The European Union is becoming more savvy in its communication efforts and is finally managing to put the you into EU.
Thursday 14 November 2013
Sluggish growth, high unemployment, scant interest in EU developments, and Brussels perceived as a cold, distant place filled with bureaucrats who won’t or can’t tell you what’s going on in words that anyone understands … Sound familiar? But watch out, things are changing. There are signs that the eurocrats are beginning to understand that citizens want better information; not dumbed down necessarily, just prepared, presented and distributed in smarter ways, such as through films, social media and apps.
I work for a communications agency which produces ‘information products’ in various formats and media, and I’ve seen some positives developments in the past few years. There are less “I have to see what my hierarchy thinks about this” moments and more “That sounds great but can we cut down the jargon even more” statements coming from the meeting rooms of the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time because 46% of Europeans are generally pessimistic about the future of the EU, with 11% of those saying they are ‘very pessimistic’, according to Eurostat data.
What’s more, 20 years after the birth of EU citizenship, Europeans still don’t know what this means in reality – 81% of respondents know that they are EU citizens on top of their own nationality, but only 36% feel well informed about the rights that EU citizenship entails. And less than a quarter considers themselves knowledgeable about what to do if their European rights are not respected.
They know about their rights to free movement (88%), to petition EU institutions (89%), and about non-discrimination on the basis of nationality (82%), but little else, and not in much detail, either. That’s a bit of a worry in this, the European Year of Citizens.
“Europeans value their rights as EU citizens and are more aware of them than ever before,” commented Vice-President Viviane Reding, the EU’s Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship earlier in the year. “Yet, there is still more we can do to help citizens use their rights and to better engage people in the European Union’s decision-making.”
This communication gap applies to a whole host of activities where the EU plays an important role. Citizens may well value the contribution but don’t appreciate what the EU does to make it happen. For example, more than 70% of Europeans think EU-funded research will become more important in the future, and 57% think scientists should put more effort into communicating their work more widely. Europeans overwhelmingly recognise the benefits and importance of science but many also express fears over risks from new technologies and the power that knowledge gives to scientists.
“These results show a very high awareness of the importance of science,” commented Research, Innovation and Science Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn when the results came out a couple of years ago. “But they also show that both politicians – like me – and scientists themselves need to explain better what we are doing and why.”
A few years ago, I worked on a project which showcased EU-funded projects working in ICT research. The client at the Commission was a breath of fresh air. He came straight out of industry and his response to our concerns about approval systems if we were to produce a regular weekly flow of stories was clear. If the projects are happy with the texts, he didn’t want to be a bottleneck, he said.
It was one of the first examples of someone prepared to just let us get on with it, who trusted the professionals to do the job well. The news service was a great success, with many of the stories that we wrote appearing or subsequently mentioned in major tech magazines, websites and daily newspapers.
At the time, this was an exceptional approach by a public official, but with every year that passes there are more and more ‘natural-born’ communicators in the Commission like him, people who know what they want or at least what questions to ask agencies to get what they want. And with the advent of social media, and video as a relatively cheap and accessible format to get their message out, the Commission has found a willing ally in companies like mine to produce and manage content for social media, short video news releases and, increasingly, animated films.
We’ve developed a number of clever little films to explain even the most sensitive and, well, potentially boring subjects to a wider audience. Imagine a film aimed at the wider European population on the EU’s ‘trade defence’ actions; for instance, how it responds when countries try to dump low-priced goods on European markets which harm local business. We also did a film to show what the EU does internationally to keep trade between nations open and fair. The client was very open to our ideas and equally adamant that it had to be as jargon-free as possible. The tables had really turned.
For nearly a decade before that, we had been trying to produce content that people would relate to, but inevitably the ideas got lost in the bureaucracy or edited into Euro-speak. The results of that perhaps speak for themselves in the level of disenfranchisement being shown by EU citizens.
Today, we are working on or about to finish several funky whiteboard-style ‘live-drawing’ animations which I couldn’t have imagined writing scripts for the Commission five years ago. We’re putting the final touches on an animation to help describe the EU’s new approach to regional funding and innovation, called ‘smart specialisation’. Without giving too much away; Hans Christian Andersen would enjoy the film, and it was largely an idea that came from the client! What’s more, his bosses loved the idea and really embraced the fun and simple language it uses to explain quite a complex programme.
Don’t believe me, take a look at some of the work we’ve done for the Commission lately! I do believe that this brave new approach is a sign that the EU is starting to get that it needs to touch base with Europeans in modern, simple and, perhaps above all, ‘real’ communication.
More examples are available at www.esn.eu