Saturday, March 23, 2013

How about this for an effective video?

A couple of days ago I was invited to attend a seminar in the press room of the Council of the EU. Entering the building brought back memories of my days at the BBC, when I was spending the day running around trying to get  more information and interviews on what the Council was discussing, desperately aiming to finish the piece in time for broadcast. There was no running this time. But, unlike most of those occasions, when I left the building this time I felt I had just been part of something very interesting, surrounded by thought-provoking speakers. 

The title of the seminar was "Public communication in the evolving media landscape: adapt or resist?" . Apart from the fact that everyone seemed to agree that government and institutions need to adapt rather than resist, there was a great variety of views and perspectives on the role and relevance of the Internet in general and social media in particular when it comes to communications. 

From an analysis of the psychology of the social media revolution, through mentions of Tomasi di Lampedusa, famous saying ''everything will need to change if we want everything to remain the same', to a speaker that compared (quoting an American professor) the internet to a dishwasher - it simply helps you doing things you always did, but in an easier way. 

But there was one moment that really struck me. Mischa Coster, a Dutch psychologist, was talking about the triggers and the emotions that push people to like, share, talk about things they see online. One of these emotions is loss aversion. In this context, he referred to the campaigns that most governments have developed to push smokers to stop. After showing pictures of the most commonly used i.e. health warnings and photos on packets of cigarettes, he asked us to look at this video:

I had tears in my eyes. I just couldn't help it. I thought I had seen it all and knew enough about videos and 'manipulation' not to be so moved. But I was wrong. What I find amazingly powerful of this video is that there is no mention of smoking at all, until the very end, but what you see are the possible consequences of smoking in all its dramatic manifestation. And without any doubt - the audience at the seminar all agreed- this is so much more effective than the health warnings on cigarette packs. (A little joke to cheer you up: do you know the one of the man that goes to buy a packet of cigarettes and, once he has it in his hand and has read the warning, gives it back to the shop owner saying: 'I don't want the one that says Smoking Kills You, give me the one that says Smoking hurts the ones around you, please!' Says it all on how successful warnings are, don't you find?)

Anyway, back to the video, it's true that being a parent and an ex-smoker, I probably represent the perfect target audience, but still, I could not have found a better way to show how powerful a video can be. As my sister said though, there should have been a disclaimer saying that the boy was not hurt during the making of the film because he does looks really, really upset. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

PreviEUws, or why Ms Ahrenkilde Hansen prefers her dentist.

There is an interesting website that has been brought to my attention. And it has been brought to my attention because I am writing about videos and the EU. This website defines itself  as 'The EU policy broadcaster' and is called ViEUws.

Before you start thinking that I am about to launch into a massive destruction exercise, let me say that I am really happy such a website exists. I will always go on repeating that video is a great tool to use and that it is admirable that there is someone trying to illustrate policies visually, even if mostly through interviews. So, I will not comment on the general quality of what is there because that is not my aim. (Let me just mention in passing the strange mix of private sponsors - with their own videos -and institutional material, but I guess the money needs to come from somewhere).

What I want to focus on is the regular interview with the European Commission's spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen. The interview series is called PreviEUws and focuses on the weekly agenda of the European Commission, ie what the EU is working on this week. Very good idea. But looking at the two people sitting in the studio, you really want to bring them a handkerchief, pat them on the back and tell them 'cheer up a bit... it will be over soon!'

Have a look yourself at the one of this week.

If one excludes some rare moments where Ms Ahrenkilde Hansen looks like she is about to start laughing at the interviewer, for the most part, she gives you the feeling that she would rather be sitting in the dentist chair, having her wisdom tooth removed, without anaesthesia. The very experienced interviewer (I checked it up on the site) is a Finnish native speaker and asks question at a pace and with an enthusiasm that, not surprisingly, makes the spokeswoman want to run to her dentist! Which makes me, in turn, quite angry, because it is a lost opportunity. And I am not talking about reaching a huge pan-European audience, but rather an audience of Europeans interested in what the EU does. The fact that the spokeswoman of the Commission is available to do this and spends quite a bit of time is great. But how do you make it punchier (or should I say punchy)?  Four small suggestions.

