How is the European Parliament (EP) using digital media to become more open and responsive to its electors? I spoke recently with Steve Clark, head of the EP’s web communication unit, about the pioneering work they have been doing over the last few years and their plans looking ahead to the next European elections in 2014.
The European Parliament made a giant leap into the world of social media in the run up to the 2009 European elections, setting up accounts on virtually all of the major platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Myspace and Flickr. Since then, it has consolidated its social media presence and become the parliamentary body with the biggest Facebook following in the world.
The 2008 Obama campaign was clearly a big source of inspiration, and the EP communications team has exchanged experiences with several of the movers and shakers in the US web community. However, Steve points out that the way that digital media were used during the 2008 US Presidential elections (mobilising local support, fund-raising …) were not directly relevant for an institution like the EP. But the US experience certainly helped to build awareness at the highest political and administrative levels of the EP about the potential impact of digital media and the importance of developing a “digital mindset” in order to exploit that potential.
Digital media are fundamentally changing the role of communication staff in the EP, because “people are now talking back” (Steve mentioned the recent lobbying around the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement as one example). Online communication in the EP is now as much about receiving as sending messages, with staff becoming “gatekeepers” who help to mediate this two way information flow. The job of a communication officer in an institution like the EP is evolving from the creation to the curation of content.
Apart from the changes to the EP’s corporate communication, Steve argues that we are witnessing a change in the very nature of representative democracy at the European level, because of the way Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have taken to social media to build links with online constituencies. These conversations on Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other platforms represent the emergence of an embryonic online public sphere at the European level. Watch the video to see Steve’s analysis of the way MEPs like Marietje Schaake are using social media.
On average, 1000-1500 posts are made each day on different social media platforms concerning issues relating to the EP. A “news hub” was launched in early July to aggregate these interactions and allow users to filter by language, country, political group, individual MEP and theme.
I asked Steve about the plans for the 2014 European elections. He revealed that more refined monitoring and targeted messaging are likely to be a major focus. For the 2009 elections, the EP pre-selected a series of key themes that were intended to get across the importance of participating in the elections. In 2014, the EP (working largely through its national offices) is planning to follow a more responsive approach by monitoring and tapping into local and niche online conversations.
Steve Clark is the co-author (together with former EP Secretary General Julian Priestley) of an excellent book entitled ‘Europe’s Parliament: People, Places, Politics’. The book features a chapter that analyses the complex factors that lie behind the EU’s “communication gap” and describes the 2009 European election communication strategy.