Social media fatigue in Brussels

Not long ago, Brussels was wildly excited about the potential of social media, from two perspectives:

  1. Social media = EU saviour: proponents of the EU construct believed that social media could help bridge the divide between member states and Brussels, connect citizens and the institutions, and generally make the EU more visible, democratic and transparent.
  2. Social media = Public Affairs tool extraordinaire: organisations operating in policy-land believed they had a wealth of new options at their disposal, whether they were looking to reach out to policy-makers, build coalitions, or generally raise visibility and momentum around issues that mattered to them.

In both respects, we’re experiencing social media fatigue, as even the most ardent enthusiasts are appreciating that social media is no silver bullet without the right building blocks. Meaning what?

Social media ≠ EU saviour

The EU is dull: it remains uninteresting to many because it’s distant and deals with issues that most people don’t care about. Tax, education and healthcare are more interesting than REACH and fish.

The constitution debacle and now Eurozone has dealt a massive reputational blow: the fact that EU enthusiasts often seem to not care much invariably fuels accusations of it being elitist and undemocratic.

Leadership and communications: many leaders and others responsible for communicating Brussels to the world frequently struggle to articulate its significance without coming across as – again – elitist, pompous and/or uninteresting (some, not all!)

The piñata effect: given that the EU leadership and those responsible for communications don’t articulate their activities and raison d’etre especially well, they’re an easy target for national level politicians, media and others wanting to pin the blame for everything – rightly or wrongly – on Brussels.

Language: last but not least, we may now have channels that allow for instant, barrier-free communications, but we don’t all understand each other.

Conclusion in short: the building blocks aren’t right i.e. if we don’t have the right people saying interesting and relevant things, to the right people, at the right time, in the right tone, who cares if we have shiny social media channels at our disposal?

NB: Mathew has written about EU communication and social media in far more detail and quality than I have here – have a look at his blog if you’re interested in this topic (although he’s stopped blogging for now).  

Social media ≠ Public Affairs tool extraordinaire

Organisations often aren’t allowed to say anything interesting: when talking to policy audiences, or audiences that are affected by policy, it helps to be permitted to talk about policy. Sometimes the lawyers, or company and/or industry culture won’t allow it.

Public affairs functions within organisations often have no strategic communications capability: they operate in a policy silo, blissfully unaware of the fact that communications (on or offline) can actually be pretty effective when done well. Net result: limited use of data, analysis and measurement, and thus poorly targeted and ineffective output.

Structure and resources: linked to the previous point, organisations may think communications is fab but simply don’t have the right organisational structure, people or outside support to conduct it well.

Organisations sometimes really don’t have anything interesting to say: sometimes there’s a lull when no particular dossiers affect an organisation and they have nothing remotely interesting to say that would interest policy audiences (NB: this is only the case with utterly uncontroversial industries, of which there are only a few e.g. if the Financial Services industry had nothing on going at the moment – utterly hypothetical of course – they’d still have lots to do to mend their reputation and thus to communicate).

Conclusion in short: again, although some digital PA is very good, the building blocks often aren’t right  i.e. as above, if we don’t have the right people saying interesting and relevant things, to the right people, at the right time, in the right tone, who cares if we have shiny social media channels at our disposal?


2 thoughts on “Social media fatigue in Brussels”

  1. I think you are all underestimating the value of the EU institutions learning to listen and learn from social media feedback. It doesn’t happen overnight, but we can’t all be Obama, can we?

    1. Hi Anne, thanks for your comment.

      You’re right, and I do slightly regret the tone of my post. I often cite success stories (Steve Clark and team, Neelie Kroes and team, Marietje Schaake etc.) and I know the Commission’s social media team has done good stuff (and given the recent posts on Waltzing Matilda, appears to be focusing heavily on content strategy, which appears from a distance to be a good move).

      I guess mine was more a critique of people who thought social media was going to be the communications equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat and now scoff and say “we knew all along it wouldn’t work!” because it hasn’t transformed everything overnight.

      I.e. without sound content strategy, proper roles and responsibility, data analysis and insights, as with most communications, it’s not going to work especially well. In the EU’s case, it’s even harder given some of the inherent realities, such as the fact that much of what it does isn’t super exciting, the pinata effect and the language issue.

      I guess mine is more a plea on 2 fronts, both for the EU and corporate crowds: let’s be realistic about this AND let’s go about it professionally.


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