Thoughts on the Brussels blogosphere debate

The debate around the Brussels’ blogosphere has tended to centre on the relative lack of good quality blogs, especially within the policy realm. Over the last couple of weeks, the debate, spearheaded by Ron Patz and elaborated by others such as Bruegel, has been about the shortage of interaction within the Brussels blogosphere, especially the paltry number of links that eurobloggers seem to include to each other in their posts.

My (very belated) two pence worth:

Obviously, the premise is correct: when a blogger engages on subject matter that is being debated more widely, they should aim to reference and respond as far as possible. However, at the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, looking at the  Bloggingportal.eu Editor’s Choice posts, it appears that a fair number of the bloggers in question wrote in isolation i.e. on topics which were not being debated very widely in other euroblogs at that moment in time. Not always, but often.

In a sense, the “Brussels” or “EU” blogosphere is irrelevent to many eurobloggers. Given the nature of the beast, people’s core area of interest is often a specific issue or policy area, say energy, ICT, financial services and so forth. Generalists who work across various sectors or even just regular citizens interested in the EU, but not a specific issue or policy area per se, are relatively limited. So rather than the Brussels blogosphere, their real interest is a niche e.g. the EU energy stakeholders’ blogoshere, the EU ICT stakeholders’ blogoshere etc.

Ideally, this is where the national-EU factor should come into play: creating communities that connect national and EU-level niches on specific issues or policies is where we want to go, but it’s fair to say we’re not quite there yet. The language conundrum and the splendid isolation which the Brussels bubble has grown accustomed to play a part and I for one admit candidly that I should make more of an effort to connect Brussels based clients looking to engage online with players in the national sphere.

Ultimately, although many bloggers should no doubt make more of an effort to avoid operating in splendid isolation, the issue of critical mass is no doubt rearing its head. Sure, there are a fair few euroblogs in absolute terms (+900 on Blogginportal) but within each niche, there may only be a handful that hit the sweet-spot i.e. regular, relevant, good quality posts (and in a language others understand!) I’d candidly admit that as a blogger I don’t link enough, but arguably I fall into a niche as well i.e. Brussels, the practice of Public Affairs and digital comms is an odd mix and not widely debated (an excuse on par with “my dog ate my homework..?”)

Is this state of affairs indicative of the failure of the EU blogosphere? Hardly. I know purists will disagree vehemently, but there’s still room for well written blogs even if they don’t connect to a wider blogosphere especially well: if the relevance and quality of content in a blog means it is read and appreciated by lots of people who matter, then that’s a good first step. “Then it’s just a website,” I hear. Not really, the nature of the blog allows for greater flexibility of style and formats i.e. short post vs. long post, reference vs. original content, more personal vs. less personal and so forth.

Where will we be ten years from now? My somewhat rosy vision is as follows. The EU blogosphere for generalists will probably still be whinging about the lack of an EU blogosphere for generalists, as the EU as a general construct will still not have captured the public imagination. More critical mass overall will have resulted in niches interested in EU related stuff, such as specific policy areas, accruing critical mass too: the EU blogosphere will be larger, but it will be made up of lots of smaller communities i.e. the EU energy stakeholders’ blogosphere etc. that are more connected than at present, and yes, link to each other more so than at present.

And the EU itself? It’ll be part of the mix, but at niche level i.e. Commission officials who work on energy related stuff will be part of the EU energy stakeholders’ blogosphere and so forth. Communications generalists at the EU will no longer communicate on behalf of the EU, but will merely act as evangelists and advisers to the subject matter experts, who themselves will be doing the communicating.

Brussels policy blogging: don’t bother if…

There’s a real shortage of blogs that deal with a specific policy area, written by experts in that same area operating in Brussels. Given this dearth, given that policy-makers use the web to inform themselves on policy issues, that a blog is a highly flexible medium that allows for anything from a short two-liner to a full-on analysis, that a blog can allow for an ongoing narrative that no other medium could allow for, lots of organisations trying to communicate their views on a variety of issues are losing out by relying only on tried and tested position papers, meetings and the like (I’ve previously written about the reasons for the shortage of policy blogs in Brussels over on Public Affairs 2.0 – if you click through, I recommend that you read the comments too.)

Still, some blogs do get launched, and in this post, rather than argue for more policy blogs, I’d like to make another point, possibly born out of the frustration at seeing a number of valiant efforts fail. Despite the undoubted value of blogging – if done well – don’t even bother if:

  • You aren’t allowed to talk about anything interesting (or don’t want to, or can’t legally do so.) You work on topical and/or contentious issues and have views, so EXPRESS THEM: that’s what people care about. Blogging about your CEO’s pet CSR initiative and about how useful your product or service is a waste of time. It’s not going to “educate policy-makers and their influencers” – it’s going to make them never ever visit your blog again.
  • No one can really be bothered to write. Blogging sounds like a good idea, you sort of see the value, but you sure as hell aren’t going to write; nor are any of your colleagues. A blog needs to be fed regularly and requires an author (or authors) who are real people and who represent the organisation. Yes it’s an effort; yes it’s a commitment. If you see it as an add-on which your agency can run for you, don’t bother.
  • You’re going to write in a vacuum. A blog offers an opportunity to connect to other people and sources. Whether you just link through to lots of good 3rd party content, or even better, connect to others writing about the same issues in Brussels or (more likely) at national level by linking to their content, you’ll add credibility to your blog, drive traffic and hopefully even build relationships. Just writing about your own stuff is a wasted opportunity.
  • You aren’t going to market it properly. Don’t think people will magically show up. Sure, good content is the clincher, but you need to constantly promote your blog. That can mean anything from advertising to SEO to everyone within the organisation simply just referring to it whenever they can.

