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
A 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).