Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Communicating Europe's development efforts, to or with citizens?

At yesterday's seminar in Paris, one of the workshops was on ways that European aid is being addressed and communicated.

Nathalie Lhayani from shared some journalistic perspectives from this network/agency on the issue “how to create a public space [on Europe and solidarity issues] so democratic life can come alive and citizens can participate in it.” She explained how euractiv works through a network of partners in different EU countries where the members help to ‘localize’ European issues into national frameworks. She saw the role of euractiv as a sort of agency that reaches citizens via other intermediary channels, like civil society, mainstream media, employers, etc. In her experience, the best way to put European issues on the agenda is not to give them a European focus, but to place information on Europe inside other sectoral contexts or issues.

Agn├Ęs Philippart from CONCORD reflected on the challenges of tracking and placing European development news into the media. While complimenting the European Commission for its recently renewed communication activities, she concluded that there is not enough ‘cooperation in communication’ with information scattered across numerous locations. After three hectic days in the recently-ended European Development Days, she concluded: “Europe is not sexy when you sell it under a European label” – reinforcing Natahlie’s take home message. Note: One effort CONCORD has launched is to foster a ‘communication network’ among its national platforms and networks – see a blog set up at its recent meeting in Brussels.

Euforic’s Peter Ballantyne updated participants on ways that emerging ‘social media’ are empowering citizen to citizen communication. He argued that while the ‘European’ development community and its activities need to be better communicated, and can use many innovative tools to better connect with citizens, the real revolution is perhaps at the level of citizens and citizens’ groups who are already meeting and discussing online – and sharing actions – on many aspects of development and solidarity.

While communicating ‘to’ citizens is an important part of a ‘responsible’ Europe; communication by and among citizens, as the new social media increasingly allows, is a vital way that citizens can become more responsible for the impacts of their own actions, and mobilizing to take actions.

He concluded that the challenges for communicators of a responsible ‘Europe’ include:
  • Realizing that citizens (and ‘experts’) increasingly communicate and share among themselves. The question is ‘how do we join them?’
  • Finding ways for social actors like NGO’s to create opportunities – and issues – around which conversations can take place, on the issues we care about. This is something like trying to create very infectious ‘viruses’ that citizens will discuss and spread, and act upon.
  • Ensuring that information and content is open and friendly to social and web 2.0 enabled, so it can ‘flow’ across platforms, across organisations, and across communities. The information needs passports to travel and blue cards to migrate.
  • Going where the communities, citizens and users (already) are; using their tools, engaging on their terms, learning to ‘let go’ and to give up control.

Reflecting on the day’s discussions, in the train from Paris to The Hague, some final thoughts include:

• Several times, people argued that the citizens need to be thought of as development ‘players’ and actors not as beneficiaries or consumers. Yet we still talked much in the media session on ‘getting’ Europe into media that will reach citizens.

• As social media gain momentum, we will have increasing need for intermediary services, such as journalists and other platforms, to help guide and inform citizens and discussions. Lots more information and choice can be empowering, it also has the potential to lead to greater confusion.

• It is as important that we have awareness and education of what the citizens and their countries are doing in development – not just what ‘Europe’ (the EU) is doing. There seems to be growing divide between very dynamic action-oriented local initiatives and what are perceived to be rather static public/national/Europe efforts.

• Which begs the question: Who is the ‘Europe’ that needs to be communicated in and with the media? Is it the ‘Brussels’ communities and their concerns and policies that need to reach citizens, and which often seems to be unexciting to journalists and citizens alike? Or is it the activities of citizens who comprise Europe, who are increasingly the ones taking actions and engaging in cooperation, and who may actually have the stories that journalists and politicians seek? In both cases, and both are needed, the communication opportunities will be different.

by Peter Ballantyne

See euforic newsfeeds on public support for development; french development cooperation, EU cooperation; and information and communication