How to fix EU communications in the Corona crisis

We’ve been asking ourselves why the EU is not communicating better on COVID-19. Why have Russia, China and others been dominating the digital landscape? Why does the EU appear so slow and disorganised? And how can we help?

To get some answers, we invited the European Commission’s heads of strategic communications and social media, along with two communication experts and two journalists, to front an online panel. We were joined by over 60 guests in a live event called “Where’s the EU on COVID-19?”.

After the event, we boiled down the ideas from panellists and guests into three actions that would help the EU communicate better on COVID-19. You’ll see the three short recommendations below, and under each, our own thoughts (which are not necessarily endorsed by our panellists) on how to achieve them.

We thank our panellists for sharing their insights, and the attendees who sent along theirs.
Let us know what you think on LinkedIn and Twitter. Happy reading!
Richard Medic and Filip Lugovic, Cofounders of The Right Street

3 ACTIONS FOR EU COMMUNICATORS

Tick one or more of the boxes to vote for the action(s) you think the EU should take. The most popular of the three recommendations will be the topic of our next live panel. Click here for an invitation.

POSITION URSULA AS THE EU “GUARDIAN IN CHIEF”

It might not come naturally to Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, and indeed to most politicians. But as we face the biggest health, social and economic crisis of the past century, most of us are seeking out public figures who make us feel safer and better informed.

That’s why Americans listen to Dr. Anthony Fauci more than they do their President. And why German chancellor (and UVDL’s long-time cabinet mentor) Angela Merkel gets so much attention for a 90-second explanation of how coronavirus spreads.

Show the authority Europe needs right now

Europe deserves a Guardian-in-Chief in this corona crisis. As a doctor, a mother, and president of the European Commission, only UVDL can assert the kind of benevolent authority we need right now.

To start with, let’s drop UVDL and call her Ursula, because a Guardian-in-Chief should be known by her name, not an acronym that sounds like bot software.

Let the humans, not the institutions, do the talking 

Today, EU communications finds itself in a digital battleground that can’t be fought by institutions and facts alone. Europeans might not be looking for a hero, but they need one. Not the superhero kind. Just a human they can trust and rally behind in the face of a common enemy. Someone who won’t muddy the message with institutional compromise and is prepared to “grab Europe by the balls”.

We’re encouraged by Ursula’s willingness to make regular video statements available for social and news media. But this is not enough. We’d like to see her making live daily broadcasts in the spirit of Franklin D Roosevelt’s fireside chats, and trying riskier communication ops, such as an “Ask me Anything” aka AMA session on Reddit (a community with more users than Twitter or Instagram; President Obama’s AMA in 2013 was so popular it crashed the servers).

All good communication is inherently risky. So fear of criticism and trolling is no reason to not communicate more openly, and more often. 

To position herself as the EU’s Guardian-in-Chief, Ursula will need the support of her colleagues in the EU institutions, and at every level of the Member States. This won’t be easy. But she could start by making all EU funding contingent upon Member States (and their media) communicating the EU message more widely and accurately. 

To achieve this, Ursula will need an army to back her.

BUILD EU SOLIDARITY TO TAKE ON A COMMON ENEMY

At our panel the European Commission’s head of social media revealed that Commission posts related to “EU solidarity” (see #StrongerTogether) typically perform better than any other content. But EU solidarity can’t be nurtured with social media content and hashtags alone. A branded movement, baked into every institutional, political and social layer of the European Union, just might.

Start with a genuine movement

This is the time to kick off a genuine call for EU solidarity against an enemy we all have in common. Because it’s easier to rage against a virus than it is to support an ideal.

While such an initiative could be funded by the EU institutions, they should not be (seen) driving it. The “push” must come from people with influence in their communities, big and small. Individuals* like:

  • Commissioners and MEPs, prime ministers and mayors
  • Creators, of all kinds
  • Mavens, connectors and salespeople
  • Business, religious and cultural leaders
  • Journalists, sportspeople, kids, old people

* We have not included social media “Influencers” in this list, because the title is no guarantee of actual influence.

