Our fourth – and first 100% digital – #EUinfluencer event brought together an amazing crowd of influential people. They discussed the hot topics of today ahead of the grand reveal of the new #EUinfluencer ranking.
We invited Pia Ahrenkilde, Director-General for Communication at European Commission, to open the event. We asked her how important communication is for delivering the vision for Europe shared by President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen in her State of the Union address.
“Digital was absolutely key,” she replied, “as it is in our communication in general nowadays.” And @RomaGuziak agreed:
“In the current environment with the coronavirus,” continued the DG for Communication, “digital was an absolutely decisive enabler for us for getting President von der Leyen’s speech across and ensuring it reached far and wide. I hope that many people got a sense of where Europe is going through our digital communication this year.”
Digital tools were used centrally and locally, revealed Pia, with representations and AV services undertaking an enormous job translating messages and sending them out digitally to a huge amount of people. “The speech trended in 16 countries,” she said, “and we had a take-up on social media reaching potentially around 100 million people.”
We weren’t surprised when Pia said digital is transformative both for the Commission and for Europe as a whole. “The biggest proof of that is that we have built our biggest priorities around it: digital together with the green transformation. These twin transformations are the most important things that we will be working on as drivers of Europe’s recovery.”
Pia quickly grounded the audience, reminding them that “there are some old objectives that remain the same”. Mobilising people to take action is important, she said, and this did not start and will not end with digital. “What digital has changed is how we pursue these goals,” Pia continued. “We are having to adapt every day to this amazing and constantly changing communications environment. And that has required us to reflect in new ways.”
Reminding us of her past as a spokesperson, Pia noted that communication is “no longer just about hitting publication or TV deadlines”. The communication environment is increasingly living and volatile. We need to target citizens directly and also engage differently with the stakeholders – the media and groups of influencers – we are used to engaging with.
“This transformation comes with good and bad,” acknowledged Pia. “On the positive side, there are new voices in the market; there is less space between representatives and those that are represented, and everybody can get involved.
The downside, Pia noted, is that the responsibility for figuring out whether the information is reliable now lies with the individual – and this has broader consequences for democracy. “The last Eurobarometer at the end of 2018 showed 73% of Europeans are concerned that disinformation and misinformation are hampering, for example, elections”.
The Commission is working on policy in this area because “it’s the digital fact of life”; we need to learn to work with it. It demands actions from us when it comes to both communication and policy.
On the coronavirus crisis, Pia spoke of how current political objectives are around responding to the crisis, be it around health or the economy. Currently, 80% of Commission staff are working digitally, she said. “It’s very important that we have efficient ways of working and collaborating, and that we also pay attention to empathy, how we actually relate to each other in this crisis”.
At the start of the crisis, people were seeing our difficulties in coordinating a response, acknowledge Pia. “Public opinion took quite a dip in trusting what Europe can do, but that changed very quickly with our President up there leading us in taking resolute action.” She reveals that the Commission is now revamping the budget and looking to the future.
Referring back to the State of the Union speech, Pia highlights two priorities very present: digital and green. “Digital is something that can also help us towards the new Green Deal,” she notes. “And many of our messages blend green and digital into the recovery.” @timmermansr liked what she said:
"Digital transformation and the green deal are key parts of the EU recovery path after the pandemic."— Remco Timmermans (@timmermansr) September 24, 2020
"Community building via social media is an important part of our communication strategy now."@EU_Commission DG Communication @PiaAhrenkilde at #EUinfluencer pic.twitter.com/bV0IIokqye
Pia explains how the Commission would like to see 20% of the instrument for the next generation EU – the recovery and the resilience facility – to be dedicated to the digital transformation.
The next steps, said Pia drawing to the end of her opening speech, will be to use our communication resources to keep the EU present and keep our political objectives present as nations deploy their recovery narratives.
A digital platform will soon be launched for the conference on the future of Europe to “make it easier for people – also people that perhaps don’t usually engage on European issues – to follow what is going on, how they can shape Europe’s future and really engage in the debate,” concluded Pia.
We then asked Pia how well equipped the Commission was to access and reuse these tools to reach citizens. She replied: “We can always improve, but I think we have improved quite a lot over the past years. We are better equipped now than ever before in terms of reaching people.”
Pia shared some metrics: 1.4 million followers on Twitter, 487 thousand followers on Instagram, 1.1 million people engaging on Facebook and an audience of almost one million on LinkedIn.
“Our team very creative in looking for new ways of reaching new audiences and balancing general information to citizens about the Commission’s actions and benefits,” continued Pia. “We aim to build trust to show we are credible. And to show we can engage, interact with communities. Community building is a very important part of what our social media team is working on.”
Looking beyond Director-General for Communications: “All our employees are better equipped to communicate about the issues going on right now and on which we are active at the moment at the European Commission,” she said. “And I think we are quite well equipped to reach different segments and be on a variety of platforms, but we can certainly do better.” When we asked her what about influencers’ role in this conversation, she replied: “Influencers have a crucial role because you can help us engage with citizens. You can discuss the issues we are communicating with your communities and feedback back to us what we can do better and differently”. She also highlighted how influencers help the resonance to “have the colour and content useful for your respective communities”.
But @timmermansr questioned the Commission’s ability to engage. And Pia showed that its communications do travel in two directions.
This is a key point. Too many EU officials use social media tools for one-way broadcasting. Community building is about making human connections, so using the 'reply' button more often! What are the EC social media policies for this, @defis_eu @PiaAhrenkilde? #EUinfluencer https://t.co/xcLiKLWYC6— Remco Timmermans (@timmermansr) September 24, 2020
Our hypermoderator Liora then took the floor and highlighted a couple of posts on LinkedIn.
“The crisis is an opportunity for EU institutions to connect with citizens,” posted Sabine Seggelke.
“Lack of investment in communication skills – and accompanying competencies – has been the achilles’ heel of the EU. Digital is just another communication tool. Albeit, a powerful one. It should not be considered a panacea for lack of political and administrative will…” posted Sean Hayes.
The communication priority is absolutely mainstream in the Commission, responded Pia. It is really something that everyone is concerned about. I can tell you that communication always features centrally in our discussions.
And that communication is “really corporate”. Having communication as a corporate policy equips us better, she said, to get across the big items that really drive what the EU brings to people and also, hopefully, make what Europe is doing more visible.
“But you can’t show all the action Europe is taking with just words,” continued Pia. “For our response to the coronavirus crisis, for instance, we had to show we kept goods flowing over borders, that we brought people home. And it is the people that need to be at the centre of this, their stories.”
Pia concluded our discussion by acknowledging “skills and resources are needed”; however, there has been a lot of positive change inside the Commission over the past years.
And that was just the start of our very lively evening of discussions. Watch this space to find out what our panellists had to say in their three panel debates!