Yesterday I participated in the European Digital Advocacy Summit, an event organised by the Public Affairs Council. I suppose it was meant to function as an inspirational kick-off event for public affairs professionals (lobbyists) who we’re thinking of using online/social media as part of their tool box. In any case there was a lively Twitter discussion which you can find by searching for the hashtag #EDAS2014.
I was on the first panel in the morning after the keynote speech and even though I’d been asked to speak about European Ombudsman business I decided to frame my 10 minutes introduction a little differently, while still talking about an issue the Ombudsman holds dearly. Below are my notes, re-worked into a more prosaic version. For veterans in EU social media, this will be trivia, but maybe others will find it useful.
To quickly recap who the heck I am, I arrived in Brussels as a Blue Book Trainee in 2008. I was a trainee with the central Commission web team that runs the Europa.eu website. I kind of just stayed on after that, and was lucky to get a temporary post there and I started the Social Media Team with Bert Van Maele and other great people. When my contract ran out in 2012 I joined the EU Ombudsman’s office. I decided to move back to Denmark for personal reasons in the spring of this year and will start working for the Poul Due Jensen Foundation on 1 July.
When we started experimenting with social media at the Commission in 2009-10 it quickly became clear that we were moving into a grey zone in communication. This showed itself in the difficulties rising with regards to
official communication vs individual opinions (control of messages). We were of the opinion that it was a golden opportunity to humanise EU communication if more civil servants would engage in conversations, while within the higher echelons there was fear of loss of control (in our view it was already lost) resulting in a cacaphony of voices.
So we saw an immediate need for staff training but also to educate upwards to create understanding and get the top endorsement needed for our colleagues to jump in and test the water.
We chose among other things to create a network across DGs and representations of people who would understand social media and become local specialists that would help push their own services in a more digitally friendly direction. We organised meetings and trainings for both Brussels-based colleagues across DGs but also for our local colleagues in the representations and for spokespersons and their press officers and in some cases even commissioners.
We agreed that there would probably be a cacophony of voices, but there are limits to which meaningful conversations you can have with the central EU web team about technical issues such as regional policy or fisheries, so the idea was that policy experts in time would also be taking part in conversations online as part of their work. Something which is indeed the case today in a service like DG Connect or ECHO, maybe less so in DG trade. We had to change the culture from the inside.
In the beginning, we looked especially to the UK and US, where public sector engagement online was a lot more ahead, and where civil servants were encouraged to participate and talk about work related issues. There were clear but positive instructions for staff conduct online, and something very important was to be transparent about who you were and the purpose of your participation in a given conversation. Some of the advice given were:
– be honest
– contribute where you can
– be polite and constructive
– be a civil servant
So we put together our policies and training programmes with such values in mind. EU staff wishing to also participate online in work related conversations should not hide their job but state it clearly when participating in fora or write it on their profile. It shouldn’t be hidden whose agenda you are working for. Most of us are interested in very specific issues and since the EU charter states that we are an open and transparent administration, it is of no use to act as if we were guarding trade secrets.
And this is a point I would like to promote to all of you who seek to influence conversations about EU policy: that transparency should be something you take very seriously, also when engaging in online conversations. But at the same time you should try to accept and embrace that there is a cacaphony of voices out there, with niche discussions your colleagues and co-workers could participate in – given the right training and a clear mandate.
You should not necessarily stick to one corporate account on Twitter, but also individually seek out the interesting conversations where they are and try to find the relevant people to connect with. You should not hide who you are, who you work for and which agendas you work to promote.
You should use social media to create relations and contribute to relevant conversations – to establish yourselves as trusted voices within those conversations. But there is no need to try and hide your motives, your professional affiliations or the interests you work to promote.
People will find out anyway, so better be up front about it 🙂