Go where your audience is: what EU communicators can learn from local citizen engagement initiatives at EuropCom

This is a guest post by Aurélie Valtat, who chaired a workshop on “E-ambassadors: Engaging citizens in a digital world” at the Europcom conference on 18 October 2012.  Aurélie has been managing the digital communication strategy of the Council of the European Union since 2011. Before joining the European institutions, she was online communications manager at EUROCONTROL, where she demonstrated that social media can transform an institution’s engagement with citizens, in particular in times of crisis. She is also the President of IABC Belgium, the Belgian chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators, and one of the leading voices in the EU blogosphere.  Thanks for sharing your thoughts here on the European Union 2.0 blog, Aurélie!

I had the pleasure of moderating a workshop on “E-ambassadors: Engaging citizens in a digital world” at EuropCom this week, the largest European conference bringing together local, national and EU public communicators.

I shared the floor with four speakers, three of which had a local experience to share, and one university professor, so overall the workshop was a good balance between case studies and exploring more theoretical challenges of online citizen engagement. Here are some good ideas and reflections from the workshop.

Managing expectations from both citizens and government authorities

One of the main lessons of the case studies presented was that it is very important to make sure citizens understand what’s in it for them when they engage with public authorities and what they can expect from this engagement. Announcing upfront how many days it takes to get a response, telling citizens how exactly their input will be used in the policy-making process, and being transparent about all the elements of engagement with citizens is crucial to ensure that trust and motivation remain high.

Too often however, we tend to forget the government side of this equation. E-participation government newbies tend to believe that the more people participate, the more legitimate the result. But what really matters according to our speakers is quality, not quantity. As such, democratic representativity should not be the primary goal of public communicators in these initiatives. As one speaker recalled, participatory democracy will never replace representative democracy, but rather complement it. Today maybe, but what about tomorrow?

Steffen Albrecht from Zebralog (@Zebralog on Twitter) who presented online participatory budgeting initiatives in Germany, stated that if 1-5% of the citizens participated in a constructive way in a co-created budget exercise, it was already a success. This was questioned by workshop participants, but another speaker, Carles Agusti i Hernandez from the City of Barcelona, confirmed that when citizens engage with public authorities, 95% of the output from citizens is of a trivial nature, and only around 5% of the input really contributes to moving the proposal forward.

It seems this view is also shared by EU communicators experienced in stakeholder engagement, and reminded me of the digital engagement campaign for the EU Digital Agenda.

Finding the right mix between offline and online initiatives

It was very interesting to note that all the local communicators taking the floor made a case for mixing offline and online engagement opportunities for citizens, thereby avoiding any questions from the floor about a possible digital divide. It was good to hear this, even though I am personally convinced that the two environments have different things to offer, and thus should not be used mirroring each other, but rather complementing each other.

There was a good question from the audience about people who are afraid of voicing their opinions publicly and how to engage these. It seems that e-participation is here the ideal tool, allowing for anonymous contributions to be posted. But can true civic engagement be anonymous? My views on this topic have evolved from a clear-cut no to a more nuanced approach, especially since the advent of social media and online civic change movements such as Change.org and Anonymous (in their own special way).

To explore more on the above two topics, read this excellent paper on Promising practices in online engagement by the American non-profit Public Agenda.

Leveraging citizen communicators

E-participation initiatives presented at this EuropCom workshop explored the possibilities of controlled engagement, but what about civic engagement on uncontrolled media? Angel Crespo Herrero from the University of Cantabria in Spain, presented some examples of controlled and uncontrolled online place branding. The most notorious and controversial example was certainly the Sweden Twitter account, handed over every week by the Swedish Institute to a Swedish citizen.

Electronic word of mouth, or eWOM for acronym lovers, is a promising new marketing field, which is difficult for public administrations to leverage, because it involves loss of control. The speakers shared some useful tips to overcome this impression of loss and be more efficient (and I add a few ideas here too):

  • monitor and listen to lovers AND haters of your brand;
  • develop recovery strategies to turn enemies into advocates (expensive, but very effective if you manage to achieve this);
  • turn your staff and customers into brand ambassadors (make this real, not just by stating it, but by offering tools and training for them). Starbucks and Zappos are well-known examples of companies with great brand ambassadors.
  • address criticism in a way that will make your response go viral and overshadow the original criticism. A great example of that is in the recent Bodyform video response to an angry Facebook fan.

