The Parliament Magazine and Aviva hosted a panel discussion for MEP assistants, on how to best use social media in a policymaking landscape. Speakers offered up tips and insight on how social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are changing the way policymakers interact with citizens, as well as the effect this has had on traditional media.
Welcoming guests, MEP host Inés Ayala Sender admitted that she was fairly new to social media, having only started using it during the campaign for the European elections, adding, "I was a bit afraid, because I thought perhaps it would be too late for me to understand."
She explained that she began to fully grasp the importance of social media while on the ground in Tunisia during the Arab Spring; "It made me realise that a new world was developing for decision-makers, and that these networks are instrumental."
Two years on, the Spanish deputy said she is "addicted", having, "discovered a big world where you can find wonderful resources for our work here, though it is also full of risks that we must understand."
She also noted that social media enhanced, "the potential to meet each other, coordinate actions, exchange information or meet people from around the world", including voters and constituents.
Chairing the discussion, Marte Borhaug, senior public policy manager at Aviva, explained that explained that social media was particularly important for the company as it gives them "a new opportunity to communicate a lot quicker with customers."
Social networks are also a way for the business to, "connect with small ventures across Europe that we normally would not be able to meet in person", when looking for new start-ups in which to invest.
Gabriel Daia, who manages the Twitter account of EU40 - the network of MEPs under 40 told attendees that despite the advent of social media, "traditional media is not becoming less valuable or old fashioned, MEPs and politicians in general still love to be on television and be quoted on the front page of local or international newspapers, but now they also love to have a high number of followers, retweets, tweets and likes - there are so many platforms they can jump on to start engaging with their audiences."
The key thing to remember when conveying a message, said Daia, was to, "know who your audience is and tailor your approach to them." He outlined two campaigns carried by EU40.
First, 'Battle for your vote', a freestyle hip-hop battle organised in the European Parliament to try and get young people interested in EU politics ahead of the 2014 parliamentary elections. MEPs were paired with professional freestyle hip-hop artists, who rapped on their behalf on different topics related to EU policymaking.
More recently, EU40 launched the '#LikeYou' campaign, where MEPs and citizens all posed for individual portraits, to deliver the message, "politicians look like you and are indistinguishable". The photos were then widely shared by parliamentarians on social media using the designated hashtag.
Brett Kobie, Vice-President of digital, social and creative strategy at Brussels consultancy Fleishman-Hillard, presented several online content creation tools to the MEP assistants, and outlined the importance of social media.
According to data, said Kobie, "61 per cent of MEPs say they follow social media conversations every day." He also suggested creating a social media response protocol, in order to react quickly to online queries and messages.
Next up was Alexandra Ekkelenkamp, social media strategist at the European Council, who was speaking at the event in a personal capacity, who outlined her work and the latest social media trends.
She explained that, "messenger apps such as Whatsapp are interesting and growing. I am not sure what that will mean for us as political commentators, because people might take political ads badly, but at the same time, I have spoken to local governments who are thinking of using Whatsapp for crisis communications."
She added, "within the Council, even though resources might be limited, we take social media quite seriously and we see the difference that it can make - it can also be an outreach tool to the press."
She recalled being in the corridors of the Council during summits to decide on former Council President Herman Van Rompuy's successor and Greek bailout negotiations, and Council tweets on the subject being widely shared and retweeted thousands of times.
Ekkelenkamp told attendees, "I find that the distinction between social media and news media is becoming increasingly artificial. News media are some of the biggest players on social media, and some social media players have also become news media."
"A big trend right now is visual storytelling. Most content is produced for people who will be looking at it not from a desktop, but from a mobile device while waiting for a bus or out shopping. They will take maybe two to five minutes to check their various feeds and scroll past posts."
This is particularly relevant to video production, she said; "When going through a newsfeed, a video might start playing, and generally after three seconds a person decides whether or not to keep watching. Therefore, it's important to capture the audience's attention in three seconds." And given that most videos will play on mute, she noted that it was important for them to work without sound.
The audience was then given the opportunity to ask questions. One assistant shared that her MEP often wondered why did not have a LinkedIn account, and whether it was important for policymakers to have one.
Brett Kobie replied that, "it depends on which audience you are trying to reach. If you are focused on constituents then Facebook or Twitter are the best way to go, but if you want to speak to niche groups of people, or a specific business community, then LinkedIn might work."
Asked whether or not social media had a direct influence on policymaking, Alexandra Ekkelenkamp said, "I don't think there is a one-on-one connection, but during summits I do keep an eye on Twitter when it comes to topics being discussed, and I make sure it reaches the people who are negotiating."
"Politicians always look at what their constituents are saying, so I think if you want to create that link as a communicator, you need to create a feedback loop, not just share statistics."
And Kobie underlined that, "the way people consumer information than it was even a year or two ago, it's coming to the point where you can ignore what is happening in the social media sphere, but more and more at your peril - what you read on social media is just as real as what you would read in traditional media."
As to the most effective way to communicate through social media, Ekkelenkamp had this to say: "You can only do that with meaningful content. Start by knowing who your audience is and by listening to them, and figure out if anything you say matters to the discussion."