1) For starters, it should absolutely be no longer than 5 minutes and I am already being generous.

2) The two people should be sitting closer to each other with cups of coffee or water on the table between them - the one that now is empty and sad.

3) Looking at the agenda for the week, one should select no more than 4 topics, possibly fewer (unless of course it's a week where there is just masses of things going on) but make sure that on those topics, three key questions are answered: what is the Commission doing? What does this mean in practice? And why should we care? There might be some additional questions, depending on the topic or as follow ups but more as the exception than the rule.

4) The answers should then be edited in a way that conveys relevance and momentum. For this, one could use a simple graphic, which could also give a visual break, highlighting the topics and some key words of the answers.

These are little inexpensive changes that could make a big difference and make what is now a good idea into a good product. And a useful one too; for the Commission, which would have a way to explain directly to the public what they do; for ViEUws which would hopefully attract more people - and possible sponsors - to the site, and for the public which would be able to recognise the real impact that the work of the EU has on their daily life.

Enthusiasm is contagious. Let's make PreviEUws a carrier.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Reding, Arsenal and the Future of Europe

The other day I was talking to my husband over dinner and at some point I found myself saying: ' I think that one could say that Viviane Reding is a star!'. He nearly choked. He looked at me and said: 'There are no stars in the Commission, Virginia; it's the nature of their job....'

Let me try at least to explain why I said what I did, to myself as well actually... Viviane Reding a star? What had I been drinking?

I had just watched a 7 min video of the debate on the future of Europe, that had taken place in Dublin
in mid-January. The debate was meant to officially open the European Year of the Citizen.

Here is the video:


As you can see, after the Irish Taoiseach and Barroso had made some remarks and left (I assume so, as they disappear in the second part of the debate),  there comes Commissioner Reding... she is practically alone on stage - although at one point you see her with an MEP, in some sort of explosion of red, and with the Irish Minister for Europe. She moves back and forth as if she were a stand up comedian (not as funny though, but that is beside the point). The year of the Citizen is her 'baby' and she wants to make the most of it. She talks with emotion, recounting her personal experience as a Luxembourger being squeezed by two huge neighbours and as a woman fighting for gender equality. I mean, you are not blown away by her performance but at least there is a performance.

I am told she is loved by some (especially in the European Parliament) and hated by others who think she is an arch-federalist and mainly talks about popular - bordering populist - issues, to increase her own popularity and move onto greater things. But I say: so what? And could it be that she actually believes in what she is saying? And why is trying to be popular such a taboo in this city? I can hear it already: 'Oh dear, people actually understand and care about some of the issues we are dealing with....we must be doing something wrong!'

There is no easy answer though: as my dinner conversation progressed, some sort of dilemma emerged.

CASE A: If the EU decides to tackle so-called 'popular' issues such as gender quotas or bankers bonuses, often a wave of criticism by eurosceptics follows who think that Brussels should do less, not more and that these issues should be dealt with at national level.  They say, with some reason, that just because something is desirable (gender quotas), it doesn’t follow that this should be done at the EU level. 

CASE B (in full contradiction with case A, hence the dilemma!): In a situation such as the one we are in now, where the EU is as misunderstood as it is unpopular and where ignorance about Europe is fast turning into mistrust, dislike or even hatred, maybe it is not such a bad idea to deal with 'popular issue' – even if there is no compelling policy need to tackle the issue through the EU.

Just as a reminder, here are the three main meanings of the word 'popular':

1. regarded with great favour, approval, or affection especially by the general public

2. carried on by or for the people (or citizens) at large

3. representing or appealing to or adapted for the benefit of the people at large

Tackling issues that are not strictly on the European agenda might make people feel more passionate about Europe; hence, they should probably be part of what the EU does, if it cares about maintaining popular engagement and support. So, on top of the issues mentioned above, why not have, for example, a European equivalent of the Oscars - as European films are also funded by the EU-  with one prize for the best non-European movie? And how about....-pause for effect -  a true European football team? Not to substitute the national ones of course (then the EU would really be over!). Although, having said that....isn't Arsenal, just to take one, mostly composed of non English players? Think for a minute at the reaction if one said: 'Sorry Arsenal fans, but from now on your team will represent....Europe!' Just kidding. I am simply opening the debate, as Reding asked us to do, right?

