Talking politics

Different narratives can clarify or obscure developments in the European Union



The multiple nominations for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic at this year’s Oscars is a reminder of just how important – and popular – a role strong narratives play in the history of American politics.

For more recent evidence, consider these words from a speech by President Clinton given at a library dedication in 2004: “I grew up in the pre-television age, in a family of uneducated but smart, hard-working, caring storytellers. They taught me that everyone has a story. And that made politics intensely personal to me. It was about giving people better stories.” But what kinds of stories are told about the European Union? In a recent blog post for European Voice, its editor Tim King pondered the challenge thrown down to the EU by Spielberg’s film, which, as he points out, is “two and a half hours about the passage of a piece of legislation (the 13th amendment to the constitution). Meat and drink to the policy wonks of Brussels.” This issue of Communication Director focuses on communications in the political and public arenas, and so we decided to ask some key Brussels players about the kind of narratives taking place in and around European public affairs.

Speaking for yourself 

Karl-Josef Wasserhövel has personally experienced the power of media narrative in politics. When he was campaign manager for the Social Democratic Party of Germany in 2005 (for which he won the Politikaward for best campaign manager) and 2009, he tried to stay out of the media spotlight: “I didn’t want any coverage about myself on a personal level. I was convinced that the people, the issues and the candidate were the story.” Although he still thinks that this approach is “the right way to operate”, he concedes that, in his case, it didn’t work because “I left it to the media and political opponents to shape my image as a cold political operative without convictions. So in hindsight it would have been better to open up a little.” As he found out – in the same way that so many have found out before – the media has a habit of filling in the gaps with its own narrative, and political actors, just like their corporate counterparts, cannot afford to keep quiet (as Neil Corlett, spokesperson for the Alliance of Liberal Democrats for Europe explains elsewhere in this issue).

Opening up to journalists

This clash of competing narratives does not only centre on campaigning political players. Just look at the way the EU is covered in the media, where competing narratives vie for public attention. As head of Brussels operations for the European Journalism Centre, Valentina Bonaccorso has a front-row sat at the interaction between the media and EU institutions. She is critical of both the media coverage, which she characterises as “below average”, and of the way in which the EU tells its story to the world’s media, which she rates as “mediocre”. “Some EU officials tend to confuse providing factual information with propaganda,” she says, “and often insist to speak off-the-record to the press, neither of which help to make the headlines.” To improve matters, Valentina believes that the EU should open its doors wider to local or regional journalists, who are rarely invited to the exclusive breakfast or lunch meeting with the commissioners or other high level officials and also find themselves on the b-list for media trips and other training opportunities. Instead, she says, “adopting a ‘go-local’ attitude and targeting more specific audience groups would provide the smaller media outlets with a better basic knowledge of EU policies, thus reaching many more citizens.”

Aiming for clear communications

In her article in this issue, Chiara Valentini argues that the EU’s “polyphonic communications” creates confusion. Valentina Bonaccorso also believes that clarity is another key to better coverage of EU affairs, helping the layman understand the implications of policies that might otherwise seem remote or obscure. Clarity is also the secret to successfully campaign communications, according to Karl-Joseph Wasserhövel. A campaign should communicate “real solutions for real problems, delivered in a lively language by trustworthy humans. It is as simple as that.” But that simplicity is arrived at by hard work and by knowing “why you are running for office, what you want to do from day one when you are in power. If that is not crystal clear it is very likely that you waste time, money and energy.”

 Like Karl-Joseph Wasserhövel, Jon Worth, political blogger, associate fellow of the Institute for Public Policy Research, and an EU affairs expert, also puts the responsibility for quality coverage on political actors themselves. “I am very much of the view that good political communications come from good political communicators,” he says, “and those people have to be politicians or grassroots campaigners. I do not always agree with their views, but Commissioner Neelie Kroes, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Finnish Europe Minister Alexander Stubb are examples of how to communicate about EU politics online.”

