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That Communication Action Plan

Posted by Helen Friday, July 22, 2005

This morning I received a phone call from a journalist at EuropeTV, which is based in Lyons. He was organizing a discussion on Britain and the euro and wanted to know if I would take part. He did agree with me that the euro was not precisely top priority at the moment but, it seems, editors of programmes periodically decide that another discussion is needed about the euro and whether Britain will join.

I am not sure what will come of this programme as he had not found anyone who would speak in favour of such a proposition and was not too hopeful about it.

He did, however, mention that his colleagues (the station receives a certain amount of funding from the EU) spend a lot of time agonizing about how to present the EU in a better light. There is something wrong with the method of presentation. It seems, they could not imagine that, perhaps, it is the substance that is problematic.

As it happens and, as we have mentioned before, the Commission is also agonizing about the same subject and as is its wont, producing all sorts of documents on it.

To date we have a 21 page Action Plan to Improve Communicating Europe by the Commission (a catchy though somewhat illiterate title), a Communication Annex that lists 50 necessary actions and provides a helpful timetable for when the actions need to be completed, and a European Commission Memorandum that sums all these weighty matters up.

This is how the Memorandum explains the grandiose plan:

"Connecting with the citizens of European Union is one of the strategic objectives of the Commission for this term of office. The Commission's seminar on communication on 23 April highlighted the vital importance of a renewed commitment to communication with European citizens. It also acknowledged that this is a taks that goes beyond the Commission's remit. Its success depends fundamentally on a partnership with all other key players in European politics."

You notice there is no mention of what it is they are going to communicate. It seems not to occur to any of these highly paid officials or their minions and hangers on, that you need to have something to communicate.

They are clearly all post-Marcusians and believers in the medium being the message. Unfortunately, the vast bulk of the population seems unimpressed by that sort of thinking.

Anyway, the first priority is listening. Apparently, they should stop just informing EU citizens and start listening to them and taking their views into account. The first one they might like to take into account is the extreme reluctance on the part of many to be anything but citizens of their own country.

Then they will communicate how EU policies affect citizens’ everyday life [sic]. The problem with that, apart from the grammar, is that there are very many people at the national level who do not want them to communicate anything of the kind, not wishing to admit how much power had been handed over to the Union.

The third intention is connecting by going local

“… that is by adapting messages to target audiences in each Member State and conveying them through the channels those audiences prefer in the language they understand”.

It is hard to tell what that will mean in practice (labels on wine bottles in France and packs of drinking chocolate in Spain, perhaps) but we are back to the same problem. The policy may be one size fits all but the message must not be.

The first phase of this grand plan has been achieved by the production of the internal action plan.

The next one will be a White Paper

“… to engage all stakeholders, setting out the policy vision and the initiatives to be undertaken in the medium and long-term, in co-operation with the other institutions and actors, and particularly the Member States governments”.

We are back with that old project – the construction of a civil society and through it a European identity, this time through “communication” with the chosen few stakeholders who will then carry the message to others. If past experience is anything to go by, this is not going to work terribly well, as the stakeholders are rarely capable of a coherent message.

Or, to be quite precise, their message is coherent as long as nobody challenges it.

The actual actions that come under the plan range from involving Commissioners more (somewhat counterproductive if the fragrant Margot’s efforts are anything to go by) to streamlining the various communication agencies, more dialogue and transparency, use of focus groups, assessing impacts (and presumably more focus groups after that), using the internet, contact centres and information relays, all the way to Action 49:

“A qualitative and quantitative communication assessment and screening will be carried out throughout the Commission so as to implement this action plan with maximum effectiveness. To that effect, a screening task-force will be set up, with a particular focus on cost-effective use of resources on a permanent basis.”

You have all been warned.