November 13, 2012
As if enough hadn’t been said or written already (and I don’t profess to be an expert, by any stretch). An interesting thought nonetheless: why are we Europeans still so enamoured of Obama?
A mix of some of the following perhaps.
To many, he’s still a rockstar
The US and Obama are always big news, but not that big compared to what’s happening here, and the fact is, he’s miles away and can’t by nature have as much impact on our day to day as our own politicians. The freshness and star appeal of 2008 thus hasn’t waned as much as it might have done if we’d seen him dominate the headlines night after night or if we could realistically blame him for our own ills. So as trite and sensationalist as it may seem, as far as we can tell, he still nearly looks and sounds the part – just as he did when he captivated the world back in 2007-08.
If not a rockstar, he’s the sort of American we feel most comfortable with
Right or wrong, we see him as professorial, smart, honest, engaging without being overbearing, seemingly willing to listen rather than act on instinct. This contrasts with the type of American some of us feel slightly uncomfortable with i.e. unashamedly loud, brash, impulsive and unselfconscious.
Despite his relative disinterest in our continent, we still think his values are European in nature: his penchant for soft power, universal healthcare, wanting at least in principle to shut down Guantanamo, gay rights, women’s rights et al. Sure, Guantanamo remains open, the healthcare bill has no public option, the use of drone attacks under his watch has been boosted, his support of gay marriage is a fairly recent development BUT we assume that these are compromise measures, not his personal predilection.
We don’t care about his supposed biggest failure (and in any case it’s not entirely his fault and it seems piffling compared to our mess)
The recovery has been slow and unemployment remains too high? Big deal, that’s their issue, and in any case, the US is doing better than we are; frankly their woes seem piffling compared to the Eurozone travails.
The Republicans partly got us into this mess in the first place
Most of all, the reason many Europeans remain keen on Obama is the other guys. True or not, the 2008 collapse which then led to all sorts of other troubles, none more so than the Eurozone crisis, is blamed on Obama’s predecessor and his party.
The Republicans are creepy
A lot of us still view the Republicans as a sinister lot: virtual pantomime villains; certainly not the responsible party of smaller government and sensible regulation. Rumsfeld’s eerie glare into the camera as he said Old Europe didn’t matter and the subsequent cataclysm that was Iraq still grates. As does – to many – their view on universal healthcare, climate change, abortion, progressive taxation, guns, the death penalty and gay rights, as well as their hawkishness on foreign relations. More than belief, it’s perhaps the tone: the visceral hatred and virtual foaming at the mouth at the mere mention of another opinion on the aforementioned issues makes us feel as tad uncomfortable as this sort of belligerence is usually reserved for extreme fringe parties on this side of the Atlantic. Couple that with many Republicans’ endorsement and continual espousal of a particular notion of American exceptionalism which we would dispute, to put it mildly, and it’s perhaps no wonder that most Europeans – left and right – were pleased with the outcome on November 6th.
Am I forgetting anything?
October 27, 2011
I’ve dug up a few posts from before I even started at Fleishman-Hillard which may be interesting to anyone into digital, comms, issues and agency life in Brussels.
It’s personally been interesting to revisit stuff I’d even forgotten I’d written: plenty of naive remarks, lots of things which I’d now think were to bleedin’ obvious to even mention, lots of stuff that really hasn’t changed, and other stuff that has (e.g. I mention at one point that access to content remains search-centric but I’d now say that access to content is driven more by referrals.)
Anyway, here goes:
May 31, 2011
I was a panellist last weekend at a workshop held at the party conference of the Dutch Liberal Party (D66), along with MEP Marietje Schaake and Rosa van der Tas, Dutch web politician of the year. The theme of the discussion was “the digital political party of the future” and I was included amongst such a stellar cast for my insights on how political parties could pick up a trick or two from the corporate world.
My key points were as follows (with lots of apologies for the use of ghastly PR jargon):
- As an aside, it’d be wrong to think that business is always a step ahead: politicians, parties and political movements have forever been driving innovation in communications, from radio addresses to television advertising through to mobilising networks of support and fundraising online.
- Having said that, in some areas, business is leading the way (although there’ll always be some political entity somewhere that’s just as cutting edge, and every area I mention has already been mastered by some political party or campaign at some point.) For instance, on “content”, business (not all of it, by any means) has learned that, in an age of information overload where users increasingly access information via search engines or through peer recommendations, simply delivering content does not work. Cutting through the clutter and convinving increasingly cynical constituents requires a compelling narrative, developed through what we call (PR jargon #1) “content strategy”. In short, that means identifying and breaking down audiences, and methodically assessing what will make them tick, including what they’d like to hear and what medium they might like to hear it via. So the digital political party of the future should not just regurgitate dry commentary: it should develop a system for determining what its constituents care about, and it should respond to it by delivering a heart-felt, interesting, honest and relevant story, through a variety of channels.
