So, having taken apart the behaviour of European Commissioners on Twitter earlier this week, the critique has poured in – most of it to me personally in private, and some of it on Twitter. In this blog entry I am going to examine each main avenue of the critique, piece by piece, and give my take on it.
“Commissioners don’t have the time”
I reject this one. It does not require much time to use Twitter as a senior person, not least because you have staff to help you. With 10 minutes a day (that anyone ought to be able to spare) it’s possible to build a decent Twitter prescence. Take the example of the small immunication alliance GAVI (I heard their comms guy at an event recently) – their account @gavi tweets the news, while their boss @GaviSeth tweets himself, with ideas fed to him from within the team. A person tweeting, with an authentic voice, generates more traction than a bland organisational account, and a personal account run by a team (as is the case for most Commissioners) feels hollow. Also rumours abound in Brussels that the EU institutions do not have much to do just presently as the Timmermans mantra to do less and do it better is brought to bear.
“They don’t have the resources”
This relates to the first one. This is ridiculous. Each Commissioner has a communications adviser, and if a Commissioner’s team asks for it I am sure they can find the resources for whatever apps or monitoring tools they want. They can also afford data roaming wherever they are, and all have smartphones as far as I know.
“They don’t have the incentive”
This is a bit of an odd one – and implicit within it is that as Commissioners are not elected but appointed, why would they bother? But conversely why do I have the incentive to write this blog entry? I do it, and write about politics, because I am fascinated by politics. Pretty much every European Commissioner was a national politician before stepping up to the Brussels level – where has their fascination with politics, or determination to communicate, gone? Or did they never have it? Worrying either way I think, and a problem that is wider than Twitter use. Former British Ambassador Tom Fletcher was also not elected but built an extraordinary reputation through tweeting himself, and was kind enough to tweet this to me:
— Tom Fletcher (@TFletcher) October 7, 2015
If Tom can do it, if Alexander Stubb can do it, if Carl Bildt can, why can’t Commissioners?
“Communication is separate from the ‘real work'”
I do not see politics this way. A good policy is one that works well, but is also understood and appreciated by its intended targets. A good politician is one who can not only take the right decision, but can also communicate why that decision was taken. Take the way Tsipras and Varoufakis played the communications in the Eurozone crisis – their tweets in English helped shape the debate in their favour, while the Eurozone side (led by Germany) communicated horribly and won the day with their policy but lost face because no-one understood why they were so harsh. In politics both perception and reality matter, and communication cannot be separated from the policy – in the Commission or anywhere else.
“Why would they listen to ‘ordinary Europeans’?”
The idea is that there are all sorts of organisations that can tell the Commission what is going on (NGOs, trade associations, lobbyists) and hence they do not need any knowledge from everyday people. First, there is not an organisation for everything – my eyewitness reports of Schengen breaches are about the only reports of such things as there’s no alliance or NGO dealing with the internal borders of the EU – because there is not does that make my issue irrelevant, and mean I should refrain from tweeting Commissioners about the issue? Second, social media – done right – can be an early warning system for problems that may then grow in importance. Third, the internet changes the way information is consumed and produced – being able to produce content is in the scope of any person with basic skills, and online communications removes the distance between Brussels and where a person lives. Of course not every person has a good point, every time, but some might – so ways need to be found to hear those who do.
“You ought to just e-mail them instead”
Twitter is public. It has an accountability that e-mail lacks. Anyone who’s ever tried to e-mail a Commissioner or indeed any politician ends up with the problem so well documented by Cristian Vaccari – no response. Plus if a politician is themselves present on Twitter then there’s a chance you get a message onto the screen in front of their eyes – unfiltered by staff – and that can be a powerful thing.
“Oh but they are good on Facebook”
Frans Timmermans is. Anyone else, really? And being good at one network is not reason to be crap elsewhere. The fact that there are 28 of 28 Commissioners with a Twitter account shows the importance of Twitter in EU politics, and it remains a better tool for political debate than Facebook, as I outline here. Plus – as I stated in the original blog entry – I do not expect every Commissioner to use Twitter, but rather expect honesty from them and some two way dialogue, or an honest statement in a biography that an account is a one way news channel.
“As soon as they reply to something there’s the expectation they have to reply to everything”
We do not have that expectation of anyone else on Twitter, so why should we think that of Commissioners? The important issue is that you might get heard – there’s no way to guarantee that you will get heard, and that is fine.
“They’ll get trolled”
Yes. Everyone on Twitter does, to a greater or lesser extent. So Commissioners, like anyone else, need a strategy to cope with it – muting absuive accounts, blocking them if necessary. To be fair but firm in other words. The US Air Force’s way to deal with this remains an excellent blueprint. I’m also of the view that behaving like a decent human decreases the likelihood of trolling – I may disagree with @MalmstromEU about TTIP, but she seems like a decent person, so I am not going to attack her on Twitter (more on that here). The @Bulc_EU account, by contrast, will never reply to anything I send them (depite the fact I write about railways all the time and know what I am talking about) and hence I’m not going to think twice about kicking up a stink towards them in order to prove my point.
“Everyone’s tired of Twitter”
This is possibly true, but everyone is going to get more and more tired of Twitter – especially those of us within politics – if politicians using it are themselves getting more and more tedious. As Twitter itself says in its guide for politicians, Twitter done right can be like a short, virtual handshake with a voter, and that remains as true now as ever. Sure, Twitter itself needs to get sorted out under new/old CEO Jack Dorsey, but one way tedious communications from poiticians are not really welcome on any notionally social medium.