The European Commission and communications – shall the two never meet?

Admittedly this has more to do with Directorate General Trade communications as those of the European Commission as such.

I recently attended a seminar organised by the European Association of Communication Directors, EACD it was a follow up on the communication around the Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement, ACTA. For background on ACTA you can read the DG Trade explanation here and Wikipedia here. What the ACTA Nay-sayers had to say in the matter can be read here.

The Commission was represented by the DG Trade Commissioner’s spokes person, John Clancy, he tweets here.

ACTA was rejected by an overwhelming majority in the European Parliament. And a note here, for several reasons I am against ACTA and I was one of the many minute cogs that brought this result about. My main reason for opposing ACTA is that it want to use yesterday’s answers to tomorrow’s problems. On a different level I am rather uneasy about the fact that unelected faceless public officials should negotiate important treaties like these more or less in secret. Yes, I do understand that trade is one of the trickier subjects we have, still transparency is always to be preferred.

However, I found Mr. Clancy’s approach to communication astonishing. He claimed that it was due to lack in communications resources that the public rose against ACTA. I have written about the EU and its overwhelming communication budget before: Communications strategies – it is easy!, The European Commission new anthem – Can’t buy me love…, Another epic fail in European Commission communications.

In the post “Can’t buy me love” you can see that the European Commission Communication Directorate has €97 billion in their latest annual budget. The Trade Directorate also have an unspecified amount of their annual budget dedicated to communications, I can’t say how much because guess what! when you type in “EU DG Trade Annual Budget” in Google you get NO results. And what is more interesting, when you search on the DG’s own home page there are no results either. I hold the door open to that it is my derisory talent in searching that is the actual reason for this – so if anyone can do better I’m more than interested in learning more.

Mr. Clancy spoke in some length about that he thought it was easier for the Nay-sayers to get their message across than the ones like him that was in favour of ACTA one reason being that the hash-tag #killacta was so good. Because, according to Mr. Clancy, a negative message is a whole lot easier to pass than a positive one. But with all these resources surely the good people at DG Trade would have been capable of coming up with the hash-tag #saveacta?

And while I do agree that activists could be better in pushing alternative agendas rather than just saying “No” in this case the Commission played a large role in the negative reception of this treaty. A “No” is the normal reaction when a constituency feel they have no information. So if you want a positive reaction – inform your audiences.

The longer the seminar went on it became clear that the Commission had tremendous problems in managing the new communications landscape. They had difficulties in facing the fact that they can no longer hobnob with representatives from corporates. Mr. Clancy admitted as much and he outlined what they are doing to change this. He mentioned amongst others technical briefings to journalists, when reading DG Trade’s 2012 management plan you can see that they have planned for 2-3 seminars for journalists and 4-5 background and technical seminars. Personally I feel there should be 27 of both, to be held in the member countries and in the local languages. Nothing is said about the target audiences nor the size of the seminars. And while this is a very good start I fail to see anything about e.g. blogger and activist outreach. In questions like ACTA where Intellectual Property Rights played an imperative role these are big constituencies. And what more they are often knowledgeable of their subjects and they enjoy digging into and analysing rather difficult and technical documents. Now of course the Commission, in this case, doesn’t have to agree with these constituencies and their analysis, but one obvious way to manage these groups is to constantly provide information. And what more, some of the analysis provided can be actual use to the commissioners negotiating. But will the Commission (DG Trade) do this? Nope.

Now, neither bloggers/activists or Twitter is the magic silver bullet that will solve the Commission’s communications problems. They are just part of the whole communications pie. There is the tiny fact that EU citizens are increasingly negative towards the EU, but sticking their head in the sand saying that all negative feelings are misconceptions due to badly informed citizens and lack of resources seems to me just be a proof of that the Commissioners seems to think that communications are below them. I mean if we as EU citizens are badly informed how about informing us? Agreed it isn’t easy, but with a budget of €97 + surely they could start?

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