Friday, May 31, 2013

I need you. First pictures, first cameras, iconic Europe: last seen in 1984?

I have been spending the last couple of days watching photographs. Great, you will say. Not really. Why not? You will ask. Because I have not found what I was looking for. And before you start singing U2 or Rolling Stones songs about not finding what you are looking for and not always getting what you want, let me tell you that I have not found I got what I needed either. What EUROPE needed actually. There was absolutely no need for this musical reference but boy, I love these songs! What was I looking for? An iconic image. A memorable photo. One that could immediately transmit what the EU has been, is and hopefully will be about. The main reason for my search is that I realised that every big event, moment or big change in history, good or bad, has at least one picture that captures it and makes it indelible for future generations. Here is just an incredibly small selection:

Pretty strong images don't you find? Truth be told, I did find one for the European Union as well. But it dates back to 1984. And I am sure some of you will dispute this is a photo of an  iconic EU moment as it was taken during a Franco-German meeting but it does epitomise perfectly the raison d'être of the EU.

So, as I think I should try to be more interactive, - and I need help! - I will ask you to help me find another one.  Is there somewhere a more recent photo that represents the EU, just as memorable as Mitterrand and Kohl holding hands? If it's hard to find, does that mean it is difficult to find anything memorable? What should we make of that?

We all agree the EU needs stronger symbols. If you search  'European Union' in Google Images all that comes out, in every possible shape or form, is the blue flag with yellow stars. So, increasing the variety of symbols would not be a bad start. But symbols alone are not enough. Inspiring behaviour of European leaders would itself create memorable images and with that new, positive associations with the European Union.

Such imagery would easily replace the tedious family photos and stills of the press conferences of European Summits. Unless, of course, these beautiful EU images already exist and I had simply missed them...

And just to leave you with a funny question about iconic photos and cameras... I know it's not really the first camera and it is a bit silly, but it did make me laugh:

The world's first camera in the making: but, which camera took the picture?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Olive oil and the three Brussels ailments

I love olive oil. I love good olive oil. But why oh why, did the olive oil jug ban in restaurants and the subsequent U-turn become the main EU news coming out of Brussels last week? Has anyone noticed that there has been a European Council as well? Yes, it did get a bit of attention, but way less than the olive oil story.

This made me think. I often complain about how badly the EU institutions communicate. But there is more to it. I realised that there are three syndromes that from now on I will need to keep in mind when trying to find ways for the European Union to (re)connect with its citizens. And I will also have to be careful and remember that many in and around the EU suffer severely from these conditions, and not all of them are working in the Communications department of the European Union.

1) The shape of cucumbers syndrome: the problem sometimes is not how the EU communicates its decisions but what those decisions are. The Commission works on a vast number of portfolios and agriculture is a big one. But in the current economical situation, well, at any time for that matter, there are some things that the EU simply should not be dealing with. And jugs in restaurants is such a thing. Especially since countries that have such legislation already in place have serious difficulty implementing it - I wonder why.... So let's just leave it to the customer shall we?

 2) The damned if you do and damned if you don't syndrome: the fact that after the barrage of criticism Commissioner Ciolos decided to withdraw the proposal has been criticised just as much as the proposal itself. If you believe in something, then stick to it and defend it. But if you have actually changed your mind and you have the courage - because it is slightly embarrassing - to go out and openly say it, then be prepared to be slagged off anyway. Funnily, at the press conference, since most of the questions were related to how bad the proposal was in the first place, the Commissioner, after his u-turning statement, spent most of the time defending the original proposal and certainly not enough on why he had changed his mind.

Here the inspiring press conference:

3)The powerful lobbies syndrome: the typical Brussels conspiracy scenario: the olive oil industry lobby versus the butter producers lobby; the northern lobby versus the southern lobby; the quality lobby versus the quantity lobby; 'the-Commission-is-too-weak-in-front-of-industry' lobby versus 'the-Commission-is-too-weak-in-front-of-powerful-member-states lobby'. Couldn't it simply be that the Commission has made a mistake, realised it (admittedly after some external pressure) and acted on it (again, a bit too late)? Don't get me wrong: I am not saying that lobbies in Brussels are not powerful; I am only pointing out that everyone has got their 'bad lobby' to blame for something or other.

