lawsuits - viewed by many Europeans as aggressive and unscrupulous - as part of her plan to strengthen consumer rights (EURACTIV 12/11/07). 

  • Sectoral investigations

On 31 January 2008 the Commission announced its intention to carry out in-depth sectoral investigations in sectors "picked as risky in terms of malfunctioning for consumers" to identify the reasons behind the failures as part of its Consumer Market Watch process. If malfunctioning is confirmed, the Commission will propose appropriate corrective action (EURACTIV 01/02/08). 

The first sectors to be scrutinised are the retail financial services and insurance industries. The EU executive will also seek to identify barriers to cross-border sales of tradeable consumer goods, particularly via the Internet. Examples include cameras, CDs and books. 

  • Mobile phone roaming charges

The Commission's flagship  roaming regulation came into force on 1 August 2007 in time for the summer holidays, meaning holidaymakers had the EU executive to thank for being able to make cheaper calls home from the beach. 

Accompanied by a widespread publicity campaign, at the time it was dismissed by mobile phone operators as being driven by the EU executive's "populist agenda" (EURACTIV 23/05/07EURACTIV 08/06/07). 

  • Airline ticket sweep

On 8 May 2008, the Commission threatened airlines with legal action if their websites continue to "mislead and rip off" European consumers (EURACTIV 09/05/08). The announcement of the new measures, despite not being due to enter into force until the autumn, came ahead of the busy summer holiday season. 

The EU executive launched its first ' ticket sweep' in September 2007 to check that websites selling airline tickets are complying with European consumer protection laws, initial results of which were announced in November last year (EURACTIV 15/11/07). 

Indeed, presenting the results of another on-the-spot check of major airlines, Consumer Affairs Commissioner Meglena Kuneva announced in May 2009 that too many companies were still failing to comply with EU rules and called for the establishment of Europe-wide standards (EURACTIV 15/05/09). 

Kuneva's demand that the airline industry "put its house in order" serves as another example of the EU executive choosing to publicise a consumer-friendly policy at an opportune moment.

  • Product Safety Alert System  

EU citizens can also keep track of consumer safety developments courtesy of the Commission, which puts online weekly overviews of products identified as dangerous and the measures taken to deal with them as part of its rapid alert system for consumer products – known as  RAPEX

The EU executive also produces online video clips for its website giving details of particular consumer safety initiatives or warnings.  

Changing consumer behaviour

The Commission has also launched initiatives aimed at inspiring changes in consumer attitudes

  • Ecological consumption

The 'How can you control climate change?website is the Commission's attempt to encourage EU citizens to adopt environmentally-friendly lifestyles by means of a multimedia website providing practical tips on how to save energy and recycle. While primarily a citizens' advice site, it also provides information on how EU legislation itself is helping to combat climate change. This site's eye-catching, Flash-enhanced design differentiates it from the majority of the EU executive's webpages.

It also features quotes from popular culture figures like Michael Fish and KT Tunstall. 

A 40-second animated film called 'Climate Change Superheroes' asserts that "Everyone Can Save The Planet". It is set to music and features a series of characters going about their daily lives in an environmentally-friendly manner (by recycling drinks cans and switching the television off standby, to give two examples). 

EU communication tools:

The Commission is increasingly making use of the latest consumer marketing techniques and is applying them to its policymaking process by carrying out research to ascertain the expectations of EU citizens during the preparation of new initiatives.

  • Eurobarometer

The EU executive has been systematic in carrying out regular 'Eurobarometersurveys of its citizens to analyse public opinion since 1973. These monitor "the evolution of public opinion" in EU countries on issues like enlargement, the environment and the euro and thus help the EU executive with "the preparation of texts, decision-making and the evaluation of its work," it says. 

As well as testing the likely reaction to EU policy priorities, Eurobarometer surveys allow the Commission to justify its standpoint on any given proposal by claiming that their research shows public opinion is on their side.

  • Campaigns driven by PR agencies

In a drive to professionalise its communications further, the Commission is also increasingly resorting to external public relations (PR) agencies.

Asked when the EU executive began sub-contracting work to the private sector, Communications Commissioner Margot Wallström's spokesperson Joseph Hennon told EURACTIV that "it is a permanent thing" which "all DGs have done over the years," whether to help organise events or produce brochures, leaflets and other material.

"The amount of work the Commission sub-contracts [to external agencies] varies from DG to DG," he said, adding that the EU executive particularly works with actors in the member states "because they have the local knowledge and expertise".

Asked whether the EU executive is increasingly sub-contracting communications and other work to external PR agencies, Hennon told EURACTIV that "it is not necessarily increasing".  Instead the practice generally remains constant due to the repetitive nature of the EU executive's work, with many similar or identical events occurring each year, he explained, citing Green Week as an example. 

The Commission does not have the manpower to organise and promote events of that scale by itself, he continued, thus "it is only natural" that it should contract external assistance.  

In 2007, it launched a safer sex awareness campaign developed by a specialist public relations agency. Likewise the video communication for  Green Week 2008 , which took place between 3-6 June, was developed externally.

The Commission also calls upon PR companies to put together exhibition stands for events such as last April's Seafood Exhibition organised by DG Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

PR firms are also involved in the production of other campaigns, including the European Parliament's HIV/AIDS campaign  and a dedicated web TV channel  'EuroparlTV', to be launched in June. 

