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14 Mar 2017, Posted by Eric Karstens in European Policy,Internet,Journalism,Media Policy, 0 Comments

Communicating Europe: The State of Play


Please note that this is an edited version of a text that was written back in spring 2016 in a different context. Still, most of its observations hold.

Europe is making headlines. In the current decade, there has in fact been a surge in media attention for EU-related topics. What previously appeared next to impossible in most Member States, front-page stories involving the European Union in mainstream news outlets, has almost become a matter of course.

The Contentious European Public Sphere
Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not unequivocally favourable. While, to invoke an old adage, it may be “better to be looked over than to be overlooked”, the issues that lifted the European Union to the top of the news cycle are matters of great concern for citizens and policy makers alike. The measures to allay the Euro crisis; the difficult negotiations to prop up Greece’s public finances; the struggles to develop a unified line of action for the refugee situation; and, not least, the fallout from the EU referendum in the UK – all these topics are deeply challenging when it comes to the task of communicating Europe.

In effect, recent media coverage and the thus inspired water-cooler conversations have driven home the point that the EU has grown to become much more important, even vital, than many Member States and citizens had cared to realise. The countries in the Euro and Schengen areas feel this most acutely, but the situation has also firmly pulled those Member States back into the arena which might have come across as representing a “lower-speed” Union. EU Member States are playing an increasingly prominent role in each other’s media, as are the European Institutions across the entire continent[1].

And yet, the emotions attached to current European affairs are predominantly negative. More often than not, media frame the political decision-making process as a bitter struggle that produces “winners” and “losers”, and thereby contribute to a popular disenchantment with mainstream politics and governance. In many countries, this is exploited by radical right- and left-wing movements, which, if they go unchecked, may put the European Union’s achievements and cohesion at risk.

Leveraging Media Outreach
It is against this paradoxical background that future EU media relations will take place: falling on fertile ground in terms of interest, while embedded in a contentious and sometimes even adversarial context. This is a great, if challenging, opportunity. Picking up on controversy and a clearly existing public demand for EU-related news, reporting, and commentary is a much more adequate starting point than indifference and wilful ignorance.

No matter what, journalists and media remain the most important channel for the European Institutions to reach out to citizens and stakeholders, to explain their remit and policies, to foster understanding and, ultimately, create ownership. Media generate awareness and contribute to the public opinion climate, meaning that their impact goes well beyond their immediate audiences.

In order to leverage that trickle-down effect, it is important to take the right approach, to strike the right tone with journalists and other opinion makers, and to appeal to their natural curiosity and professional ambition. This requires a keen grasp of the media environment’s constantly changing fabric, and people or organisations acting as intermediaries and facilitators between the EU’s institutions and the news ecosystem.

Journalists prepare the best and most powerful coverage under circumstances where they are taken seriously and fully acknowledged as qualified interlocutors rather than as the receiving end of information intended to be passed on to the public. Accordingly, it is always advisable to take an approach that systematically lends support to diverse viewpoints of EU initiatives.

Smartly combining the points of view of officials, policy makers and third-party stakeholders such as political groups in the European Parliament, think tanks, lobby groups, academia, specialised journalists, or relevant NGOs, renders even highly complex topics more tangible and relatable – first for professional reporters, then for their audiences, and eventually for the wider public. This is the prerequisite for quality as well as quantity of media coverage in the first place, and at the same time the best antidote for the common public misperception of an amorphous and unintelligible “Brussels”.

Precisely at times of heightened political or economic risk, controversy, and public scepticism, outreach activities to multipliers should be stepped up and configured in such a way as to convert even negative momentum into an asset for communication, credibility, and authenticity[2].

The Ever-changing Media Ecosystem

The last two decades have seen yet another major disruption of the media system, one of many in history, with an accelerated rate of change since 2010. The online economy has eroded the revenue model of legacy print outlets for good, and is on the brink of doing the same to conventional broadcasting. At the core of this transition is the abundance of space for both contents and advertising on the Internet; it is no longer possible for an oligopoly of long-established enterprises to control and exploit a limited amount of channels for public outreach.