The Commission, the member states - for or against the proposal - and the European media have all behaved in a typical but frankly disappointing way: not one of them has actually explained properly what has happened: why has the idea come up in the first place? How serious of an issue it is? Why did countries like the UK abstain and later shouted against it to please their Euro-sceptic audience? Why has Cameron decided not to explain the reason for this strange behaviour, a question posed brilliantly also by Wall Street Journal's journalist Simon Nixon? Why has the coverage been so extensive but not particularly rigorous? Sadly, everyone stuck to their defensive position and kept on pursuing their own agenda.

And in the end, once again, the real losers are the European citizens whether they love olive oil or not.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Creativity for Space and space for Creativity

As you surely will have seen, Commander Chris Hadfield is back on Earth.

And if you don't know what on earth (ah ah, have not done it on purpose, I swear!) I am talking about, it means that you have obviously missed a great opportunity to see social and traditional media communications - at its best - in action! (Ok, insulting your readers may not be the best way to increase readership, but you know me!)

Anyway, Commander Chris Hadfield is a Canadian (as a Canadian friend proudly made me notice) astronaut. He has spent the last 5 months on the International Space Station. From up there (and with the help of teams of professionals back on Earth), he has been 'reporting' using tweets, videos and photos.

The videos covered quite trivial matters: very trivial actually, like how to brush your teeth, but being in space made it very entertaining indeed. They were done professionally, with humour but always informative.

Here are a some of the most fun ones:

I should probably stop here, but I can't! Here is a couple more, food related:

Some of the photos he took of the Earth were amazing. But he also took interesting or funny pictures inside the station.

And just before coming back he sang David Bowie's 'Space Oddity'.

It went viral. How cool is that? (And even if he pre-recorded it on Earth and lip-synced it in space, as it is being pointed out, so what?)

So in these five months, Commander Hadfield has become a celebrity and space travel has become fascinating once again: he has now nearly a million followers on Twitter and his videos got thousands and thousands of views. NASA and the Canadian Space Agency could not have had a better promoter. And they - as my Canadian friend Bruce called them 'the naturally conservative people that run these things (they fear failure more than the astronauts do)'  - could not have done a better job allowing this to happen and helping to make it a success.

Granting your employees the space (oops! I did it again!) to express themselves in their own way is  often seen as too risky but in fact, as this brilliant example shows, in most cases it's a great way to get effective communication out. Of course, you can never be sure and you might have to accept the fact that things might go wrong sometimes, but it is definitely more human and hence successful than a restrictive approach to external and internal communications through social media.

Unfortunately big companies and organisation are very often risk-averse when it comes to communications and prefer to 'limit' the expressions of creativity to a few authorised people they can trust. Let me give you an example. The EU! A friend working for the European Commission sent me the paragraph that summarises the rules when it comes to communicating on the Commission's behalf:

"As a general rule, only Commissioners, Spokespersons, Heads of Representations and Press Officers in Representations are entitled to speak on behalf of the European Commission and to relay political messages. In response to the growing interest in social media, ‘mandated staff’ in every DG, working in close cooperation with the Spokespersons, have now been added to this."

In response to the growing interest in social media? Mandated staff? Oh dear. Naturally EU employees can have their personal Twitter and Facebook account but they need to make it clear they speak on a personal capacity. I understand you would want to be careful on specific stories and controversial subjects but in those cases it's quite likely that you will be - and have been actually - criticised no matter what you decide to say and who you decide to allow to say it! 

Imagine for a minute the Canadian Space Agency applying a similar rule:  a twelve o'clock press conference on Earth, in a boring room, with the official CSA spokesperson outlining what Commander Hadfield is doing inside the ISS and how! And that's it. And now tell me that you are not delighted that they have opted for a more individual and less institutional communication strategy!  

