EP elections: parties get your acts together!

parliament~_mothershi_101bI’m not an expert on the minutiae of European politics – for more in-depth analysis of the elections I’d recommend proper Euroblogs like Julien Frisch, The European Citizen, Nosemonkey and Grahnlaw – but there’s one “layman’s” observation I would make.

Low turnouts and the success of a number of unsavoury fringe parties (as well as the failure of the centre-left to make up ground on the centre-right despite the financial crisis “gift”) is likely going to be blamed in some smug quarters on a cynical media and stupid and/or gullible voters. Or if not that, on the fact that voters have become too individualistic to care about serious politics and wider community matters.

But what about the failure of many mainstream parties – especially those on the centre-left – to offer voters a real sense that they offer a helping hand in trying times? I think that’s far more critical. Sure, the media may be a tad cynical, but have entire electorates suddenly gone dim-witted? Hardly. Have we all turned into materialistic egomaniacs? Maybe, but I doubt charity donations would be at an all time high if that were so. Perhaps it’s fair to say that it’s not an easy time to be a political party. People don’t vote along party lines like they used to (largely because social class does not matter much anymore in political terms) while there aren’t that many issues on which parties can really stand out seeing as they all pretty much straddle the middle ground.

Nonetheless, it’s certainly the case that plenty of Europeans feel utterly estranged from political parties . What should they do about it? For a start, try to be more representative and not appear so detached; be less dismissive and most of all to be more communicative. It means surveying constituents and acting on results. And as an advocate for all things online, I’d say more than anything it means members of parties communicating online directly with their constituents and making it an absolute priority to engage in daily dialogue even if it takes up a sizable chunk of working hours.

And if that fails? More proportional representation and direct democracy perhaps, but that opens up a whole new kettle of fish.

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MEPs online: survey

Fleishman-Hillard published the results of their EP Digital Trends Survey earlier this week, exploring European Parliamentarians’ use of the web from two perspectives: first, their own actual outgoing communications; and second, their use of the web as a research and learning tool.

The figure which most stood out for me is that 93% of MEPs use search engines every day. That many of these then go on to claim they do not read blogs doesn’t really matter. I doubt many would discard a good blog that appears top of the search rankings (maybe they wouldn’t even identify it as a blog..?) Further proof (as if any were needed) that organisations should make good quality online content (and a search strategy) core elements of their communications.

Some observations on other findings in the report:

  • “62% of MEPs have either never heard of Twitter or have no plans to use it” – Wonder if any respondents both said they’d never heard of it AND thus wouldn’t dream of using it. Hope not.
  • “80% of MEPs believe websites to be either very effective or effective in communicating to voters, making websites as effective as one-on-one meetings” – So 1 in 5 still don’t think websites work? Not surprising, but I had hoped this might have been more like 1 in 20. I’ll always remember the MEP who last year told me that he “didn’t believe in the Internet” but I thought the Obama effect would have changed that sort of attitude to a greater extent.
  • “51% of MEPs believe blogging or micro-blogging to be very effective or effective in communicating to voters” – Considering how alien blogging still is to many, this is a good figure. Hope it’ll be more like 90% come 2014. Communicating in you own voice directly to your constituents, for free, whenever you want and wherever you have an Internet connection? What’s not to love?

Social media and customer service: would it work with issues?

I’ve been reading about how social media is transforming customer service for a while now (came across this article on Econsultancy about this very topic today) and am wondering to what extent the same approach is viable when it comes to regulatory issues and the like in Brussels.

Here’s the gist of how social media has been impacting customer service:

  1. Disgruntled customer complains about a company’s product on Twitter (or whatever.)
  2. Company has a social media monitoring set-up and picks it up.
  3. Company responds to customer in blog comment, directly, on Twitter etc. in calm and measured way, apologising and offering a solution of some sort.
  4. Customer is happy, says so, others who have followed conversation are impressed.

Is this a lot of work on just one customer? It might not have been in the past because people’s word of mouth networks were limited, but now, individuals can potentially reach millions of other online users, so listening and responding to single customers can have a massive positive knock-on effect. A company that is seen to be engaging and looking out for its customers becomes highly valued and the story can spread online. Plus if bad reviews are simply left to fester they too can spread untouched and even reach the top of search rankings so that people who search for a company or its products online might come across a blog entry slating it amongst the first few items. Bottom line is it’s good for the company.