- As part of that package, the digital political party of the future should also develop its capacity for (PR jargon #2) “community management”. It should not just track and assess audiences so that it can develop a more compelling and relevant narrative through content, but should also do so to nurture and expand its community of supporters. Meaning what? That the party has communicators on board dedicated to identifying and tracking people interested in it and its issues online, engages with them, answers their questions, asks for their input, allays their fears – and importantly, helps connect them to each other, on and offline. This latter point is key. Are there people in a neighbourhood in city X or in village Y of the same political conviction but who do not know each other? The community management element of the party’s programme helps connect them.
- A frequent conundrum for businesses engaging online is how to manage the brand vs. people balance, given that lots of people will engage with a brand if it articulates a vision they believe in, but others prefer to engage with individuals that represent the brand. Ensuring a good balance will also be key to the digital political party of the future. In practice, this means that elements of content and community management can be centralised via the party, but in addition, the party needs to help to harness the (PR jargon #3) personal brands of those within it i.e. its politicians. So beyond producing content and managing a community on behalf of the collective narrative of the party, it needs to help nurture and promote the “personal brands” of its proponents by acting as a guide to those who have not yet mastered online communication, as well as offering a focal point for their activity by aggregating and promoting their social media activities centrally and helping to redistribute via the community manager role.
January 28, 2011
At FH Brussels, we’ve just published our 2nd European Parliament Digital Trends Survey, available in its full glory here, including figures for the findings cited in the title and more.
Why did we repeat the exercise and what’s the bottom line? Here’s how I summarised it in the foreword to the print version:
When we last conducted our survey on the digital habits of Members of the European Parliament in 2009, we were at a watershed moment: digital in politics seemed to have gone mainstream following the French presidential campaign in 2007 and, in particular, Barack Obama’s successful campaign in 2007-08.
Brussels too was picking up on the excitement, with a variety of MEPs engaging online, looking to harness the ability to communicate with the sort of immediacy and candour previously only reserved for traditional canvassing; and increasingly using the instantaneous information available at the click of a mouse to conduct research on policy matters.
Nearly two years on we felt that it was time to reassess: the enthusiasm from across the pond has abated and the European Parliament is no longer in election frenzy; yet the value of the tools remains undiminished and citizens and businesses are increasingly connected. Have MEPs followed the trend or was 2009 a mere blip?
It turns out 2009 was anything but a blip. Our survey shows that, more than ever, MEPs are using digital channels to reach out and to inform themselves on issues of importance. In parallel, the findings also indicate that personal contact and traditional media remain essential, highlighting to anyone engaging in communications that digital is not replacing established modes of communication, but living alongside them.
I’ll be writing a few posts analysing the report in more detail over the coming weeks on Public Affairs 2.0, looking at topics like: why are MEPs blogging less, how does the EU compare to the US, what do the findings mean for the PA profession? I’ll reference here, so watch this (or that) space.
September 8, 2010
Idiots with placards are given too much visibility. Every time some contentious issue makes the headlines there’ll be 20 of them holding up home-made signs bemoaning a loss of morals, demanding that someone be banished from somewhere, or proclaiming the apocalypse. And rather than be ignored, they’ll feature prominently in reporting of whatever event they crashed, and somehow be declared the face of public opinion.
Same thing online. Anything written in a prominent blog will undoubtedly attract scores of nut-jobs declaring that the author is an evil, brainless heathen whose opinions would spell the end of humanity as we know it; and yet normal people respond to these morons and even often refer to them in follow-up content as the face of public opinion. In my line of work it equates to clients saying: they all hate us, just look at the 20 critical tweets and blog comments.
It’s too easy to make a lot of noise and somehow become the face of an issue. A plea: ignore the nut-jobs, or we end up giving them credibility and lure more nut-jobs into the public space (think the fringes of the Tea-Party in the US.) Let them have their say, but let’s please not forget most people are moderate and sensible. What’s real public opinion? A million people on the streets of London to protest against an impending war. Even better, results of surveys where a proper cross-section of people are polled.
One of the worst things that can happen to your issue is that it becomes politicised i.e. one political side decides to take a stand on it and the other side takes the opposite position in response.