Monday, May 13, 2013

The 'visuality' of not being visual.

As you well know, I spend a lot of time telling whoever is interested that being visual is not a nice option in communications but an indispensible one, in our day and age etc etc.You have heard it all before.

But today, as I am a woman full of contradictions, I want to talk about a website that is not visual at all. Well, that is not quite correct. It's not visual in the traditional 'web' sense of the word, i.e it does not have lots of pictures or videos. But it is visual in its own way. Have I lost you?

Bear with me. In my opinion, the aim of visual communications is only one thing: a way to make people read, listen or watch (are these three things?). So in a sense, if a website achieves that successfully, then for me it is visual even if it doesn't have hundreds of colourful pictures. And I will push it even further: how would you react if I told you that the strength of this particular website, is precisely that it is NOT visual in the traditional sense?

Watch this 5 minute video interview with the designer, Ben Terrett and you will understand what I mean. Ah, and the website is the UK's government website GOV.UK:

Did you hear? "The user does not have to understand government to find something out'. And, when talking about the design, he realises that they are 'doing information design, not pushing pictures around the screen'.  As people visit the site looking for specific information, the designers had to 'strip away all those bits that get in the way of that information'.

So stripping away what is not needed can also be considered a visual way of communicating to a public that, in this particular case, is only interested in information.

Now, look instead at the EUROPA. EU website - you knew that I was going to make a comparison, didn't you? - The homepage might even look similar but once you get into the site you drown, and I don't need to elaborate, as I have said this before. The idea to have all the digital information of the EU into one site is commendable - although a couple of people I have spoken to recently here in Brussels did not even know that the 'Europa' site existed as they only check the sites of the different institutions. But is a platform not a merger as all the other sites (institutions, commissioners, DG's etc) are still happily and separately there. 

I realise that centralising digital communications in the EU, as they are doing in the UK, would be a very dangerous suggestion because some of the nicer and more innovative things are coming from creative individuals who work in different parts of the EU and not necessarily in DG Communications. And I  guess that I will be probably dead before they might agree to merge all the sites into one.

So, I am not keeping my hopes up, but at least I had the chance to explain why not being visual sometimes is actually....very visual.

And before you think I am mad, let me tell you that the site was recently named the 2013 best design of the year!  It does not get more visual than that!

Monday, May 6, 2013

I like ‘Debating Europe'. Have I become a softy? Not a chance.

Let it be said that I am doing my bit for the 'European Year of Citizens'.

I say this because, as I was complaining about the lack of clarity recently, today I want to show you something that instead couldn't be clearer: 'Debating Europe'.

Here is a cute video that explains what it is all about:

The idea is very simple. We want European citizens to be more connected with European decision makers (both at EU and national level) and vice versa? Then, let's give them the opportunity to interact directly with each other and start a proper debate on Europe. The website is incredibly well done, easy to understand and pleasant to look at. There are recognisable themes, lots of questions, and lots of answers. The 'infoboxes' are useful and look nice. The creators, the partners and the sponsors are all clearly listed. It is interesting to note that, even if it lists the European Parliament as a strategic partner, this is not an official EU initiative but the idea comes from one of the Brussels' think-tanks 'Friends of Europe'. Microsoft, Gallup and Skype are also strategic  partners. I would have liked to read what each of them actually does on this project, rather than a long spiel on how committed to Europe these companies are, but hey, you cannot have everything, right? Many pro-European and 'pro-debate-in-general' organisations are also mentioned as partners. You can be active in a variety of ways and follow it with every possible social media; it's refreshing to see that their Facebook page has more than 90 thousands likes.

These type of ideas and the careful - and I bet expensive - manner in which they are executed is a great possible way to bring citizens - at least the youngest generations- closer to Europe. I am not becoming a softy because we are approaching Schuman day, don't worry. I am only giving credit where credit is due.  So spread the word! (I want them to have 10.000 followers on Twitter before the summer!)