Marietje Schaake (MEP and EIF Governor) hosted the 30 May EIF breakfast event on the impact of social networks on MEPs' daily work.
Alexander Alvaro (Vice-President of the European Parliament and EIF Governor) was the morning's first speaker. He noted that while one message may get distorted when passed through a journalist's prism, Twitter is a useful tool for unmediated communications with citizens. Alvaro begged the audience not to use social media for broadcasting press releases and miss the chance to engage citizens in a two-way conversation. Alvaro gave an overview of current social media usage within the European Parliament: about 75% of MEPs are on Facebook (with a combined total of about 800,000 friends) and 39% are on Twitter (with a combined total of nearly 400,000 followers). Soon, he said, there will be a news hub on the EP website which will aggregate updates from all the known social profiles of MEPs. Regardless of how useful a tool may be, it's useless unless you learn how to use it. One keys to successful social media use is managing your followers' expectations. Campaigning has become increasingly intense in recent election cycles and while Twitter gives politicians an effective communication tool to react in real-time to events as they happen one cannot live in a constant 24x7 alert mode. So, Alvaro urged, don't pretend; just be open about your ability to respond given the demands on your time and set your followers expectations properly so as to avoid frustrating or disappointing them. In closing, Alvaro discussed about the possible consequences of ignoring social media tools. The Pirate Party's recent success, he said, was in large part due to the fact that they had learned how to use social media to communicate with citizens far more effectively than traditional political parties. Increasingly, Alvaro observed, citizens aren't interested in joining a political party. Social media tools facilitate adhoc discussions around particular issues outside what some might view as death embrace of a political party. If we don't accommodate these needs, Alvaro warned, someone else surely will.
Next up was Franck Debié (Associate Professor at École normale supérieure, Paris). Professor Debié has been engaged for the last year in a long-term planning exercise sponsored by the European Parliament to imagine what the world might look like in 2025 and what consequences the EP should anticipate in these scenarios. Professor Debié highlighted two broad trends which he saw during this study: disruption of traditional policymaking networks and changes in citizens' expectations. Regarding the first trend, policymaking networks have long been principally comprised of elected politicians, civil servants, academia, and representatives of private industry. Increasingly, citizens are trying to join the conversation around policymaking - largely via the social media tools - and this is putting new pressures on the established system. As to the second trend, Professor Debié sees a growing gap between the expectations of first-time voters and the self-perceptions of politicians. Politicians tend to see their political institution (ie, Parliament) as the forum for policymaking debates whereas first-time voters increasingly want to engage with their elected leaders in the round. Social media tools can be very helpful in bridging this divide by opening a communication channel between citizens and their elected leaders. Professor Debié addressed the digital divide (which has both a linguistic and a cognitive aspect) and how that excludes many citizens from joining the policymaking conversation. He closed with some observations concerning the promise and perils of cloud computing.
Matthias Lüfkens (Managing Director of Digital Practice EMEA at Burson-Marsteller) closed the event with suggestions on Twitter best practices and his observations about the impact of social media on politics and diplomacy. Twitter, Lüfkens observed, can be incredibly useful for debunking press reports and getting ones message across to constituents. He recommends tweeting consistently (2-3 times per day) and stressed the pointlessness of using Twitter as a broadcasting tool for press releases. Lüfkens pointed out that Facebook and Twitter are very different communities which shouldn't be conflated but addressed separately. He suggested various ways of engaging followers on a personal level, for example, by posting what you've been up to in Brussels that week. Lüfkens shared a number of observations made during a new study on Twitter diplomacy undertaken by Burson-Marsteller. He mentioned the Twitter chat sessions recently held by the White House (@whitehouse) and pointed out that while this may be an innovation for US politicians other countries have long embraced direct engagement via social media. He listed notable examples of major political figures using Twitter successfully, such as Rwandan President Paul Kagame (@PaulKagame) who is one of the most interactive leaders on Twitter, with more than 90% of his tweets @replies to his followers. Lüfkens described how the Malaysian Prime Minister Mohd Najib Abdul Razak (@NajibRazak) recently gave his followers the opportunity to have breakfast with him and how the Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati (@Najib_Mikati) holds regular hour-long Twitter Q&A sessions. Lüfkens also listed examples of Twitter misuse, such as French President François Hollande (@fhollande), French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (@LaurentFabius) and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (@dilmabr) where leaders have large numbers of followers but fail to interact with them. He stressed the need to tweet personally and that if you must delegate or dictate to make it perfectly clear when it is you at the keyboard and when it is not. Lüfkens named Council President Herman Van Rompuy (@euHvR) as perhaps the best example of a Twitter-saavy politician. He urged listeners not to only follow their political allies but also their opponents. Lüfkens warned that the traditional press might start to quote their tweets. In closing, commenting on the digital divide issue he added that in his view there is yet another digital divide, namely, between political leaders who engage their constituencies via social media and those who do not.See event