I already mentioned in one of my first posts that the European Commission has opened a wide public consultation process amongst its citizens on a White Paper for Communication, which is intended as the first step to the implementation of Plan D, a detailed five year public relations plan. This White Paper, issued only a few months ago, has been to date reviewed, commented and criticised by more than one thousand different european individuals and organizations.Amongst the latter are also Cerp (CERPresponsetotheEUWhite Paper on a EuropeanCommunicationpolicy210706final.pdf), the Confederation of European public relations associations; the Cerp EUWhitePaper_Response_070806.pdf (the Chartered Institute of Public Relations); the Swedish Public relations Association UKENG_Version 4 remissvar till styrelsen.doc; the recent Bled Symposium bled manifesto 2.docin Slovenia; while a very animated debate has now been going on for months on the Ferpi website (Ferpi is the Italian Federation of Public Relations).This time, one cannot say that the European public relations community has not contributed to a major piece of the EU’s public policy process.
One of the few main flaws of the White Paper, in my view, is when it attempts to capture European Public Opinion as the sum of the public opinions of the citizens of its member States.
A few weeks from today (October 27) in Madrid, Margot Wallstrom -the Swedish vice president of the European Commission and its first ever Commissioner for Communication- has called for a public gathering of all ‘stakeholders of public opinion research’ to discuss the ‘way forward’.
Unfortunately I will not be able to participate to this very important gathering as I will be that same day in Rome at the World Bank’s Global Summit on Communication for Development (see recent post), but there are a few points I would like to make in the hope that someone might wish to pick them up at the conference.
The EU, in its various developing forms, is now some fifty years old.
As much as national public opinions continue to exist, are important and must be monitored (the EU Barometer is already an effective tool for this… and of course it may be improved, as anything else), the Commission public policy agenda has always strayed clear of influence from the results of these surveys…. in order to avoid potential conflicts with Member State Governments… although it certainly has used research results to try (not very successfully, at least in recent years) to mitigate some Government criticisms for at least part of its activities.
But in these fifty years many other active publics have emerged in the European integration process and, yet, there seems to be little focus by the Commission on listening to their specific expectations. This, in my view, is an unexcusable professional mistake and new (mostly qualitative) monitoring tools must be studied and implemented, as these publics for the European Commission are much more relevant than Member State publics.
These ‘new’ publics are characterized by the fact that they have either greatly benefited or greatly suffered from the Commission’s activities; that their individual members have more in common amongst themselves than amongst their fellow national citizens; and that they have already -albeit their organizations may appear to be somewhat elementary- produced significant consequences on the Commission’s public policy agenda.
These publics, for example, include the most aware and advanced segments of the business community, the researcher and scholar community, the student community, the farming community, the activist/ngo community, the enlarged communication community, the tourism and travel community…. All of these include many millions of individuals from every member state who are fully conscious of the impact they receive (for the good or the bad) from the Commission but, today, can only communicate with the Commission through their National Governments, or perhaps more effectively, through their specific lobby groups in Bruxelles.
How is the Commission informed of these publics’ expectations before taking policy decisions which affect these communities? Of course, a public relations professional would answer: through the activities of their lobby groups in Bruxelles!. But if this is believed sufficient for the Commission, then one wonders why it spends so much money in listening directly to national public opinions with the Barometer, as these publics would seem to be even more legitimately represented by the governments of member states.
Clearly this is not an acceptable answer….
If I were involved in performing the reflexive role for the Commission (i.e. listening to, understanding and interpreting to the public policy makers the expectancies of active stakeholders before making the decisions in order to improve the quality of that decision and accelerate its implementation) I would certainly listen to these lobbies, but I would also wish to monitor those publics directly with my own tools.
Even more so if I consider that -contrary to member state public opinions who are influenced by their national governments who appear to be mostly concerned today in highlighting the negative consequences the EU has on them- it is ore than likely that these specific publics I refer to -if appropriately and professionally informed, communicated and related with- could quickly become the Commission’s major allies, as they would receive the most beneficial consequences from a truly dialogue based public relations policy.