EU lawmakers to receive lessons in social media

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Members of the European Parliament are to attend courses on how to make the most of social media in a bid to improve their communication with citizens in their constituencies and beyond. The classes draw inspiration from a similar scheme carried out for French MPs recently. 

The four classes, organised by French centre-right MEP Damien Abad (European People's Party), will cover how to communicate with journalists and electors using applications such as Twitter and Facebook.

The course, dubbed 'MEP 2.0', will also deal with how to become a real interactive MEP by embracing lesser-known tools like Flickr, YouTube and DailyMotion. The final class will address the emergence of e-democracy under the title 'What is changing in politics?'

"MEPs' work is not really known, so this will raise awareness of it among citizens," said Abad, at the classes' launch event last week (7 October). 

Previous attempts to bring Europeans closer to EU policymaking by harnessing online communication tools have been slow to get off the ground, despite the European Parliament's Facebook page boasting 82,464 fans.

'Traditional media will become obsolete'

"We need to create a space where MEPs and citizens can interact directly," Greek MEP Rodi Kratsa-Tsagaropoulou, European Parliament vice-president in charge of communications, told the event.  

"Traditional media will become obsolete very rapidly. The European Parliament needs to adapt to this change very quickly if it wants to maintain contact with citizens," Ms. Kratsa warned, urging them to attend the workshops. 

Abad's decision to hold the workshops comes after a similar scheme held in France proved successful.

"200 senators and MPs in France have been participating in four workshops for a year. Constituents from all age groups were there, so politicians decided they had to be there too," said Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, French state secretary for developing the digital economy.

The state secretary identified lack of time, fear of becoming a target and the risk of it becoming a negative experience as the main obstacles preventing French MPs from embracing social media.

"But one of the advantages of social media is control. You don't have to answer to everyone and you can control what is on there. You can also take your time to answer," Kosciusko-Morizet said.

"If you have a Twitter or Facebook account, you can control time and not be held hostage by traditional media," she explained, describing a trip to the US in which she realised she had been photographed pregnant in time to post the news herself on her Twitter and Facebook accounts, rather than letting newspapers break the story.

Parliament 'arrogant' and 'difficult to understand'

French centre-right MEP Jean-Marie Cavada (European People's Party), however, believes the roots of the European Parliament's communication problems go much deeper.

"I'm critical of our own behaviour. We need to allow normal people to understand what's going on, even more so given our jargon. It is difficult to understand our texts," said Cavada, who chairs the EU assembly's media intergroup.

"The way the Parliament communicates after plenary sessions is arrogant and its positions are often a long way away from reflecting public opinion. We must not use language that hides our positions," the French MEP said.

Parliament Vice-President Kratsa agreed with Cavada that the language of EU affairs was technocratic, which she put down to the complex nature of the issues dealt with by Brussels policymakers.

"We also need the help of national policymakers to communicate what we're doing here: without that, citizens will never understand," she warned.

Cavada said the Parliament would have to be "simple, regular and accurate" in its communication if it wanted to break its overly institutional reputation: a problem that has existed "for over 30 years". 

'Be careful because you're talking to journalists'

Other MEPs warned of the potential pitfalls facing politicians who embrace social media.

Swedish MEP Åsa Westlund, who campaigned extensively on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr ahead of her election to the European Parliament in 2009 and claimed to have been elected thanks to her mobile phone, said "in Sweden democracy is online. All politicians are on Facebook and Twitter".

"But what people need to realise is that in [using social media] you are also communicating to the press. You’re not just talking to your constituents or your friends and family," she warned.

"Be careful because you're talking to journalists and things can go downhill very quickly if you make a mistake. Remember [if they quote you] they are just doing their job and participating in democracy like anyone else," Westlund said.

Personal touch key to creating interest

Kosciusko-Morizet was keen to warn that social networks only work for politicians if they have a "personal touch".

"If you get your colleagues to put your agenda or press releases on there, then it's old and obsolete, you'll look boring and only your assistant will be interested," she told MEPs.

"You need to develop your own style. You don't have to talk about your personal life, but show some professional emotion. Don't just say 'I went to this meeting', say how you felt about it," she explained.

It remains to be seen how many MEPs will attend the classes or what the outcome of the courses will be. The first lesson is set to take place on 10 November.

"On social networks you can observe for a while. Open an account, subscribe to a few RSS feeds and see what other people are doing first. Take some time to figure out what you would like to say. And never think that you’re alone with friends," advised Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, French state secretary for developing the digital economy.

Hailing the launch of the MEP 2.0 Workshops, European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek, who opened his own Twitter account in January (see 'Background'), said the courses would provide "a unique opportunity that we must seize to reconcile citizens with the EU".

"With Twitter and Facebook, we can reach out to citizens on an almost daily basis. Social media are a very serious opportunity that I urge MEPs to seize," said Buzek.

"Social media are a fun and informal way for MEPs to maintain contact with citizens," said Greek MEP Rodi Kratsa-Tsagaropoulou, European Parliament vice-president in charge of communications.

"These workshops will allow MEPs to use Web 2.0 tools efficiently," Ms. Kratsa said, adding: "MEPs need to give a political dimension to the issues raised on social media – this is what MEP 2.0 is all about."

Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), chair of a European Parliament intergroup on new media, claimed "dictators seem to have a better idea of the power of new media, because many young people are in prison for putting their views online".

"We need to look at how the EU institutions use the Internet. We should use the new tools as much as possible,” she urged, adding that "being an MEP 2.0 is about much more than just social media, it's also about transparency, access to information and accountability."

French political blogger Natacha Quester-Séméon said "40% of EU citizens will be using mobile Internet by 2014. The advertising market for mobile geo-locating services is expected to be worth €4 billion by 2014. Mobile phones put the user at the very centre of things".

"I don't necessarily want to know what my own MEP is doing all the time, but I'm interested in MEPs from other countries," she added.

Ahead of the last European elections in summer 2009, the European Parliament created profiles on online social media (Facebook, MySpace and Flickr) in an attempt to reach younger voters. 

However, the core message of the sites remained the date of the elections and the impact of the Parliament's decisions on the daily lives of Europeans. Little genuine two-way communication with politicians took place. 

Indeed, a survey published ahead of the poll by Fleishman-Hillard, a public affairs consultancy, found that while Congressmen on Capitol Hill are already tweeting with Americans across the United States, members of the European Parliament are still making scant use of social media and fail to fully grasp the potential of digital politics to engage with voters (EURACTIV 20/05/09). 

Last autumn, another survey carried out by StrategyOne and public affairs consultancy Edelman found that MEPs are lagging behind when it comes to online engagement with EU citizens (EURACTIV 10/11/09). 

At the beginning of the year, European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek launched his own Twitter account in a bid to better communicate with Europe's citizens, becoming the first president of the EU assembly to use the micro-blogging service (EURACTIV 22/01/10).

This summer it was announced that the Parliament was developing a new virtual role-playing game and social networking forum - Citzalia - to boost citizens' understanding of how the EU works. But critics predicted that the website would become an expensive "virtual ghost" with very few users. 

  • 10 Nov.: First course for MEPs.
  • 1 Dec.: Second course.
  • 26 Jan. 2011: Third course.
  • 23 March 2011: Fourth course. 

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