What's more, the European Parliament ran a climate change campaign, also developed by a PR firm, which took place on 4 May in Strasbourg and again on 7 June. 

  • Audiovisual strategy

The EU executive's audiovisual media strategy , launched by Commission Vice President Margot Wallström on 25 April 2008, seeks to engage EU citizens in debating EU policies and help the media to provide them with more information in this regard (EURACTIV 25/04/08). 

The strategy aims to "contribute to greater and more sustainable coverage of EU affairs," particularly by engaging more frequently with audiovisual media and ensuring there is more coverage of the EU institutions' activities on television. 

In the meantime, the Commission intends to "double" the content-providing capacity of EU information service  Europe by Satellite , commonly known as EbS. Wallström's initiative will also "encourage media professionals to devote more programmes to EU affairs". To counter Brussels commentators' claims that the EU news agenda is too "boring" to stimulate widespread public and media attention, the Commission will "encourage broadcasters to form and participate in European networks" and launch an EU events calendar. 

Meanwhile, on 7 March 2008, the 'EU Consumer Policy – Briefing for Senior Broadcast Editors' event held by DG Health and Consumer Protection in partnership with Mostra was an "open dialogue" to "help the EC understand how to create better communication tools that would entice the media to further communicate the EC's role" here, particularly by identifying "key TV programmes". 

The event also sought to "help the media learn how to capitalise on existing communication materials already at their disposal". 

Positions

"My weapon is communication," EU Consumers Commissioner Meglena Kuneva  told EURACTIV in a January 2009 interview, outlining her ambition to ensure that EU citizens know the law and know that legisation will be respected throughout the bloc. "If law is not implemented, it could create cynicism," she said. The commissioner wants to push consumers to become "experts", which would be a "source of consumer power".    

Describing Europe's 490 million consumers as "the key players" in the European economy, Kuneva pointed out that "their expenditure represents over half of the EU's gross domestic product" so they are "essential to economic growth and job creation". 

Kuneva said "consumers should be as confident about making purchases in other countries as they are at home" but there is nevertheless "an EU-wide lack of consumer confidence when it comes to cross-border shopping". 

Commission Vice President Margot Wallström, who is responsible for the EU's communication strategy, said "the need to communicate even more effectively became especially apparent in the aftermath of the French and Dutch 'no' to the Constitution". The EU executive's "new approach to European communication" connects with citizens "by going local" and "addressing people in their national or local settings using their favourite form of media," she added.

"There is a lot of good coming out of Brussels," says Gary LeihCEO of Ogilvy UK and president of the European Association of Communication Agencies (EACA). However, he believes the EU institutions could improve the way they put their message across to the public. "In the EU's case I think there is much greater scope for using advertising and communication generally to do powerfully good things." 

According to Leih, Brussels is not communicating "big enough and bold enough to actually make a difference". "The problem with institutionalised advertising [is that] it's safe, it's boring and it's politically motivated," he says. 

Leih is particularly critical of the way the Commission outsources its communications work to external PR agencies. "The protacted tendering process that the EU goes through [...] makes it almost impossible for mainstream ad agencies to tender," he says, meaning that "the projects invariably go to the same small bunch of Euro-specialists". "Until they find a way to open that up [...] they are going to end up with [...] mediocrity."   

Last summer the GSM Association (GSMA), which represents over 700 mobile operators around the world, claimed the Commission's roaming regulation was "designed to further a narrow, short-term and populist agenda". 

Likewise MEP Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), accused the EU institutions of staging a "giant publicity stunt" designed to increase the bloc's popularity. 

At the launch of the Consumer Market Watch process on 31 January 2008, Commissioner Kuneva described it as a "new tool to investigate markets from the consumer's point of view. We are searching for competition killers depriving consumers of best prices, distorting price, limiting choice and preventing switching".

At the time, European consumers' organisation BEUC  welcomed the Commission's "action to identify dysfunctioning markets" and offered its "members' help and expertise in gathering consumer complaints and other consumer data".

Timeline

  • 1973: First Eurobarometer survey.
  • 29 May 2005: Constitutional Treaty rejected by French voters.
  • 1 June 2005: Constitutional Treaty rejected by Dutch voters.  
  • 1 Aug. 2007Roaming regulation came into force.
  • Sept. 2007: Airline 'ticket sweep'.
  • 31 Jan. 2008: Commission launched 'Consumer Market Watch' process, including consumer market scoreboard.  
  • 15 March 2008European Consumer Day
  • 25 April 2008: Commission's new audiovisual media strategy launched. 
  • 4 May / 7 June: Climate change campaign in the European Parliament.
  • 12 June 2008:  Treaty of Lisbon rejected by Irish voters. 
  • Feb. 2009: Commission to publish second edition of its consumer market scoreboard.
  • May 2009: EU executive to 'name and shame' airlines that engage in "unfair commercial practices".
  • June 2009: Commission to present Communications on enforcement of consumer legislation and consumer complaints.
  • 4 June 2009: European Parliament elections.   
  • Oct. 2009: Possible second referendum on Lisbon Treaty in Ireland.

Further Reading

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