Clear leadership required on EU external action communication strategy
A recent evaluation on the Visibility of EU External Action carried out by ECDPM and the Development Researchers Network concluded that since the reorganization of the EU external action services post-Lisbon a lack of clear direction and leadership on visibility issues has hampered the projection of a strong EU image in international affairs.
The evaluation, commissioned two years ago by the European Commission’s former External Relations (Relex) Group of DGs, was concluded in June 2012 and the report presented to EU officials at a seminar on 7 September. During the course of this global evaluation the study team conducted over 260 interviews, reviewed some 1000 media reports, conducted a targeted media coverage analysis in 20 European newspaper and carried out six thematic studies in different countries. In addition 220 people responded to an internet based attitudinal survey. The full report including thematic reports that looked at the image of EU action under each of the 6 themes in six specifically chosen countries – crisis and fragile states: conflict and peacebuilding (Georgia); the financial and economic crisis (Grenada); the food crisis (Kenya); migration (Mali); climate change and energy (Cambodia) and lastly, environment, biodiversity and deforestation (Indonesia) – is available on the Commission’s external action evaluation web pages and is also covered on capacity4dev.
While the study discovered that audience images of EU external action were broadly in line with the visibility priorities set by the Commission in 2006, since the reorganization in 2010 a lack of overall direction on visibility strategies for EU external action means there is now no longer any clear single visibility strategy for EU external action. Individual DGs, such as DG Development and Cooperation, are setting in place new communication strategies, but no attempt has yet been made to replace the overall external action set of communication priorities from 2006. An overall strategy would provide the basis for more unified communication work across the external services and is a particularly important basis for different EU representatives around the world to build on for their own communication work. The EU is a diverse organisation with many different components and particular features that are hard to explain in a simple manner, so it is all the more important that the various EU actors within the system work together to convey a unified image to the international community. For this a single EU external action communication strategy and clear leadership are a vital basis on which to build.
The evaluation also found that the image of EU external action varies considerably between constituencies of interested parties and geographically across the world. It recommends, renewing and strengthening the current image of the EU external action, by increased leadership, delivering clear messages, communicating on results and avoiding raising unrealistic expectations. At the same time messages and communication approaches must be adapted to different audiences and informed by good knowledge of specific contexts. Equally, a special effort must be made with targeted well-informed stakeholders who are often critical in their scrutiny of EU external action, but also sympathetic, and have strong potential to relay messages further to wider constituencies.
Another recommendation of the evaluation was the suggestion that ‘working in partnership’ should be one key communication priority for EU external action. Traditionally the EU has often sought to boost its own image and has complained that its work can be hidden behind that of other actors that it supports (partner country governments, Civil Society Organisations, UN agencies, EU Member States, etc.) and while this is certainly legitimate this has caused tensions. Yet this manner of working is essential to the EU and brings important development benefits even if visibility then has to be shared. The evaluation therefore recommended that ‘working in partnership’ should be recognized both as an important principle in itself and as a communication message in its own right with the EU deliberately selling itself as an organisation that works in partnership with others around the world.
The EC has indicated that it is preparing to implement the recommendations of the evaluation. A number of key messages are to be drafted to shape how the EC wants to define itself to the outside world. And EC staff will be trained in results-focused communications. “The objective is for all staff to know what these key messages are and use them in a consistent way” according to DG DEVCO’s Deputy Director General Klaus Rudischhauser.
James Mackie is Senior Adviser EU Development Policy at ECDPM.
This blog post features the author’s personal view and does not represent the view of ECDPM.