The million-dollar questions

With Xavier Crouan from the Ile-de-France region, the debate took a more philosophical turn. He mixed examples of regional open data initiatives with reflections on the sociological impact of social networks on our way of communicating as government officials. I was really hooked when he shared his view that public administrations, contrary to private businesses, can be more audacious in a crisis context when it comes to addressing citizen needs. This, of course, if they work together with associations and non-profits in a co-creation mode.

Some questions, including some posted on Twitter by workshop participants, were left unanswered, and the answers to those would actually make the lives of EU communicators much easier:

  • How to engage online with citizens speaking many different languages?
  • How to go where the citizens are – the most effective approach to citizen engagement, online AND offline- when you work across several countries?
  • How to create and spur intergovernmental emulation in online citizen engagement? Several examples of this already exist in the field of open data with the Open Government Partnership i.a.?
  • How to better educate citizens to understand the added value of co-creation, knowledge-sharing and e-participation?

Any answers to these questions using concrete examples or case studies are most welcome, as are any thoughts on the above reflections. It was nice to have a panel of speakers who built a consistent picture of how citizen engagement can enrich and build trust in government work, sending a clear signal that you have to go where the people are, whether townhall or online community.

Online conversations during the workshop can be tracked using the hashtag #europcom on Twitter.

Read more

If you want to explore the topic from a more seminal approach, must-reads include:


Filed under Digital media, EU

11 responses to “Go where your audience is: what EU communicators can learn from local citizen engagement initiatives at EuropCom

  1. And what do you do when they don’t come to the conversation? Is it that Public authorities have for too long been accustomed to being the center of media attention when required.

    “What’s in it for them when they engage with public authorities” Are we fully aware that public authorities as to why they should be more engaging towards citizens?
    Citizen engagement across social channels is proving far more challenging and dealing with a lack of relevancy can be disheartening. Yes, authorities are the first to take a step forward for engagement, but probably should take two step backwards and then one step forward before going ahead. At the end of the day isn’t it the government and public authorities engagement which should enrich citizen’s work and lives and not the other way around?

  2. Great post, Aurélie (and sharp guest blogger selection, Tony). However, I still miss the fundamental principle that social media communication should deliver value to citizens — useful information, practical support, and clear, honest answers to questions. Applied consistently, such an approach can dramatically shift online and offline perception of a public body, as you demonstrated at Eurocontrol. But if the social media activities of public bodies are guided by the objective of ‘getting our messages across’ they will only confirm their reputation as remote, out of touch and irrelevant. The view of social media as a new, cut-price alternative to billboard advertising was too prevalent at EuroPCom 2012, and needs to be challenged by communication professionals.

  3. Millie

    Great, great, great post! I work for the United Nations in Montenegro, and we’re just brainstorming on how to conduct solid consultations on post-2015 sustainable development goals in a way that brings those voices from the fringes of the network to the center, the voices not traditionally heard much less represented in a dialogue. This post offers some great tips! Thx for sharing again.

  4. I disagree in the barrier between online and offline. Nowadays, what can be considered online activity, and what offline. And this difference will be even more blur in the future -or coming months-. This goes in the same line what some of the bloggers interviewed for my Master Thesis pointed out as well. When we, or an institution, think tank, association, NGO, etc, designs a campaign to communicate with citizens, it does not matter what field we take, if offline (street campaign) or oflline (website), it will go without any doubt to the other side.

    Regarding language. Well, it is one of the main problems why a transnational European Public Sphere did not emerged (yet). One of the bloggers said that we should make English lingua franca. I am not for that, but made me think that it might work in some sense: from laguage to English, and from English to other language. It very complex, but I have some ideas in mind I could develop in the future.

