Picture: still from EuroPCom 2018 official trailer
These days, we are constantly bombarded with news, important messages and irrelevant information, offline and particularly online. This information overload makes it even more important to focus on quality and ability to get people’s attention when trying to get our message across. It is also not enough to use the same methods that worked before; we might easily find ourselves somehow disconnected from new audiences or unable to help them delve deeper into certain topics.
So, how do we make sure that we communicate effectively – especially when it comes to new target groups, such as our young Generation Z; and trying to make them engage with complex topics, such as the European Union and active European citizenship?
Campaigning for Europe was this year’s theme of the 9th European Public Communication Conference (EuroPCom) in Brussels, a free annual event for communication professionals from public authorities, the private sector, NGOs and academia. The conference is organised by the European Committee of the Regions, in close cooperation with the European Parliament and other European institutions as well as OECD. The two-day event on 8–9 November 2018 looked at three main themes – the upcoming European elections, citizens and their engagement, and digital communication tools and trends – and addressed these through talks, workshops and mini trainings along with other interactive sessions as well as a market place of projects and ideas.
Opening session: How to campaign for Europe?
The opening session addressed campaigning for Europe as well as two sub-themes: effective communication, and people’s perception of the EU. After the welcome by Sylvie Guillaume, Vice-President for Information Policy, Press and Citizen Relations at the European Parliament, the moderator Florence Ranson, a communications and EU affairs specialist, interacted with the large audience through a series of online polls to get an insight into the participants’ background. She then invited Emmanuel Rivière, Chairman of Kantar Public, France, to present the first results of the Flash Eurobarometer “Public opinion in the EU regions”. One of the most interesting outcomes was that while trust in the EU was 59 % on average among the respondents from across Europe, trust in national governments was only 42 %. This, while bringing important questions for national politics, is also an encouraging starting point for people wishing to advocate the common European project and values.
Danijela Svircic, a young This Time I’m Voting campaigner from Croatia, talked about her approach to campaigning and attempts to make voting and active citizenship trendy. A lot of her work takes place in the offline world: from presentations in high schools to info-booths to sports events.
Stephan Petermann, architect and co-organiser of Eurolab at Forum On European Culture in the Netherlands, presented various information campaigns, with slogans such as “Not perfect, but still a family” or ”Your grandparents fought for it; your children depend on it; you just need to vote for it” used to promote the European project and voting in the elections. He also talked about the importance of exploring innovative communication channels and understanding their potential in different countries: for example, in Sweden, milk carton boxes are successfully used for communication purposes and get a lot of attention.
Prof Dr Claes de Vreese, Professor of Political Communication & Journalism at the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, emphasised the need for diverse views and approaches. For him, elections are about very different opinions, finding a variety of solutions to our problems and using different messages; there is no “one size fits all”.
Soundous Boualam, Founder of Humans of the EU, Belgium, focuses in her work on the humans rather than the system, drawing attention to stories of people who make the EU what it is at different levels.
Dr Susana del Rio, Doctor in Political Sciences and member of the Committee of Independent Experts of the European Commission on ‘Citizens and Governance’, Spain, believes that we need to show that EU is a big part of our lives and all the things it affects and has achieved. She finds it useful to share the more abstract concept of the European dream hand in hand with the reality, the policies and concrete impacts, a tangible Europe for citizens – show why people should care and can benefit from voting. She shared her view in reaction to a question from an audience member on how to communicate stories that resonate with people who are not yet convinced; stories that embrace “local” and “human”.
Ms Ranson concluded with: “Campaigning for Europe is a collective responsibility, everyone’s business, and we can all help.”
Mobilising Generation Z workshop
The workshop, moderated by Maria Freitas, Policy Advisor at Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) in Belgium, looked specifically at communicating – be it the EU, active citizenship or other relevant topics – to young people born after around mid-90s, so the generation after Millennials.
