Political Communications in A Digital Age – A Wrap Up From Our Expert Breakfast Meeting

This morning FTI Consulting Brussels’ Digital Strategy team hosted a breakfast meeting on “political communications in a digital age”, a topic which resonates massively with Brussels beltway stakeholders, to judge by the turnout. More than 40 people attended from across the EU institutions, business, industry & trade associations, chambers of commerce, NGOs and national permanent representative offices, all interested in finding out how to better employ social media for effective political engagement.

The panel of expert contributors provided compelling insights into how digital channels are evolving and being used for political engagement – both from an inside-out (policymakers and political institutions to public) and outside-in (stakeholders to policymakers) perspective. Facebook’s government & politics specialist for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Elizabeth Linder spoke about how that platform has become a hive of political debate – elections-related topics were the second most talked about on Facebook last year, and Facebook now needs to be a “core part of the policy strategy”. “This is far more than just communications”, she said. “This is about connecting people on one platform to influence policy.” Elizabeth pointed to the great work that the European Parliament has been doing in engaging the public in political debate, via a variety of platforms, and this was something that Dr Cristina Leston-Bandeira, Senior Lecturer in Legislative Studies at the University of Hull also referenced in her podcast contribution to the session. She said that the European Parliament’s adoption of Facebook “was pioneering in Europe, and they still use it in a very innovative and engaging way”. Whereas most legislative assemblies she studied use social media to push messages 80% of the time, the European Parliament was strongly focused on proper engagement of the wider population. One of its more notable achievements, she said, which other legislatures find difficult to do, is to “integrate the political voice” into its social media communications, by “integrating politicians into the actual channels”.

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On this point the European Parliament’s own acting head of its Web Communication Unit, Thibault Lesenecal admitted that including the political voice was more of a challenge on Facebook than say on Twitter, where MEPs are much more willing and likely to be engaged. This is reflected in the figures: some 559 MEPs, or 75%, are present on Twitter. How successfully they can be engaged via Twitter to influence policy areas largely depends, as the European Voice’s Dave Keating pointed out, on how active they are, and whether they are tweeting themselves or having their staffers to do so on their behalf. Successful engagement, Thibault Lesenecal, said, nonetheless requires consistency and perseverance: “you can’t just establish a voice online, you have to maintain it”.

One of the interesting findings of the session was how social media, by its very nature of nurturing conversations, is “building trust between people and politicians like we’ve never seen before”, which also opens the door for greater engagement of policymakers. Some of the businesses and industry associations present pointed to how social media has meant that politicians are nowadays often swayed by the plethora of popular voices online, and as a consequence end up following public opinion on some key policy areas rather than leading it, which proves a real challenge to business. FTI Consulting’s own experience is that social media engagement is cannot be just a one-shot activity, and that organisations and campaigners who maintain consistency in their digital engagement find that they are much more successful at taking advantage of those broken-down barriers between the public and policymakers, and consequently much better at shifting the needle of opinion via digital channels. Resources and expertise are also critical, as was recognised by the entire panel: successful engagement is predicated on having your social media strategy developed by someone who ‘gets it’.

The meeting was moderated by George Candon, FTI Consulting Brussels’ Senior Director, Digital Strategy.

Twitter: @geocan

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