Wednesday

7th Dec 2022

Opinion

EU communications: how not to do it

  • Maybe don’t show images of a gaggle of commissioners huddled around an iPad in astonishment as if it’s the first time they’ve seen one (Photo: European Commission)

Lights! Camera! Commissioners! Action!

You can see what the European Commission communications folk, or their hirelings, were thinking.

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“OK guys, we’ve got a big policy announcement coming up on a big topic (the Digital Single Market). We need to make a video to launch it and a big cheese to star in it.”

“[Digital Economy Commissioner] Oettinger?”

“Can’t. [Digital Single Market Commissioner] Ansip would be jealous.”

“Ansip?”

“Nope. Oettinger would be jealous.”

“What about [commission] president Juncker then? Doesn’t get much bigger than that.”

“Perfect. But how do we make it watchable?”

“Chuck in some humour.”

“Humour?”

“Yeah, humour. You know, we play with the idea that Juncker’s a technophobe who thinks an iPad is something you wear when someone punches you in the face. Self-depreciation. The Brits will love it.”

“Sold. Let the cameras roll.”

So the cameras rolled – or whatever they do in the brave new digital world ushered in by the commission – and the result is a short film that sums up much of what’s wrong with the EU’s audiovisual offerings.

First rule of PR: if you are going to have someone explain a policy, make sure they are interesting to watch and listen to.

Jean-Claude Juncker is neither – despite being the man ultimately in charge of the commission’s communications policy. The opening shot is of him striding down a corridor scratching his nose, peering at the camera to see if anyone noticed and then bowing his head.

The voice-over is about as dynamic as an ageing accountant reading a telephone directory – although still marginally more energetic than former VP Olli Rehn’s Soviet-style campaign video to be Liberal candidate for commission chief last year.

Second, make sure your narrator is understandable. When Juncker invokes the “barriers” to the single market, all I hear is “beers”.

Third, make your message meaningful. “The internet and digital technologies are transforming our world” is as blindingly obvious as saying “when I wake up at 4am I feel tired.”

Fourth, make sure your messenger is a credible person to deliver your message. If the aim of your film is to play up the EU’s cutting-edge credentials, maybe a tired-looking, bored-sounding, self-confessed tech-illiterate isn’t the best person to front it.

And maybe don’t show images of a gaggle of other commissioners huddled around an iPad in astonishment as if it’s the first time they’ve seen one.

Instead of top EU officials, hardly the most pioneering or entrepreneurial of Europeans, better to have someone like Swedish Skype founder Niklas Zennstroem fronting the launch - as he did in a recent PR film from the European Private Equity and Venture Capitalist Association.

Fifth, if your aim is to connect with Europeans outside the Brussels bubble who are tired of watching EU politicians in suits standing in front of flags and getting in and out of limousines, are the best images to show those of unelected officials in their swanky Brussels HQ playing with their iPhones and iPads during a weekly meeting of the commission?

Surely, a real-life story about how digital technology has saved, changed, or improved people’s lives would have been a better way of introducing a vague concept like the digital single market, which few care about or can relate to?

Finally, if you are going to use humour – which is risky – make sure you get it right.

The whole premise of the commission’s promo clip is that Juncker is a technophobe.

So when he takes the rubber of his pencil to his iPad and tries to scroll over a paper agenda, we are supposed to laugh. Unfortunately, the commission’s punchline got horribly lost in translation.

“Even techies like me know that technology has to be our future,” he says to a grating guitar-track reminiscent of Guy Verhofstadt’s now legendary commission president campaign video.

The problem is, this line only makes sense if Juncker says he’s a technical Luddite, as he does in the French version (“Meme des amateurs de technologie aussi peu avertis que moi savent que notre avenir doit passer par la technologie”).

To make matters worse, the English line was used as the pull-out quote in the president’s official tweet about the launch.

To be fair to the commission, they at least tried to be creative, and humorous – I particularly liked the cameo by VP Jyrki Katainen in which he orders “Investment for Dummies online”.

In the past the EU executive’s communications efforts have succeeded at both – check out Chemical Party, Pan Attack and Hot Summer Holidays.

But all too often they are let down by amateurism (I use commission press releases as examples of how not to write them in my media training), shoddiness (the EU’s official reaction to the Nepal earthquake was that it was “chagrined” – a word which means frustrated or annoyed because of failure or disappointment) and an obsession with style over substance in videos like the shockingly sexist Science – It’s a Girl Thing or this racist enlargement clip – both of which were quickly pulled.

Faced with growing disillusionment with the European project across the continent and slick, well-funded propaganda from its opponents – whether the Russian government or Eurosceptic groups – it is time for the EU to up its game.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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