Sara Carrer, Senior Advisor at ThinkYoung and Senior Director Europe&Africa at Burson Cohn & Wolfe (BCW), Belgium, shared some observations about Gen Z compared to previous generations. They are generally more educated and eager to learn, as well as entrepreneurially-minded: data shows that they are more and more likely to want to start their own company (over 60 % of them), more proactive and less likely to hang around rather than starting something useful themselves. They want to make an impact and spend their free time meaningfully, and nearly a third of them have volunteering experience at local or international level. They tend to be pragmatic and appreciate straight-forward, no-nonsense communication showing the reality. They are hyper-connected and spend on average 10 hours per day online; their offline and particularly online language is also different, with specific acronyms and abbreviations as well as frequent use of emoticons. Her 10 tips for connecting with Generation Z were: “use their tools”; “talk in images”; “communicate frequently”; “feed their curiosity”; “collaborate with them”; “tell the truth”; “don’t treat them as kids”; “tap in their entrepreneurial spirit”; “help them learn”; and “show the bigger picture”.
Thomas da Luz Duque, Head of Digital, 20something, Belgium, emphasised the importance of the ability to grab young people’s attention: for example on Facebook and other social media, you only have about 3 seconds for it, and you compete for the attention with a lot of other people. These days, Instagram, Snapchat or Reddit are used much more than Facebook among Gen Z. He believes you can learn a lot about their communication habits by being among them, collaborating with them or even letting them take over; they do this every year at his company too by inviting about 50 Gen Z people that can run their own small communication agency within their agency. And on top of knowing the tools and means, authenticity is key – if you have a clear, strong point of view and stand by it, and if they like the message, they will support you and take action. They do not want to be told how to behave and do things, but education and clear communication are key, also to show them that their vote does change things.
The need for authenticity was echoed by Lucia Laterza, Community Manager at Manythink, Belgium. According to her, Gen Z are generally educated, and they do not want to feel like one is playing games with them, like being tricked or used for other purposes. Furthermore, if you only speak about policies, young people outside the bubble will not understand: they need to be able to see concretely how something would work in practice, make a change and impact them and others. Also, it is important to show to youth and all people that European Union is more than just the institutions – the EU is also about all the different local issues in different member states, and for people to feel European, it is necessary to help them experience Europe beyond what they hear about the institutions and policies.
Louis Durand, a 21-year-old educator and musician from Belgium, talked about how he had learnt about the Road Trip Project on Instagram and, once selected, had the opportunity to go on a road trip around the EU, exploring various initiatives for the greater good. Through the Road Trip Project (an initiative of the EU’s Regional and Urban Policy department of the European Commission), he got to know Europe much better, and the experience made him reflect on his identity – “I’m not just a boring Belgian guy, I’m European!” – and boosted his interest in engaging more with European issues and active citizenship. He is not satisfied with the space such topics get in formal education. Furthermore, when trying to access information, for example on TV, he often cannot digest the language of the people “in the [policy] bubble”. The language of policy-makers and officials needs to be adapted to connect with all the people. When asked for other tips on how he thinks more young people could be persuaded to vote, he added that he believes in the power of music, as do many other young people, and for him working with youth through music could be a useful direction to explore. Furthermore, in education, he could imagine collaborative projects in which political parties are organised inside the classroom, recreating the system on a very small scale, so that young people understand early on how it works and get more interested, whether it is in voting or in political and other forms of engagement.
Other interesting thoughts emerged throughout interaction with the audience. It was agreed that when you talk about all the positives the EU brings that you take for granted, you should highlight the effort behind it; Europe should not be taken for granted. For Ms Carrer, not all the communication has to always stay positive however – if the situation is not positive, you cannot either, as it would lose authenticity. Creating a community through shared experiences, rather than educating young people, was presented as a good strategy, though often people might find difficulties engaging Gen Z with politics once the community is created. Mr da Luz Duque proposed asking questions and listening to youth – they have opinions and are happy to share them. However, it was concluded that there is no simple recipe for instant improvement in effective communication, and that time and experimentation is required.
The conference offered many more sessions aimed at helping participants enhance their work in communicating European issues, both in relation to the European elections on 23–24 May 2019 and in general. We hope that the efforts will result in better dialogue between the different stakeholders involved and in ensuring that European citizens connect more with the European as well as national and local community and proactively shape their future.