Can Europe Make It?

The EU’s PR problem

As a media trainer and committed European I despair that an organisation as valuable as the EU is too timid to employ the basic principles of good communication.

Laura Shields
9 December 2013
Is there a life after pictures of flags? Flickr/EP. Some rights reserved.

Is there a life after pictures of flags? Flickr/EP. Some rights reserved.

The EU has an image problem. It is not a little problem it is a big one. So big that the UK may leave what has been one of the most successful instances of multinational cooperation in the history of the planet. The perception and reality are a very long way apart. Why?

A lot of the discussion about the EU’s image problem focuses on the framing issue i.e. the way in which the EU and Member States talk about their relationship to one another.

Previous articles on openDemocracy and other blogs have thoughtfully explored whether the EU should be presented (framed) as an international or national issue in the UK and whether the EU should present itself as a club of friends, talking partners or a club of self-interested members who don’t always get along but know they’re better off together.

I think such arguments can be useful but miss the blindingly obvious.

The vast majority of those in favour of the European Union ignore or are unable to enforce all the known rules of professional PR. At the same time those against the Union apply all these rules and win the PR battle hands down. Top of the league table for berating the EU in a way guaranteed to catch headlines is Nigel Farage. 

So here is my list of what is needed to win the support of Eurosceptics in the UK and elsewhere.

We need a campaign

To use the management jargon someone needs to own the problem. Much like the Democrats in the US, the various factions of the Pro-EU lobby should get their act together and form a single joint body to promote the benefits and vision of the EU. It needs to be fulltime, permanent and professional. (And, before you ask, no, the EU can’t do this role).

Find the champions

There needs to be a trained and supported group of champions who can talk with passion and credibility about what the EU does and why it matters. And by champions I mean amateur advocates, not professionals who speak for the EU as part of their job. This wider pool should not really come from Brussels but rather from the Member States - and there should be a concerted campaign to get them regular national media columns and broadcast slots. The reason why Nigel Farage has been on Question Time more than any other UK party leader over the past five years is not because the BBC has a pro-UKIP bias but because it has a pro-good-TV bias. And Farage at his best is great TV. The Pro Camp should spend less time worrying about why he gets as much air time as he does and more on finding someone who can take him on in his own language but with more substance.

Seek diversity

When sourcing these good spokespeople, there should be fewer middle aged white men in grey suits doing the talking… and more women and under-40s. And there should definitely be fewer photos of said grey men performing staged handshakes in front of EU flags and more pictures of real or metaphorical hugs. It is interesting to note that the image of Catherine Ashton and John Kerry hugging at the end of the Iran nuclear talks was so effective because it was intimate and spontaneous.

And, given that trust in politicians seems to be at record lows across most of Europe, we also need to hear from people outside politics and the various big business lobby groups. Scientists and artists should be enrolled as Champions, and why not sports people and small entrepreneurs as well?

Sell the vision

I know I am not the only one who is turned off by endless self-interested arguments about immigration and jobs. I think we are badly in need of some passionate articulation of why being in this club matters in terms of values as well as benefits. This is partly what the framing argument aims to tackle but we don’t really have time to wait for a whole values system to be developed. 

Find the stories

Story telling is at the centre of all good PR campaigns. Someone needs to find the stories and disseminate them properly. Here is one for starters. An acquaintance recently told me about a Joint Research Centre (the EU’s in-house science service) project which was looking into certain types of disease that are too rare to produce a meaningful cluster in any single European country. However, through the JRC’s work, scientists were able to pull together enough cases from across the EU to form a comprehensive research sample. That is a real benefit to humanity as well as those of us living in EU states. It needs to get the right kind of coverage other than being consigned to a case study library on a website no one knows about.

The same approach could equally apply to the Erasmus programme, the environment, humanitarian aid, food security or any other area where ordinary Europeans can say why being in a group for this kind of activity makes life better. 

We need a joker

Furthermore, although the Member States have often avoided putting charismatic leaders into senior Brussels jobs, there is definitely a case to be made for some kind of licensed in-house rebel (in the UK this would have been John Prescott under Tony Blair) with a very good sense of humour who could help diffuse some of the defensiveness which often underpins the EU’s response to attacks.

Bad practice has to be called out

When something goes wrong all PR people know your most useful phrase is ‘absolutely unaccceptable’. It is crucial that an organisation states publicly when its own behavior does not live up to its standards. 

For example, if a Commission report on corruption within one Member State’s judicial system is published, someone who holds an official post has to say it’s not acceptable in clear, colloquial language. In the past Brussels has skirted around a lot of these issues because it’s worried about ruffling feathers among the Member States. (It has also suffered from a lack of good speakers at Commissioner level). The problem is that in some cases it seems to be giving the green light to a range of dubious behaviours, which makes it hard to legitimately defend itself over unfair or untrue criticism. And this plays right into the hands of the Eurosceptics.

This doesn’t mean the Commission has to flagellate itself on a regular basis but it does mean manning up and being more critical of itself and others when required.

Ditch the jargon

Finally, as with so many institutions, the EU often struggles to get beyond a jargon. It is awash with phrases and concepts that mean nothing to most people outside Brussels. To name a few: cohesion, structural funds, solidarity or smart specialization strategies. None of these roll off the tongue or translate into word pictures that can easily be used by journalists.

This is no small problem. Those who work in EU institutions tell me what a huge challenge it is to get press releases agreed and translated into multiple languages, without having to de-jargon them as well. And I sympathise: it must be a nightmare. But, given that language and bureaucracy is such a challenge and given that journalists often say they don’t have time to read the 100+ press releases they get a day, perhaps it’s time for a re-think of how communications materials work? Fewer texts and written materials would save time, energy (in all senses) and translation headaches - and getting the visuals right would make EU communications products more concrete and shareable.

There we have eight simple PR principles, which are currently not being used. As a media trainer and committed European I despair that an organisation as valuable as the EU is too timid to employ the basic principles of good communication.

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