Drivers of Media Change
In fact, the “Internet Big Five”, Amazon, Apple, Facebook (including Instagram and WhatsApp), Google (including YouTube), and Microsoft, as well as a relatively small number of globally or regionally operating online-focusing companies, including Twitter, Pinterest, Snapchat, and VK (formerly VKontakte), are turning substantial profits. At the same time, journalism, news, and information-oriented mass media struggle financially – unless they are part of one of the highly developed public media systems of, inter alia, the UK, Germany, or Scandinavia.

An important aspect of this is the “commoditisation” of news: In the past, many outlets could sell the very same set of current affairs updates to many regionally or demographically segmented audiences. Now, however, plain news are globally ubiquitous and accessible for free in real time – they have become a commodity. In order to defend its raison d’être and cost, today’s journalism must hence provide palpable added value such as background information, well-researched exclusive stories, and carefully reasoned op-eds – or, alternatively, pander to clickbait. Delivering news has ceased to be a business for all but a handful of internationally operating news agencies.

In the meantime, popular usage of the Internet on mobile devices, especially smartphones, has surpassed PCs and laptop computers, with far-ranging implications. Small screens and the related usability issues drive the vast majority of mobile online traffic to just a handful of apps, with Facebook typically on top of the list; whatever contents is not available through these apps risks getting ignored altogether by a growing segment of the audience.

Individualised Mass Communication
Closely intertwined with this is another major transformational factor to the news ecosystem: The rise of what is somewhat imprecisely subsumed under “social media”. The Facebook group of companies in particular, together with a handful of others such as Google and Twitter, effectively controls the better part of the current ecosystem that could perhaps more accurately be described as individualised mass communication. Essentially and in principle, any person, corporation, or organisation can now directly and specifically target any connected individual, or group of individuals, with similar demographic or behavioural traits.

This holds true for genuinely personal conversations between users, just as it does for marketing messages, political opinion, and journalism. The big corporate players in this area effectively aim to absorb their users’ entire Internet usage. Consequently, they render regular websites (as, for instance, operated by major news outlets), blogs, and independent messaging channels (e.g., email, text) increasingly obsolete. Facebook’s “Instant Articles” or Google’s “Accelerated Mobile Pages”[3] outright integrate third-party media contents, as well as advertising, into their respective mobile and web-based platforms.

User Created Contents
Nonetheless, social networks and online comments have also enabled user created contents at scale. On the one hand, individuals are now in possession of the tools actually to break news, or to contribute to the public coverage of events. On the other hand, anybody can make their voice heard, share opinions and attitudes, and under the right circumstances may find their utterances amplified to mass media level. Without doubt, this has altered the public sphere. Journalists and news media, as well as other traditional makers of public opinion have lost part of their agenda setting power.

This is a mixed blessing: While user created contents allows politics and journalism better to listen to citizens and audiences, and to respond to their unmediated concerns and suggestions, it has also the potential to drive all kinds of extreme positions into the mainstream public debate. It is, however, not uncommon that this happens to an extent that, in fact, does not proportionally reflect the actual prevalence of a given stance within a population, but rather overdraws attention for it. The social web sometimes escalates radical minority views into the mainstream that might otherwise have been drowned out and neutralised.

In any case, user created contents, once cleared of obvious trolling and spam, must be regarded as a conversation rather than a broadcast, and should thus be taken as seriously as a face-to-face exchange. It may require verification and in many cases also interaction, such as a reply or sharing with the extended online community, and can serve as a seismometer for news, as well as for citizens’ and stakeholders’ worries and interests. Not least, it offers a forum for proactive outreach, too – albeit one that depends on substantial effort and expenses. Seeing that in particular Facebook has all but eliminated “organic reach”, it is often necessary to pay in order to push relevant content to one’s audiences.

Mainstream Publics and Issue Publics

With the above observations in mind, the contemporary EU-related media ecosystem can be described as catering to two kinds of audiences. First, there is the mainstream audience that is served by general-purpose news media. This is what is usually considered “the news”, i.e., information of perceived universal interest for any given citizen – politics, economy, society, culture, science, etc., and predominantly provided by professional journalists through branded outlets on paper, through broadcast, the web, apps, or social networks.