What if the same approach were adopted by companies and other organisations who communicate on issues in Brussels or elsewhere? Online conversations are increasingly shaping public opinion and it’s the job of good communicators to tap into them and try to help to shape and shift the debate. What if, say, company X produces “nasty chemical Y” which people are writing about on Twitter or their blogs, expressing concern, and company X were to respond saying something along the lines of: “We accept and understand your concern. We’re trying to do our bit. The University of Z has issued a report which relates to your concern. Might be of interest? Here’s the link.”

It’s tricky, but I think it could be work as part of a long-term strategy aimed at tapping into the right conversations, nipping concerns at the bud, and slowly shifting the debate online.

However, I’d make sure the following guidelines were adopted and scrupulouslty adhered to:

  • Humility at all times!
  • Don’t use corporate gobbledygook but communicate like you would with a normal person.
  • Always keep in mind that what you say might spread, so make sure it’s appropriate to multiple audiences.
  • If you’re providing material, try to use third-party content whenever possible: far more credible than your pretty brochure.
  • Don’t interact with nutjobs. For some individuals and in particular single-issue pressure groups, their issue goes beyond concern for people and the environment etc. It’s an obsession and they’ll never ever be convinced by your arguments. If you try to communicate with them directly they might use it against you in some way. Do interact with people who are concerned but don’t have all the facts.
  • Be proactive as well as reactive: make it part of broader social media approach i.e. don’t just, say, respond on Twitter to people who are concerned about your issue, but also communicate independently. Otherwise it’ll just look like damage limitation rather than serious engagement.

Learning from Obama: Labour and Tories online

Thomas Gensemer, a consultant who worked on Barack Obama’s online strategy during his campaign for the Presidency, talks about Labour’s and the Tories’ online offerings in this short clip.

The two key elements to take away are:

  1. The need to be authentic and have something to say: it’s not about the technology (it never is) but how it allows you to share a message or contribute to a conversation. This is a lesson for anyone engaging in political, advocacy and other communications online: don’t do Twitter (or whatever) because everyone else is on it; do it if you’ve got something interesting to share, can fit it within your wider communications and remain coherent, and appear eager and honest (let others be the judge of this).
  2. Limited focus on mobilisation of activists and other supporters. The Obama campaign worked because it made it really easy for people to create, share and spread material; to find and arrange events, and so on. This got people excited and provided the Obama campaign with scores of highly active volunteers. However, Labour and the Tories still aren’t making it really easy for their supporters to engage and get involved. As Gensemer puts it: it isn’t easy to find “5 things to do” on the sites, although all the elements are there somewhere. They should be the centrepieces of the sites however, not an afterthought.

Obama: not losing the online momentum

white-house-site4 Yet another Obama and the web post. Zzzzzzz. Many apologies, but the subject matter is too good to let go.

Much has been said about the positioning of the blog on the White House website. It’s right there, in first place in the first submenu (see image). It’s nothing more than a symbolic gesture however as the blog only informs and does not do what a “real” blog does (engagement via comments or trackbacks, references to other blogs etc.) And I understand that: their blog is for information purposes only; the White House can’t suddenly start blogging as if they were a political commentator, it’d be ridiculous, inappropriate, totally out of their remit, time-consuming and bound to get out of hand.

No, what really shows that the Obama administration gets the web is what’s still going on on barackobama.com. In addition to an exceptional candidate, the success of the campaign for the Presidency was based on two factors which were both web-enabled: 1) mammoth donations; and 2) mobilisation of supporters.

The latter is still taking place via the site, as people can meet likeminded supporters, organise events, find events near them, all via the site. That’s what makes it special: it’s not the fancy web gimmicks, it’s the grassroots mobilisation on the ground that’s being enabled simply by making the logistics easier. Seems basic, but it’s pretty revolutionary in a sense: everyone had assumed that people were too busy and politically apathetic to engage in participatory politics, but that was plain wrong – all they needed was a leader to rally around and the organisational aspect taken care of somewhat.