How many organisations actually have the will and flexibility to avoid all of the above? Sadly, not that many (unless they’re facing a crisis.)

“Social media is all very well but should we not first make sure our website is up to scratch?”

I’ve heard this uttered a few times now, and to be blunt, I strongly disagree with the premise. Sure, your website should be decent, but ignoring social media because your website is ugly (or whatever else denotes a bad website) represents one of those cardinal communications sins that people are all to eager to forgive in the Internet age: being channel-centric rather than goal and audience-centric.

Off the top of my head, here are two hypotheses:

1. You’re a trade association: your site is ugly AND you’re feeling the pinch on one of your five core issues

  • The issue is making news in Brussels and beyond.
  • You have lots to say on it: your side of the story is excellent; you’ve got plenty of third party support.
  • As a key player on the issue, you know many people in Brussels are going to be interested in your position.

What would you do:

  1. Not have one because your site’s a mess and it’d be too time-consuming to fix?
  2. Add more content on your ugly site in the one section out of five that’s important now?
  3. Have a strategy that includes: a far from ugly blog in which you publish the output from your content strategy and traffic driving tactics to ensure that anyone looking up you or the issue finds it?

2. You’re a company: your site is ugly AND you’ve invented a brilliant energy efficient product that will revolutionise your industry

  • You want to let a variety of government bodies know how much more efficient your product is and get them on your side.
  • However, the government bodies aren’t paying attention because everyone seems fine with the status quo.
  • You figure you need to drum up support and apply pressure from below: you think you can do it with the help of lots of eager product champions within and outside your company.

What would you do:

  1. Not have one because your site’s ugly?
  2. Fix your ugly site and until then try to drum up support without a web presence?
  3. Develop great content featuring your product champions (video, ideally) and have a detailed, attractive page on a social networking platform where you know the vast majority of your audience will be (Facebook?) on which you feature the content and engage with potential or real supporters?

Moral of the story? Don’t get me wrong, in many cases, unless you have something specific to be talking about, it’d be odd to have a really good blog and a dire website if you know your audiences are looking up both. BUT, in terms of channels, there’s no right or wrong order to how you build up your web presence i.e. we must have a nice site, then we can blog, then we can tweet. Do what’s right for you, for your circumstances, and for your audiences, always.

Engaging with bloggers: start with a humble caveat

To anyone dipping a toe in the blogosphere for the first time, the one thing I’d advise above anything is humility. Meaning what? If you’re not 100% sure what to expect but you’re keen to give it a go, lay down a massive caveat when you start. Something along the lines of: “I’m just getting started, I’m not sure what to expect, I might make mistakes, bear with me, please feel free to offer me some advice along the way.” You may still screw up here or there, but you’ll be forgiven.

Policy blogging in Brussels: more of it please

I wrote a post on Fleishman-Hillard’s Public Affairs 2.0 blog last week on the shortage of policy-specific blogs in Brussels. My point in short was this: plenty of good quality blogs are being written about the EU at large which cover a wide array of issues and often result in decent conversations. Movers and shakers in Brussels read these blogs, and yet the scores of organisations present here whose remit is to engage with policy makers and other stakeholders on issues key to their sectors are virtually non-existent in the blogosphere. Why?! They’ll write position papers, engage in face-to-face meetings, develop alliances, work with the media, and yet they won’t blog. What a wasted opportunity to present their views in an ongoing narrative, engage with other stakeholders and build relationships, all while showcasing people in the most open and transparent medium imaginable rather than just presenting a faceless organisation through the same age-old tactics.

Anyway, no point in paraphrasing the post when you can read it here (note the good comments too.) Further comments very welcome (here or on PA 2.0.)

Thou shalt not speak funny… Instead, write like Bono and you’ll be fine

I met Kattebel at the recent Web2EU event and she remarked on my recent post in which I state that communicators tend to write in an “over-the-top, pompous, formulaic manner.” A real no-go on the web in particular.

