Putting the social back in social media

Cementing the role of social media in EU policy-making

Social media needs to be an integral part of any communication strategy, but too many people rely on it for just for broadcasting their message instead of truly engaging.

Digital communications can offer EU public affairs professionals much more by being proactive, listening, and responding better. My intervention at the recent “How now brown cow: pronouncing it right in digital talk” seminar, co-organised by g+ (Europe) and the European Association of Communication Directors, concluded that we need to put the “social” back in social media. By being genuine and engaging in two-way discussions, social media can have a much more meaningful role in EU policy-making.

Digital technologies have revolutionised the way we communicate and how we interact with governments and politicians in a relatively short period of time. When I joined Twitter in April 2009, there were whispers in the corridors of the European Parliament that social media could be a useful tool for the European elections later that year and forward-looking advisors were suggesting that their MEPs should set up a profile.

The European Parliament created profiles on Facebook, MySpace and Flickr in order to better reach citizens and especially first time voters. Fast forward five years and Twitter users mentioned the hashtag #EP2014 over a million times during the four-day elections for the members of the current European Parliament. This social media revolution clearly has a huge impact and potential for EU communication professionals and the transformations keep on coming.

"We believe that digital communication channels can bring the EU closer to people...  A strong digital presence will help us be more relevant, coherent and transparent while giving the institution a more human face."

This quote taken from the European Commission’s vision for digital transformation in 2013 is a response to the increasing demand from Europeans to interact directly with politicians and EU decision-makers. Since this first official response, people are becoming more connected and more demanding online and the European Union has attempted to keep pace.

Take a look at the plethora of Twitter and Facebook chats that are hosted by European commissioners and MEPs, and more recently the #MyMoneyEU campaign, which aims to crowd source real life experiences of when using financial or insurance services within the EU. Perhaps most interestingly, the website notes that entries will also be considered in the context of the formal consultation on this subject launched on 10 December 2015. To my knowledge this is the first use of social media towards real participatory democracy for the EU.

Examples like this show that the EU is continuously looking at new ways to use social media to listen as well as broadcast. But I still think we could all do more.

Time to share the love

Brussels is well accustomed to networking events. In many ways, real engagement on social media only differs slightly from how to work the room at a networking reception. Nobody would go to an event and speak exclusively about themselves and their work, but rather the richness of networking comes from listening, gaining insights and making the right connections that can help you further your business in the long-term. In the same vein, you would not go to a networking event to collect as many business cards as possible and leave. The same can be said for social media where the number of followers will not necessarily measure your social media success.

A simple way to engage more and listen better on social media is to include social media monitoring in your social media strategy. Not only will this help you to keep track of what customers, clients, voters or competitors are saying about you, it will also allow you to identify the influencers that you should make an extra effort to engage with. Let us not forget that being aware of what is likely to cause your audience to engage (click, like, comment, share – or conversely hide or report content) will also help you create posts that have higher weight and affinity and hence a successful social media strategy.

Personal versus official accounts

Any organisation wanting to get their voice heard in Brussels has to be present on social media today. Indeed Fleishman Hillard's Brett Kobie predicts that 2016 will see an increasing number of global brands creating EU policy focused Twitter handles. But these official channels can also be supported by personal/individual social media channels.

"Any organisation wanting to get their voice heard in Brussels has to be present on social media today."

A human face often breaks down barriers for interaction and can add that much needed human element to the content being shared by the official account by giving it a face and not just a logo. While it is clear that social guidelines and guidance must be in place, employees who express their personal opinions create online credibility and transparency for no or little budget. Moreover, brand ambassadors or digitally engaged workforces may be better placed to engage in conversations with other people and journalists - both online and offline. Last but not least, these personal accounts may be a contributing factor in beating the social media algorithms, which often favour individuals over companies.

Winning votes by being human

Turning back to the start of my article and the use of more personal social media accounts by politicians, the role of increasing political engagement and electoral participation as a result of the rise in social media is neither clear nor simple. A Pew Research Center survey from 2014 revealed that 35% of Americans follow political candidates on social media because it makes them feel more personally connected. More data needs to be collected and analysed in Europe to reach any clear conclusions, but I am sure that more genuine and personal interactions between EU politicians and Europeans would make social media enjoyable and mutually beneficial.

To win over voters and to keep their trust, politicians must be willing to use social media the way voters do. This translates to European Commissioners, Members of the European Parliament and representatives in the European Committee of the Regions taking a more personal approach, making EU communication more human and listening more. But, I would argue this is not only for politicians. Developing authentic quality content and engaging in the debates that surround it should be a priority for every organisation in the private or public sector.

"To win over voters and to keep their trust, politicians must be willing to use social media the way voters do."

In the EPP Group in the Committee of the Regions, we are trying to put a face to EU policy-making through our pilot series of #OntheSpot interviews. In each clip, a rapporteur explains his/her personal interest and expertise in that specific topic and why EU action in this field is relevant to the local community. By encouraging the politicians to share these short clips – in their own language – on social media (YouTube, Twitter and Facebook), the Group aims to get the EU message out of Brussels and to disseminate it at regional level, whist also making it personal and easy to relate to.

Next time it will be even more different

The popularity of social media is also linked to the possibility to directly target specific audiences. As highlighted during the How Now Brown Cow seminar, politicians will increasingly use modern technology and social media to speak directly about the issues that matter to voters triggering a subconscious 'goosebump factor'.

This ability to obtain and use data to communicate directly with voters on the issues that matter to them will have a far greater impact if politicians are already actively engaged with their voters and have established a credible relationship. More interactivity and listening on social media in Brussels would be a good step in this direction.

Katie spoke about this subject on December 10 2015 in Brussels at a Regional Debate by the European Association of Communication Directors (EACD) in Brussels. To find out about future EACD events in your area, visit the Association's events calender here.

Image: Thinkstock

Katie Owens

Katie Owens is a communications official with more than a decade of experience working in the public communication sector, working for both the European Commission and  the EPP Group in the European Committee of the Regions. She wrote this article in her personal capacity and as such the views expressed are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of her employer. Coordinator for the EACD Working Group on European Institutions, Katie is a member of the EuroPCom advisory board and organises regular #EUTweetUp events.