New MEPs seen embracing social media in ‘conversation age’

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The dawn of the “Conversation Age” will see more interaction between MEPs and stakeholders in the new legislature, public affairs bosses told EURACTIV, predicting that blogs and social media such as Facebook will become more influential in European politics.

“Simply looking at the rising number of MEPs using blogs and social media such as Facebook and Twitter, it is clear that the ‘Conversation Age’ is well upon us,” argues Laurent Chokoualé Datou, general manager of PR firm Edelman’s Brussels office. 

Chokoualé expects to see “significant developments” on this front over the next five years, predicting “far more interaction among stakeholders across borders,” with a growing number of “online, interactive opinion relays and coalitions all ultimately aiming and competing to shape the dominant opinion”. 

Warning that ‘brick and mortar lobbying’ must not ignore the power of social media, the PR boss says increased exposure and interactivity between stakeholders online means that trustworthiness and securing trust is becoming more important. 

Social media take-up low in Parliament

survey published ahead of the elections by PA consultancy Fleishman-Hillard found that compared to their US counterparts in Congress, MEPs are making scant use of the Internet and failing to fully grasp the potential of digital politics to engage with voters. 

Although three-quarters of MEPs use a website to reach their electorate, only half of them (51%) visit blogs once a week or more and an overwhelming two-thirds have never heard of the social networking tool Twitter, the survey found (EURACTIV 20/05/09). 

Michiel van Hulten, managing director for government relations at PA firm Burson-Marsteller, stressed the importance for stakeholders of an online presence in order to campaign effectively. 

“We live in an age in which people now spend more time behind their computers than they do behind their televisions or reading newspapers,” the BM boss explained, adding: “We get most of our information online, and that is increasingly where the debate takes place.” 

Nevertheless, some public affairs bosses were quick to highlight the continued relevance of newspapers and other traditional means of communication. 

“We still believe that traditional media remains important,” Fleishman-Hillard Europe Managing Director Caroline Wunnerlich told EURACTIV. “Getting your message across in a Sunday paper while MEPs are having their morning coffee and croissant is still difficult to beat,” she said. 

Likewise, for Jacques Lafitte of consultancy Avisa, despite the growing impact of specialised online media like EURACTIV, these are yet to replace “classic print media” such as the FT, the Economist and other large national newspapers when it comes to informing the public about EU affairs. 

Face-to-face meetings still key 

Other public affairs bosses stressed the continued importance of face-to-face meetings with clients. 

“Old and new media, including virtual communities, will increasingly be of interest for communication purposes, and laying the foundation of a campaign, but at the same time, nothing will replace the good old 30-minute face-to-face with the MEP,” according to José Lalloum, managing partner of Logos Public Affairs, a Brussels-based consultancy. 

“In order to really make a difference, you need to be innovative and unexpected, while delivering all the necessary basic components effectively,” like networking and event management, added Julia Harrison, managing partner at Brussels public affairs consultancy Blueprint partners. 

Stressing that “generalisation doesn’t work,” Harrison explained that “sometimes you really need to stand out, while on other occasions it’s better to be discrete”. “Everything depends on the specific needs of the client,” she said. 

MEPs are currently gathering in Strasbourg for the inaugural session of the new European Parliament (14-16 July). 

Nathalie Todd, public relations director with Ogilvy Group, Belgium, told EURACTIV that her company had organised a webinar in Brussels one week following the European elections, precisely on the use of online communications by political parties and MEP candidates. The findings, which concern several countries, clearly show that those political groups and movements who engaged in active debate with citizens online have obtained good electoral results. She cited as examples the Greens in several countries and the Swedish Pirate party.

However, the volume of online exchange in itself is not the key, as Libertas succeeded to create a buzz online, but failed to win a single MEP seat, Todd said.

"We can be sure that the new MEPs and above all their assistants will be much more used to new media than their predecessors," Georg Danell, managing partner in the Brussels office of PA firm Kreab Gavin Andersontold EURACTIV. 

"For their campaigns this time around, several MEPs used electronic and social media to communicate with their constituencies, so we think that agencies should take good note of this and continue using the media that the MEPs themselves chose," Danell added. 

"Pan-European media such as the FT, the BBC and Euronews are important, as are websites like EURACTIV. But most European politicians and civil servants also pay close attention to their national media, so an effective campaign often combines both," said Michiel van Hulten, managing director for government relations at PA firm Burson-Marsteller

"Brussels is becoming more important and you need to be present in order to make a difference. Brussels is the home of the world's largest press corps. Media work based in Brussels has a global outreach, and it is extremely important to interact with the correspondents and the media people within the EU institutions," Julia Harrison, managing partner at Brussels public affairs consultancy Blueprint Partners, told EURACTIV. 

"It is also important to note that EU correspondents are the EU experts within their media organisations, and by making sure they understand your point of view, you are able to influence many people for a comparatively small cost," she added. 

Acknowledging the continued important of traditional media, Caroline Wunnerlich, managing director at the Brussels office of consultancy Fleishman-Hillard Europe, nevertheless insisted that "most MEPs and their staff will increasingly consult online media to gather information on a topic". 

"And this is where our clients need to be – feeding information to the Brussels press corps, who will in turn inform their counterparts in the capitals to give your story a national slant," Wunnerlich added. 

"Communication channels such as blogs or social media have to be considered, if the issue has the chance to mobilise a large number of individuals easily and hence provide politicians with an opportunity to profile themselves," according to Elaine Cruikshanks, CEO of the Brussels arm of public affairs firm Hill and Knowlton

The newly-elected European Parliament is meeting for its first session in Strasbourg this week (14-16 July). 

The 2009 European elections, held simultaneously in 27 countries for the first time in history, ended in a clear victory for the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) and a defeat for the PES, or Party of European Socialists (see EURACTIV LinksDossier entitled '2009-2014: A centre-right European Parliament'). 

Ahead of the poll, European Commission officials expressed concern that Eurosceptics were doing better than most at leveraging new media to get their message out, calling on the EU institutions to improve their communications strategies (EURACTIV 28/04/09). 

  • 14-16 July: Inaugural session of the new European Parliament in Strasbourg. 

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