EU carefully manages PR through 1000s of press releases
By Honor Mahony
The average European Commission press release has taken days to write, been through an editorial process that often makes it longer and more complicated and is used to justify the commission's existence.
A recently-published thesis by Swedish academic Maria Lindholm shows that the style of the thousands of press releases churned out every year - 1,907 last year alone – are a unique product of the EU's political set-up.
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Through a combined use of language and tense, the commission's press releases are "sometimes openly political" and are occasionally tweaked to give extra weight to the commission.
"The commission not only uses press releases for informative purposes but also for justifying the EU and the commission," says the study, adding that it often underlines why it is necessary for the EU to do something and not the member states.
Unlike national ministries who can just put out a short news text, says the study, the commission often feels it has to explain why it is taking a PR step meaning that the press service is responsible for delivering information that is "both political and factual but without making a clear distinction between the two."
Lengthy editorial process
"The analyses show (…) that the editorial process can increase the length of the text considerably" says the study which points out that a press release goes through several stages of editing before it sees the outside world.
Referring to one particular press release, the study notes that, following drafting, "the commission was given a much more prominent role in the text [while] three references to the French authorities were taken out."
Speaking to EUobserver, Ms Lindholm pointed out that while the finished product may seem technical to the outside eye – they are often written in dry and uninspiring language – the people working on them in the commission feel that they are "really political."
This is normally because the piece of paper that finally reaches a journalist's hands has been the subject of a tussle between the spokesperson, the commissioner's political advisors and experts in different departments.
One particular press release on broadband access involving two commissioners – media and entreprise – saw 15 versions of the text and caused mild chaos because different groups of people were seeing different texts.
"The drafting of this text was not transparent even for those directly involved," notes the study.
Ms Lindholm also refers to the publication of press releases as occurring in a sort of "battleground" as there is a "competition for visibility among commissioners."
The academic, who spent six weeks in the spokeservices in 2005 researching her thesis, says that she spoke to a "high-ranking" official in the service who admitted that up to a third of press releases probably do not need to be published.
But spokespeople cannot really argue with their commissioner when they are determined to have their own pet project highlighted.
Meanwhile, some press releases are so political - such as the one in which Brussels allows state aid to be given to the French rail company SNCF (7 versions needed) - that the "news value" was not the most prominent feature during the creating of the message but rather adapting "the message to the commission's political agenda."
A press release on stem cells proved equally contentious. After the supposed final version was agreed, Ms Lindholm continued to receive three more 'final' versions - each independent of each other and each one getting "worse and worse."
She could not say whether the more political a topic is, the more legal and dry its text, but does believe that a text "is backed up more" when it is likely to be controversial.
"If you put a lot of sources in your text, it is harder to attack what is in the press release," says the researcher.
Her study also points to interesting developments in the use of tense over the years. In previous years, the commission used a lot of the conditional tense such as 'should' or 'could' to express a "more cautious attitude."
Nowadays this tense appears less frequently. "Does [the commission] want to look like a more confident speaker or was this an unconscious decision," asks the researcher.
Not political, says commission
A commission spokesperson rejected the claim that press releases are political. "We try to keep them simple and to the point," although he added that they are "not always as readable as they can be."
He also said that the executive is very conscious of wording in legal and technical areas where "there is a possibility to do any damage" with careless language.
"I can imagine there that you need more people involved," he said.