What’s more, the Democrats are now being far-sighted enough to build on the momentum from the campaign by keeping it going rather than resting on their laurels. Good for them.

Obamamania

I probably shouldn’t be writing about Obama: my expertise lies elsewhere and so much has been written already (460,000 posts mentioning Obama in the last day, according to Google Blog Search). But sod it, I’m as excited as the next person and it’s my blog.

Some thoughts:

  • I liked the slip-ups when he was being sworn in: saying “I Barack Hussein Obama…” a little too soon and then stalling a few moments later. Being so accustomed to the impeccable delivery and unwavering confidence, it was refreshing and endearing to see him be so nervous.
  • Great that he highlighted science in his speech following 8 years in which it’s been maligned.
  • His constant references to the founding fathers is interesting. I guess he does it for a number of reasons: it’s an effective rhetorical device that gets people proud and excited, the founding fathers are revered and he wants to portray himself as an heir, and it sets the bar for the changes he wants to bring about. And perhaps because it “americanises” him in the eyes of the oddballs who don’t think he’s American enough? Why do European politicians hardly ever mention their countries’ glorious past and ancestors? Some reasons might be a political culture that’s a little less sensationalist, a more cynical electorate, and too many instances in most countries’ histories that can’t really be omitted but that nobody wants to talk about, so it’s best to just ignore history all-together.
  • There’s been lots of talk of sky-high expectations and the impossibility of solving all the problems in Obama’s “IN tray”. The insinuation being that many will be disappointed when Obama doesn’t manage to bring peace to the Middle East, solve the financial crisis, and reverse global warming in his first month in office. I’m not so sure. First, people aren’t dumb: they understand the extent of the troubles we’re facing. Second, he’s got so much goodwill to spare. Third, the nature of the man and his style is such that I doubt much blame will be able to stick: he’s surrounded himself with the best and the brightest, he’s a pragmatist, and he’s non-partisan. Combined I think it’ll mean that once it becomes apparent that he isn’t solving all the world’s ills in his lunch-break, most people’s response will be that he’s doing OK, and probably better than anyone else could, given the circumstances.
  • No post on Obama is complete without a reference to the web (in particular when the blogger in question works in online communications). As reported on Public Affairs 2.0, the first post on the new White House blog appeared at 12.01 last night! The implicit message being: we still take this web stuff seriously.

The automotive industry and the importance of embracing change

I caught a few minutes of a show on TV this afternoon (sorry, no reference) comparing the state of the US and Japanese automotive industries and tracing it back to 1993, when Al Gore led a government-funded initiative to develop environmentally friendlier cars. During the Clinton administration, $1.5 billion was poured into this initiative, but American car manufactures opposed it very strongly throughout and set the following conditions:

  • It would be entirely government-funded
  • They did not have to produce anything, simply show that they’d done the research

In the end, shock horror, nothing came of it: they did some research but continued to focus most of their attention and production on very profitable, petrol-guzzling SUVs and pick-up trucks. However, Japanese manufacturers, Honda and Toyota in particular, were a lot more concerned by Gore’s initiative, assuming (correctly, as it turns out) that this was only the start of a process of government demanding that industry start paying heed to environmental concerns. Without any government funding whatsoever, they conducted their own research into developing cars that were less damaging to the environment, resulting in the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid, while GM et al. carried on churning out their SUVs.

Fast-forward fifteen years, and the state of affairs couldn’t be more different. The credit crunch has hit, oil prices are fluctuating wildly, and many citizens are concerned about climate change and want to do their bit. Combined result? GM, Ford and Chrysler may go bust, while Toyota and Honda and holding up reasonably well, and certainly have a lot more sympathisers than the US behemoths. If they manage to survive, the US manufacturers are now clearly going to have to start playing catch-up and they’ll be cursing themselves for not grasping the opportunity back in the stable 90s, when they had the time and resources to develop both the relevant products and the goodwill of consumers.

Lesson? Yet again, that industry (not just automotive) should stop thinking that concerns regarding the environment (or health for that matter) are a passing fad that will go away. Rather than being opposed to radical change, industry should study societal developments and try to be one step ahead of the game by accepting that there is a price to pay and trying to be part of the solution. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it invariably turns out to be commercially viable down the line. Just look at Toyota and Honda.