Bursting the Brussels bubble

In this issue, Andreas Sandre of the Italian Embassy in Washington DC writes about the use of Twitter as a surprisingly effective diplomatic tool, and Bruno Kaufmann explains the growth of European Citizens Initiatives, a new online tool for participatory democracy. The opportunity presented by social media to burst the “Brussels bubble” and engage with a broader section of society is one that Jon Worth himself is familiar with. He is responsible for one of the longest-running blogs about EU affairs, and celebrates the fact that “social media has changed the dialogue among these people in the bubble – the civil servants, MEPs, journalists, academics and lobbyists – and has broken down the bubble‘s physical limitations, because thanks to social media you do not have to be based in Brussels to follow what happens on an everyday basis.” However, he finds that, with the exception of a few high-profile communications such as President Barroso’s State of the European Union speech of September last year that became a worldwide trending topic on Twitter, “social media have had a negligible impact on bringing more people into everyday contact with EU politics. This should also be seen against the backdrop of declining trust in national politics at the same time as the boom in social media.”

Innovative messages

However, where Jon sees social media’s strength is in connecting individual stories to a broader political narrative. As recent examples, he picks out two Twitter hashtags, #EverdaySexism and #Aufschrei, which collated experiences of sexism in everyday circumstances to push for political and social change. Beyond social media, other examples of successful communications in the public sphere suggested by our interviewees include the campaign for gay marriage, “where I think that some excellent communication about fairness, equality and happiness has had an important part to play” (according to Michael Burrell, vice chairman of European public affairs at APCO Worldwide) and the EU’s latest airline pollution law, which Valentina Bonaccorso praises for its “compact and straightforward approach.”

Another example of a direct and clear message, though controversial to many, finding its way into the arena of European public affairs was the Atheist Bus Campaign, created by comedy writer Ariane Sherine and Jon Worth, who describes it on his blog as “the biggest thing I’ve ever done, and may prove to be the biggest thing I ever will do.” Launched in October 2008 with the slogan “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”, the campaign’s success suggests that Europe’s great public affairs stories - the stories that really reflect the concerns of European citizens - are maybe being written outside the walls of EU institutions. As Jon told Communication Director, “The tremendous reaction to the campaign showed that we had found a way for people to express themselves that they otherwise had not had before. Had the idea been born within a traditional organisation it would never have happened – levels of committees would have killed the idea – but the British Humanist Association was ready to take a risk on a half baked campaign cooked up by a blogger and a journalist. How many organisations would be so open to ideas I wonder?”

Consultants speak up

Other stories, of course, take place off the streets and behind closed doors. “Is the EU beholden to lobbyists?” asks a headline on the website of German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, reflecting popular suspicion about the degree of influence interest groups have on EU legislation. Do European public affairs professionals do enough to explain their role to outside observers and engage other parties in the dialogue about transparency and accountability? In addition to his role at APCO Worldwide, Michael Burrell is also chair of the Association of Professional Political Consultants, the self-regulatory body for UK public affairs professionals in the consultancy sector and long-standing proponents of a statutory register for all those who lobby professionally. According to him, “We tend to be far better at helping our clients to make a case than we are at promoting and defending our own industry – but in tough times it shouldn’t be surprising that people’s first priority is to make a living.” In their article in this issue, Elma Peters and Hugh Gillanders of GE explain their approach to public affairs and “influencing the influencers”.

Leveraging the Nobel peace prize

Perhaps what every story needs is a framing device to give it context; last year, such a device was offered by the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to the EU. The Norwegian Nobel Committee said its decision was based on the stabilising role the EU has played in transforming most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace. Most of us enjoy seeing awards handed out to individuals in recognition of their good work (back to the Oscars again): more than a satisfying footnote to their biographies, it gives the narrative of their careers a satisfying point of culmination. But when an amorphous mass such as the EU wins an award, reactions are mixed. Critics said the award was unadvised, pointing out that the eurozone crisis has exposed deep divisions in the 27-nation bloc. And what should the Union actually do with the award, lacking as it does a mantelpiece to rest it on?

Jon Worth underlines the award’s recognition of the achievement of peace for post-war Europe, and hopes that the award “might be a spur for a more united EU foreign policy as well.” Valentina Bonnacorso remembers feeling on the day the award was announced that “for once, everybody was more European on that day. I believe that we should have that feeling more often”; she would like to see the EU mark their win with a public holiday for all EU citizens on May 9 (or Schuman Day, an official holiday for employees of the EU institutions). While Karl-Joseph Wasserhövel “doesn’t think that there is much in” the award, he does concede that “From the outside, from Asia, Africa and Latin America, Europe seems to be an island of peace and prosperity. We have to raise the awareness that our generation is in danger of taking all these important things for granted.”