Give the movement an identity

The EU flag is what we notice when the EU institutions brand their publications and building plaques. People don’t care about the name of the DG, policy or programme behind it (Erasmus+ might be an exception). So we welcome the EU institutions’ efforts to strip back their visual identity and shift more attention to the EU flag.

Still, we cannot hear the EU flag. We also cannot smell, touch or feel each other on the internet. Most digital communication is purely visual, which makes sound the most undervalued sensory communications tool at our disposal. And yet the EU has no audio identity — no audio signature in videos, functional sounds in apps, or soundscapes for events. It’s a wasted opportunity to build emotional connections and trust on the back of the most recognisable tune in the world, the Anthem of Europe.

With Ursula playing Guardian-in-Chief, a solidarity movement to support her and a strong audiovisual identity, the EU will be better placed to fight the corona-fuelled information war. This brings us to our third and final recommendation.

TELL THE TRUTH EARLIER AND MORE OFTEN

The EU’s efforts to coordinate a coronavirus response and fight disinformation are welcome.

But telling the truth will only get you so far. We’ve been saying it for years: the truth must be told early, and told often.

At our panel, we heard about the dangers of leaving an information vacuum that non-EU states (like China and Russia) can hijack and manipulate. In telling the truth earlier and more often, EU institutions would be better placed to rival (dis)information campaigns sown by bolder actors.

Communicating too late, too little, and too timidly won’t bring Europeans together. And it won’t inspire confidence in its Guardian-in-Chief. Every communication action should be audited with a simple question: How can the truth be communicated earlier, and more often?

Tell the truth early

Here’s an example of how it can be done.

A fake or misleading news story typically gains traction long before the EU can snuff it out. That’s because it takes time for EU media monitors to spot it and bring it to the attention of their press/comms colleagues in the Representations or the DGs, who might need to run it by policy colleagues or political advisors before a decision is made on how to respond, if at all. At some point, the response might be further held up by a spokesperson who wants to validate the text.

And so it goes. The whole process is driven by if and how to respond — the question of “when” inevitably takes a back seat.

It shouldn’t take 24 (or even 4) hours to respond to a lie gaining traction on social and news media. Workflows can be tweaked to improve validation processes, to nudge colleagues into being more responsive, and to form better habits among individuals and teams. Small and incremental improvements to these processes will lead to quicker response times. Telling the truth even minutes earlier creates opportunities to question, call out or ridicule a story early on, before it reaches a critical mass. 

We know it’s not easy for the EU to communicate earlier. But taking a leaner, more agile approach to public communications is not going to bring down the EU’s institutional order.

Tell the truth often

If you tell the same lie enough times, people will believe it. Joseph Goebbels is sometimes credited with that line. The same logic applies to the aphorism “If you tell the same truth enough times, people will believe it”.

Repeating the truth more often should be a no-brainer. Once the message is clear, repetition of the truth can be scaled at relatively little cost. Communicating facts and reassuring citizens, especially during a global crisis, is an essential service that keeps us informed and safer. There’s no excuse to scrimp on communication now. As one of our panellists pointed out, the EU’s communication budget is dwarfed by the likes of Russia, China and the US. 

While the truth must be told often, it should not just be repeated in the same way, on the same channels, to the same people. The EU is duly experimenting with creative content and new ways of communicating it, but its most promising ideas are stymied by a compulsive aversion to risk.

For the coming months, possibly years, we’ll all be spending more time at home, online with our devices. We’ll be living, working and interacting with each other in a brand new digital landscape.

There’s a digital army out there of ordinary Europeans who are willing to tell the truth, in different ways, on channels we haven’t even heard of, in communities we can never hope to reach from Brussels. These people will communicate EU solidarity more effectively in a word or a photo or a song than the EU institutions can ever hope to. Let’s not squander this opportunity to mobilise them.

VIMEO OF COVID EVENT: https://vimeo.com/412270208

That’s right! There’s always more.

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