Plenty of issues don’t actually neatly fit the right-left divide. Frankly, they’re too complex to be easily compartmentalised (I’ve had a rant about this before here) and as such political parties or groups don’t have a clear position on them. But that doesn’t matter to cheeky politicians: when they’ve decided that they can score a win with their constituents, they’ll take a stand on an issue. They may then carry the rest of their party with them and make it very hard for you as a campaigner to get your point across, no matter how solid your arguments may be, because positions have been entrenched on the left-right axis. You’ve lost control: your issue may now fall prey to the whims of political skirmishes rather than develop through a process governed by reality and logic.
So what do you do? Hope for the best (!) and monitor very carefully so you know when and how politicisation might happen before it actually does. And make sure you have a contingency plan.
Plus don’t accelerate the process yourself. If you’re a key player on your issue, don’t tick off one side or the other if you can avoid it. How? Approach your issue from both liberal (in the American sense of the word) and conservative angles; gratify the values of both your centre-right and centre-left audiences. Sounds odd, but it actually works on a wide range of issues e.g. your manufacturing process might both be great for profit margins and will employ people in a marginalised community; your new product might have been invented by an entrepreneur who benefited from a tax break and have a low carbon footprint.
And if your issue still becomes politicised? Then the contingency plan mentioned above may become easier to implement because your relatively neutral position so far may ensure more balanced treatment than you might otherwise expect.
March 21, 2010
Population growth and 10% economic growth in fast-developing countries will result in billions more people consuming at the rate of rich-world baby-boomers within a few decades. We’ll have to change our eating habits in the long-run, but until then, how on earth are we going to produce enough food to feed a billion middle class Indians and Chinese who have suddenly developed a taste for hamburger? Meanwhile, a complex concoction of trade regimes, population growth, urbanisation and increasing temperatures mean that food security is an ever growing threat in Africa; but in this case not because the new middle classes are demanding hamburger, but because hunger is still real (more on all of this at Citizen Renaissance here.) So what can we do about it? We can further develop smart methods of farming to increase yields perhaps. And yet if you’re a left-winger, you’ll think GMOs or other farming technologies are Satan’s spawn. That doesn’t make sense. Surely if you’re a left-winger, you want to feed people in developing countries.
If the worst predictions come true, we’ll experience a 5-6ºC temperature increase by the end of the century, putting vast swaths of the world under water and destroying ecosystems and possibly the nature pyramid to god knows what effect. But climate-change scepticism has become a standard bearing right-wing issue: if you’re right-wing, you’ll claim it’s all a load of tosh. That doesn’t make sense. Surely if you’re right-wing you should be just as worried as a left-winger if there’s even a slight possibility that even the most rosy scenario regarding climate change may come true.
Immigration rates in Europe aren’t really out of control as the populist press tend to claim. Three other trends are however. Declining birth rates, people reaching retirement age and Europe’s pathetic economic competitiveness. Right-wingers claim to be pro-business, pro-growth and pro-wealth. And yet right-wingers tend to be, if not always hostile, at least very wary of immigration. Again, that doesn’t make sense. Who is going to buy and build things? Where is the next generation of innovators going to come from if half our population is retired?
I’m fully aware that all three issues – and many others like them – are spuriously ideological in some way i.e. a right-winger will make a political argument for why they are anti-immigrant or a climate-change sceptic; while a left-winger can just as easily frame their hostility towards GMOs in genuinely left-wing terms.
The point I’m trying to make is that most issues are far too important and complex to fit neat political demarcations. And yet politicians and the media who support them are all too ready to politicise them to score an easy win. They’re taking advantage of the age-old human instinct whereby people are comforted by thinking that everything can be defined by us or them / right or wrong; so if the opposition has taken a stand on an issue, the response is to take the opposite view, rather than debating or perhaps even – shock, horror – agreeing with it.
It’s not all bad though. At European level, the strongly consensus-based political model makes complete polarisation difficult. Meanwhile, year after year, voters throughout Europe are increasingly struggling to tell the difference between parties (which I happen to think is a good thing) while age-old political affiliations based purely on family or geography are dying out. But given that the left-right divide can still characterise epoch-defining issues like food security, immigration and climate change, we still have some way to go.
January 31, 2010
Digital advocacy – aligned with online campaigning more broadly – has been effective on issues that capture the public imagination for quite a while, largely because the web works extremely well as a grassroots mobilisation tool. From whale hunting to GMOs, pressure groups and concerned citizens have used a variety of online tools to express anger, spread the word and mobilise likeminded people. I’d argue that, were Greenpeace to announce a big-time campaign tomorrow on banning mink farming in Europe, it could be web-centred, with offline elements operating around it. Meaning that Greenpeace would be able to engage and mobilise enough people using primarily online channels to certainly reach (although probably not influence) relevant policy-makers.