Setting the Mainstream Agenda
Regardless of the actual channel used, mainstream media are the conventional method of public outreach and, for now at least, keep working. Collectively, they still manage to catch the attention of the largest segment of Europeans who are at least casually interested in current affairs, and dominate the discourse of national elites. Just as importantly, they also capitalise on their reputation; the big names in national or local news still tend to confer status and relevance to whatever they report, thereby putting it on the public and political agenda. Highly-regarded legacy media have a trickle-down effect to lesser or secondary news; what they deem important will usually be mirrored elsewhere. Accordingly, when it comes to enabling European Union-related coverage, journalists representing conventional news outlets remain indispensable.

However, from the European perspective, it remains, in the words of Wolfgang Blau[4], a problem “that media are over-invested in the nation state”. Rather than contributing to the emergence of a genuine European Public Sphere, most conventional outlets limit themselves to the parochial perspectives of single Member States. The relative proliferation of specialised European media, among which Politico Europe, EurActiv, New Europe, and EUObserver lead in terms of audience numbers, is no remedy for this. These outlets effectively address only the “Brussels bubble” of EU officials, Members of the European Parliament, lobbyists, think tanks, political observers, and PR companies[5]. For anyone outside that bubble, it is really hard to muster the stamina to follow them, even if they have a strong stake in European affairs.

Agenda-driven Publics
At this point, issue publics come into play. When the main target group for communication is not necessarily, or not initially, the general public, nor the Brussels bubble, greater impact may be achieved by focusing on dedicated stakeholder communication channels. Today, a greater variety of special interest with EU implications is served by more media channels and modes of communication than ever before – only that the relevant coverage does not necessarily coagulate around the EU or nation state, but around a topic, and that topical conversations are not always directly interconnected.

A few years ago, Ronny Patz[6] only half in jest called this the “EU foam”, the observation that EU themes were permeating the then-existing blogosphere well beyond dedicated EU blogs and across languages. Around the same time, Lance Bennett[7] demonstrated through online network analysis that the same holds true for pan-European NGO campaigns. By example of the issue of fair trade, he shows that EU-level and international organisations are in close contact with related thematic networks at Member State and grass-roots levels, and that information readily flows up- as well as downstream through those networks, offering translation in the process as needed, and managing to stick with tangible, actionable contents. Bennett concludes that this “issue sphere” is, as a matter of fact, complementary to the mediated public sphere and may even inspire greater and more targeted engagement by citizens and civil society.

The same goes for practically any topic of EU relevance; each has its own issue network, albeit these networks may be structured very differently. One of the most important characteristics of such issue publics is that they may form across national borders, beyond social classes and educational backgrounds, and even across the lines of opposing political parties and factions. Members of issue publics come together and interact primarily online, on thematic websites and in (semi-)organised social media groups, and tend to meet in person on the occasion of relevant events, for instance international conferences.

Once identified, issue publics are a particularly efficient way to reach out to the stakeholders of any topic. This is because they usually convene around an effective issue-specific communication infrastructure such as a website or a social media account (public or restricted to approved members). Many issue publics are activist or lobbyist in nature, meaning that they are highly likely to engage with information proactively, thus launching a lively debate that may function as an amplifier and therefore radiate beyond their own circles.

[1] See also Paul Gillespie: News Media as Actors in European Foreign-Policymaking. In: The SAGE Handbook of European Foreign Policy, Vol. 1 (2015), pp. 413-428, and the observations of Michel Malherbe in his blog: http://www.lacomeuropeenne.fr/2016/03/31/de-l-europeanisation-par-la-negative-des-espaces-publics-nationaux/
[2] For a slightly irreverent recent example of how this can work, please see http://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/BART-gets-candid-in-Twitter-exchange-with-angry-6900683.php
[3] Please see Emily Bell: Facebook is eating the world (2016), for a more comprehensive summary: http://www.cjr.org/analysis/facebook_and_media.php
[4] https://twitter.com/EricKarstens/status/604231159652990976
[5] Please see for more details: http://burson-marsteller.be/2016/01/what-influences-the-influencers-comresburson-marsteller-2016-eu-media-poll-findings-unveiled/ and http://www.lacomeuropeenne.fr/2015/12/14/l-europe-des-medias-presentation-del-espace-mediatique-europeen/
[6] http://polscieu.ideasoneurope.eu/2012/05/11/the-illusion-of-the-eu-bubble-and-the-discovery-of-the-eu-foam/
[7] Grounding the European Public Sphere. Looking Beyond the Mass Media to Digitally Mediated Issue Publics. KFG Working Paper No. 43 (2012)