    PS: If you find any answer to the questions you posted, let me know 😛

  5. Thanks for the interesting comments, Simon, blogcyeu, Millie and Javier!
    Just to clarify on some of your thoughts:
    – the e-participation perspective offered at the conference went far beyond just social media, it even involves moving away from social media which is creating a discrimination for those not on it. Sorry if that didn’t come through clearly in my blogpost.
    – I agree with blogcyeu that the core of the problem is re-enchanting citizen engagement and civic participation, but that can only come if citizens regain trust in government, and this is only possible today through greater involvement of citizens in public policy development… A classic conundrum, yes 🙂
    – personally I agree with you that the distinction offline/online is an artificial one, but we are NOT representative of the overall population, too young, too geeky. Therefore, to avoid any digital divide you need participation opportunities IRL and online, which doesn’t mean that one cannot have a spillover effect on the other one (as rightly pointed out by Xavier Crouan during the conference and talking about Facebook Aperos in France).

    Keep the discussion going!

    • Thanks also from me to Aurélie for the excellent guest post and to Simon, blogcyeu, Millie and Javier for your comments.

      The idea of promoting engagement with the EU is not new. As an NGO representative in the mid-1990s, I organised a public hearing in the European Parliament where young unemployed people had an opportunity to put across their demands directly to MEPs and the then Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, Padraig Flynn. In 2001, I set up one of the first EU online consultations when I was writing a Green Paper on tackling discrimination based on racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, age, disability or sexual orientation.

      What I find exciting about the evolution of digital media over the last 5 years or so is the potential to make citizens’ engagement with the EU more open, spontaneous and widespread. As several people have pointed out in the comments here on the blog and on Twitter, this will not necessarily happen automatically and there are barriers to be overcome. However, I think the examples in Aurélie’s post provide some very helpful pointers and examples.

  6. Feel good Likewise – it is a theme of interest. Just a note to clarify my comment in light of Aurélie’s answer – Yes i believe in renewal of engagement – but believe it has to start from inward re-enhancement of government, whose objecting is not about enchanting customers but just ensuring service delivery for starters. Trust is synonym with mission fulfillment. Enchanting, in my view, then happens effortlessly. I may be mistaken, but believe that extreme focus on enchantment will backfire today, as citizens are just too media savvy for superficial online engagement, where attention spans are just too short as windows of opportunity to convince. My 2 cents – thanks to @tonylbxl for the space.

  7. Really interesting post, from a very interesting conference by the sounds of it.

    Completely agree with using online and offline methods differently. Digital inclusion is a big issue here in Wales, with real fears about how people might be excluded by public services because of the UK Government’s drive to be digital by default (http://wales.gov.uk/newsroom/housingandcommunity/2012/120926digital/?lang=en).

    Your title says it brilliantly – “Go where your audience is”. The best way to overcome this is to use the appropriate tools for audiences, and not expect our audience to engage with us using our tools. Cheers!

  8. Pingback: The more things change, the more they remain the same – Similarities between Social Media led Citizen Engagement and Citizen Engagement in 16th Century Mughal India | the hope and the hype of technology

  9. Very interesting article.

    In one my recent blogs, I look at how the Mughal leadership in 16th century India encouraged meaningful citizen engagement in the policy formulation process with the aim to identify its inherent similarities with internet enabled citizen participation in government policies. Moreover, I check if there are lessons we can learn that might help us to create a 21st century internet led citizen engagement model.
    It led me to interesting insights:
    1. Similar process existed even in the 16th century to solicit citizen response
    2. In 21st technology acts as an enabler whereas the broader process to solicit purposeful citizen response remains the same

    The article is available at http://wp.me/pWRfP-8C

  10. Nice blog! I am constantly looking for positive and uplifting news for all over Europe.
    My aim is to bring together positive thinking people from all over Europe so we could have our own European social network.
    A place where you can share a positive story, thought or something nice happened around you.
    This way we will get one central place for good news for all over Europe.
    So feel more than welcome to share your important news updates with us! http://www.eugoodnews.com

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