In case you were interested in more details, not on the EU football team but on the Future of Europe debate here is a nice animated video (I do have some doubts about the timing of the whole initiative and about the voice in this video but still..):

So, as often happens, EU politicians might be damned if they do but also damned if they don't. Is it better to be criticised for being unpopular or to be criticised for being popular? Tough choice really. Maybe Theodore Roosevelt can help make that choice: 'It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed'.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Italian elections 2: hearts and minds of two different people.

I needed a couple of days to reflect on the results of the Italian elections. What does this vote mean? And is it true that the good communicators (Berlusconi and Grillo) won and the weak ones (Bersani and Monti) lost? One the face of it, it would seem that way. But as usual things are slightly more complicated (if only because the big 'loser' actually still came on top, as the biggest party in the country). And this complexity appears in all its beauty when you look at the difference between the results in Italy and those of Italians living in the rest of the world. Here is a little comparative graph (If you cannot read it properly or you feel slightly sea sick looking at this graph, don't worry, it's my cutting and pasting, sorry!).  
What does it show? That the losers in Italy are actually the winners outside, with Monti's party nearly reaching 20%.  They almost look like two different people. And maybe they are. But has communications something to do with it? If the PD and Monti were such terrible communicators, how come they are the first two parties among voters abroad? And why has Grillo not received more votes outside Italy as some of his key complaints - outlined via his blog which is so accessible to all - could definitely be shared by everyone?
Here are my possible explanations that might also help understand better the result as a whole. 

1) For good and for bad  (but more recently mainly for bad!) Italians abroad have not and will not suffer directly the consequences of their own vote. They have not experienced the crisis in Italy in all its negative ramifications and will not really be affected (anyhow not more than any European citizen) by the political and economical implications of these elections. 

2) Italians living in other countries have been subjected to a variety of information coming out of different media in different languages: they have seen that the crisis is everywhere, that we are all in this together, that other countries are making sacrifices too; they have read different analyses, heard different solutions.
3) There is no doubt that the Partito Democratico has conducted a terrible campaign, was too sure of winning, and very bad in communicating with the electorate, hence losing gradually most of the lead it had in the polls.  Throughout it had no clear message: Grillo kept on saying 'Basta', Berlusconi repeated 'Less taxes' and what did Bersani say? 'A fair Italy', ok, in what way exactly? And then? 'Smacchiamo il giaguaro!' which literally means 'let's remove the dots or stains from the jaguar'. Right. What the hell does it mean? Having said all that, voters outside had probably made their minds up some time ago as to whom they wanted to elect and especially who they did NOT want to elect and the disastrous campaign has not shifted the opinion.

4) For the reason just mentioned, and because most of them have not been watching Italian television as much as people in Italy, voters abroad have not followed the Berlusconi performance of the last couple of months, his great comeback; they read about it perhaps, but were not really influenced by it. Plus, the long Berlusconi years have hit Italy's reputation so badly - especially in Europe - , that it would have been really difficult for his party to do well among expatriates. 

In sum, and this can probably also explain why Grillo's movement did not do so well abroad, you could say that the vote of Italians outside Italy was a more rational one, done with the head, while Italians in Italy voted with their heart, more emotionally. Grillo has been able to channel the anger, the disappointment and the frustration of Italians (all very strong emotions) into votes for his movement; this could not quite have the same success outside Italy.

The rational, 'realcommunication' (no huge empathy, no exaggerations, low key) won with 'rational' voters. The emotional, idealistic (or should I say unrealistic) communication won with the 'emotional' voters. The question is: will it ever be possible in Italy to have a good mix of the two? The sooner a party or parties understand that this is the only way to get enough votes to actually be able to govern the better, I say.