From Bled 2006 (Slovenia): communicating Europe

Two intense days (7-8 July) of critical debate (www.bledcom.com) for one hundred public relations scholars on the European Commission’s White Book calling for a new communication policy to shorten distances between Citizens and European Institutions. 

The warm summer air iced when Slovene DejanVercic (a highly reputed scholar and professional) unabashedly evoked the analogy with Soviet Union propaganda while referring to parts of Antonia Carparelli’s presentation of the White Book (Antonia is the deputy Cabinet Chief of the Swedish Commission Vice President for Communication, Margot Wallstrom).

However, the two days of animated debate clearly showed that the process of transition, advocated by the White Book, from a one-way, asymmetrical communication process to a two-way dialogue-based active involvement of European citizens, will be lengthy and difficult. 

Even in Carparelli’s repeated request of the audience to supply professional expertise in implementing the project, she underlined the Commission’s interest in public relations’ technical and operative role, rather that indicate curiosity about how one would go about professionally listening to, understanding and interpreting the expectancies of European publics before deciding the Commission’s political Agenda and contents

Also, in formulating examples of possible tools to be activated, she insisted on the need for the Commission to dispose of its own television channel. 

Not bad as an idea to inform publics generically and unilaterally while reducing the power of intermediation of journalists….

As often happens in huge organizations, the left hand (in this case the enlightened authors of the White Book) speaks differently from right hand (in this case the White Paper advocates). 

Grand use of terms like engagement, dialogue, bilateral and symmetric communication, diversity, public sphere and inclusivity on the one side and a centralist, one way persuasive approach on the other.

This dichotomy also explains why so much importance is given in the White Book to a ‘going local’ approach, a fashionable buzz-word, which in this instance however may mean an increase of the role national Governments, which in these years have clearly been the major cause of Europe’s credibility debacle amongst its citizens. 

The White Book opens with a great challenge: the creation of a European Public Sphere.

But such an exercise may only be attempted by -rather than reinforcing national public opinions- identifying, listening to, understanding and interpreting the expectations on the European agenda of the many new cross-border publics which have emerged. 
I refer to all those publics which are fully exposed to paneuropean dialogue and competition: education, labour, finance, business, commerce and research.

These publics form a huge area of authentic stakeholders of European Institutions which have more in common amongst themselves than with their compatriots and very much needs to become fully aware of itself, identity and values. 

Another highly relevant cross-border area of stakeholder publics is formed by all those citizens who are not in favour of further integration.

These are certainly not to be ignored while defining the European agenda, and they are to be segmented, issue by issue, on a pan european and not a national level and engaged in dialogue. 

One final ‘take-away’ from Bled is to beware from that typical political enlightement syndrome which so often reveals communicative incompetence, by which when a public does not agree with an organization’s policy this happens because the public is not adequately informed and so it is sufficient to distribute more information to solve the problem.

This is, most of the time and admittedly not always, a blatantly wrong approach which assumes the organization is always right and that its problem is that it does not explain itself properly. 

If the Commission believes that European identity is in crisis because of its poor communication, it cannot invoke a lack of information: one thing is information and another is communication.

One does not attract credibility by agitating fashionable buzzwords as inclusivity, dialogue or public sphere and then ask for another controlled television channel. 

What do you think about these issues? Can you indicate other recent experiences where problems of this nature have emerged and have led to a different approach?

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2 Replies to “From Bled 2006 (Slovenia): communicating Europe

  1. Joao,
    the last sentence of your comment should not however be used (and I am sure you don’t even think this, but… others might well take the hint) as an alibi to cover our responsibilities which certinly exist despite what politicians decide.
    many of the eu commission communicators are well seasoned practitioners and do not necessarily owe their position to a political assignement.
    basically I would say that they are not sufficiently curious to look around, listen, learn and then act.
    and this is the principal constraint for the development of our profession in every organization, not only in the eu.
    at the end, as much as the politicans (or other organizational leaders) may be out of touch, it is also because we dont’ know how to advise them any better. tmf

  2. Toni,

    It is a fact that migrating from a public information model to a bidirectional simmetrical model and to a “communication as dialogue mmodel” implies a lot of changes. And it is also true that just like in any other organisation, the will to change from the top managers is a necessary (but not sufficient) factor.

    But the fact is that many (basic) changes are unaccomplished. For instance if you take the main functions of the Euro Info Centres (the network of info points that the EU has in every member country) you’ll still see mainly reactive initiatives and information dissemination activities. You don’t see any references to “active listening of citizens” (researching activities and bridge building) but you see references to “efectively answering to questions”; you see references to the “participation in the european debate” but you don’t find any references to “mapping the environment to look for interlocutors of that debate”.

    And to do that, you don’t need very fancy tools of sofisticated techniques. If you have a monitoring system for public issues, if you have competent people and some authonomy to engage in dialogue, it becomes very much easier.

    But it is then that we face the possibility of this being an issue of de-politization of very politized structures? To do this change perhaps it will be needed to end some nominations for political reasons and that some competent people are incorporated on the basis of their professional communicative competence. And the doubt still goes: is this comission strong enough to face this challenge?

    I have the impression that ordinary PR problems are sistematically related with political problems and if you don’t solve the latter first you won’t be able to solve the former. Do you agree?

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