She (rightly!) said that I should perhaps have given some pointers on how to best write for the web rather than merely criticise others for being dull. Instead of producing a list I’ll do so by pointing to a post I found amongst long-lost items I have saved on Delicious: click here to read it. It’s a dazzling tribute to how to best write for the web (although it probably wasn’t really written for the web specifically, but never mind.) Love it: personal, from the heart, direct and honest (and by Bono no less.) OK sure, most people would get the boot if they were to adopt his style on their company blogs, but you get the gist.

p.s. Looking through some of my own posts, I found a few in which I touch upon best practice for producing content for the web. Not quite Bono-like but hopefully helpful to someone out there:

What to do about angry commenting trolls: ignore them

“Too many voices, too much scattered, illogical, ill-considered criticism.”  Written in 1920 by F. Scott Fitzgerald about literary critics (a million apologies for the snooty literary reference.) How would the great man have felt about trolls who seem to spend their lives visiting websites and blogs that don’t moderate to write irate and often irrational comments? They’re everywhere. My favourite news-site – http://www.guardian.co.uk – has a great section for non-affiliated bloggers called Comment is Free, but you’ll be hard pressed to find smart back-and-forth between informed readers in the comments following any article about politics, global warming or what have you. Instead, you’ll largely find angry right-wingers spouting bile rather than offering constructive remarks. Even my own humble blog got the works last year in response to a rather innocuous post about the quality of Nespresso coffee: highly recommended for a laugh (the comments, not the post.)

In my line of work, this issue props up all the time. We’re always talking about the value of two-way conversations and how it has revolutionised the world of comms and the nature of how organisations and politicians are expected to engage; but then clients rightly ask questions along the lines of… Are trolls not compromising conversation? Are moderates in search of conversation getting crowded out? And most of all… Do negative comments by angry sociopaths not reflect badly on our organisation?

Now this may not be entirely de-rigeur but my recommendation tends to be that organisations should be quite selective in terms of moderation. Plenty of social media “experts” will claim that you need to be completely open and let everything through because it’s transparent and democratic; what’s more, it’s supposedly a reflection of public opinion and so organisations should just accept it. I totally disagree. Take Comment is Free. I’d say at least 70% of the comments are angry and written by staunch right-wingers. That doesn’t reflect public opinion anywhere! The angry and the slightly dysfunctional are always going to make more noise and letting them all through the door will kill debate.

So what’d I do? Frankly, what most smart organisations have chosen to do: “moderate in moderation.” Have a strict code of conduct that clearly states what you will and will not permit but do allow for plenty of criticism as long as it’s in full sentences and constructive. In that case an organisation has a chance to hear about real concerns and perhaps even do something about them; and they’ll be able to respond with their side of the story and build relationships with supporters and critics alike without being crowded out by trolls. The essence of online engagement.

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Loving the blog

Yes I love it, but not because it can give a face to a stand-offish organisation, humanise it, make it more approachable and the rest of them ol’ chestnuts. These are the very positive byproducts, but the real root of why blogging is brilliant lies in the flexibility it offers.

Length: Five lines or a hundred? Doesn’t matter: in a blog you can do either and not cause a stir.

Frequency: Every day or once a month? Doesn’t matter. You’re not pushing your content – your readers choose whether they want to receive it, so you can publish as often as you like. In fact, the more the better (within reason.)

Type: Short post leading to content somewhere else or a fairly long analytical piece? Both are fine.

Am I stating the bleeding obvious? Yes, but the bleeding obvious often isn’t apparent to most organisations’ communications teams, who are in the business of winning over hearts and minds. And it’s a real loss. As they fritter away valuable resources on conferences and white papers, little do they know that a steady stream of all sorts of content in a blog is both easier to produce than the rigid and linear articles or press releases they’re allowed to publish once in a while – and often more effective.

A simple post mentioning the eminent professor who backs their position and leading to his white paper which they didn’t spend a penny on? Five morose paragraphs written on a rainy day which really cut to the core of the author’s passion for his/her sector? A full-on analytical piece? All are allowed in a blog – nowhere else is that the case.

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Hypocrite? Almost but not quite

Before this post, I hadn’t blogged for two weeks; and looking at my output over the last few months, it’s been pretty infrequent and not especially inspiring stuff by and large (not that I’m by any means claiming to have written super inspirational stuff on a regular basis before then, but you get the gist.) Why is that? 60 hour weeks and plenty of travel, in short. Problem is, I HATE that excuse. So f’ing what if I’m working hard? A post can be ten lines long. I could blog while I travel, I could get up 2o minutes earlier in the morning and write a post or likewise go to bed 20 minutes later. That’s where I’m a hypocrite. I frequently tell clients who claim that they just don’t have the time and resources to engage online that they DO have the time: if they value its importance and what it can do for them, surely they can add a half hour here or there into their oh so busy schedules. And if they really can’t, sleep a little less, cancel the game of golf, or – heaven forbid – cut a meeting short.

That’s where I’m not quite a hypocrite: I don’t have as much control of my agenda as most clients do as it’s they who populate it (and I don’t play golf!) so I can’t as easily give myself a slot to write a post. Although I could sleep a little less and not read while travelling… Guess it’s not just about time: the long hours make you value the spare time you do manage to muster and the last thing you want to do when you have a moment to yourself is to draft a blog post.

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