However, the vast majority of advocacy issues don’t capture the public imagination. Nobody knows about them; the media doesn’t care. Until a short time ago, these were the sort of issues where advocacy was done off the radar i.e. primarily with stakeholders and policy-makers sitting down face to face. There’d be no large-scale media campaign or the like in support because it wouldn’t have been worth the effort seeing as all stakeholders were a phone-call away.
Now, I’d argue that digital advocacy is nearing the real deal for niche issues as well. Meaning what? That the web is ubiquitous enough – even in public policy land (view Fleishman’s EP Digital Trends or Edelman’s Capital Staffers’ index if in doubt) – to work as a direct advocacy tool.
In practice, I mean that if you plan and execute the online element of your campaign well, you can safely assume that you’ll reach relevant policy-makers directly, as well as engage and/or mobilise the aforementioned stakeholders that are just a phone-call away, using primarily online channels. By no means does that mean that traditional advocacy or media relations are a dying breed, but they can now be supported, enhanced and sped up no end. Exciting times ahead.
Quick thought. I was recently speaking to someone who works for a fairly outspoken politician (to say the least) who said that the politician in question is currently considering whether to communicate in a slightly more mellow manner so as to attract a different type of voter.
It’s startling how thin the line between “moderate” and “nutty fringe” can be: unless you actually are a nutty fringe politician, whether you’re seen as one or the other is largely down to how you communicate. But what’s really odd is how we as constituents are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and gloss over the past once the switch has been made. I’ll admit that I fit into that category: in 1994, Gianfranco Fini said Mussolini was the greatest statesman of the 20 century; now he’s changed his tone and is a reasonable centrist who speaks some sense amongst the throng of crude and worthless populists that make up the Italian ruling majority – and I believe him.
What a great benefit to politicians looking to make the grade though. Whether of the left or of the right, they can cause a stir amongst “party bases” by stating their position in the most outlandish terms possible, then repackage themselves as a more moderate force once they have a following and a media presence (i.e. saying the same things just in a more conciliatory tone and with less gesticulation.) Hey presto, they attract a different breed of supporter virtually from one day to the next! Wish it were that easy for the rest of us.
August 7, 2009
The story goes that NGOs were able to mobilise support and spread their message online over a decade ago, when the corporates they were up against barely had any web presence to speak of. This is cited as one of the reasons for their ascendancy in the political power game.
How are they faring these days? This is by no means a long analytical piece: I haven’t combed through hundreds of NGO sites from which I’ll cite dozens of examples; but in short, my general feeling is that NGOs aren’t as effective online as they used to be. To some extent, it’s probably their fault. Some have amazing stories – especially from the field – but are not using social media as well as they could to tell them. Sometimes they use the tools but not in an integrated manner e.g. offline campaigns aren’t backed up online and vice-versa. Big NGOs are often too split along country or regional lines: rather than sharing material across platforms they’re keeping it separate, which is pointless as well as detrimental. Also, some of these same big-time NGOs have sites that are far too pristine and corporate-looking. Meanwhile, others have crammed too much into their toolkit, meaning that they do a little of everything badly rather than a few things well; and others, especially small-time single issue pressure groups, are not using cheap and cheerful tools nearly as much as they should (although I hasten to add that some do!)
To some extent, their loss of the best practice mantle is not really their doing. With their mammoth budgets, their corporate adversaries have played catch-up very well by developing credible CSR programmes and hiring smart agencies that do great communications online, with plenty of effective social media in the mix and winning the search-ranking battle.
Having said that all that, the spirit of the NGO is alive and well, and their message is stronger than ever. However, it’s not necessarily them that’s delivering it. Firstly, “regular folk” are often more militant than most NGOs nowadays, and they’re very active online in forums, blogs etc. I did a little bit of research last week in response to a report from the Food Standards Agency in the UK which claims that organic is no healthier than regular produce, and was astonished to see how many people (with no affiliation to official groups) were taking a stand against the FSA. And they were pretty angry. Secondly, corporations themselves are making noise about the sort of issues only NGOs seemed interested in until recently.
Conclusion? Having mobilised people to such an extent over the last 10 or 20 years to the point where they have actually radically altered the common man’s sensibilities over a range of issues and leading ultimately to far more responsibility in corporate-land (as well as politico-land of course) is no doubt a great triumph and impressive legacy. It probably might not seem to matter so much that they’re not good with Twitter: that’d be taking a myopic view of the global challenges we still face and which they can contribute to. Still, I think they should brush up a little online.