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European information officers should go back to school
by Newropeans-Magazine
2009-04-28 08:33:34
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European information officers often complain about the lack of interest and knowledge about Europe among citizens. Their complaints show that these officers do not know how to communicate their messages in a convincing way. They should be sent back to school, so that they can learn some basic lessons about communication.

This week, the University of Amsterdam opened its Centre for Politics and Communication. In the opening debate, information officers, politicians, journalists and researchers discussed the coming European elections. It became clear that they all do not have any idea how to make citizens more interested in these elections. Journalists said that as long as there is no political debate about Europe, there will be nothing to write about, politicians said that without interested citizens, it will be difficult to engage them in a dicussion and information officers pointed at their unsuccesfull efforts in the past to inform European citizens.

It is not mandatory for journalists and politicians to show commitment in engaging European citizens: the agenda of journalists represents the agenda of the general audience. Politicians speak about many issues that are ignored by a majority of the public. In the case of Europe, this is not different. But information officers should show commitment: it is their daily work to explain Europe to citizens. They cannot hide behind the remark that their task is so difficult: it is their duty to search for new ways to reach this goal. Are they actually doing this?

In this debate, an information officer of the European Commission, Gemma Buters, tried to convince the audience that it is unclear what citizens like to hear about Europe. In the past, she already made efforts to make citizens more interested, but it did not lead to clear results. The turnout at the coming elections is predicted to be small, but her efforts do not seem to change this. When an information officer of the European Commission really thinks in this way, she has been trained very badly.

Practically-oriented communication trainers teach students that there are two phases in writing a communication plan: analysing the problem and developing a solution. If the first phase is left out, there is a chance that a solution is found for a problem that does not exist, or a solution that does not work. What is actually the problem with Europe? The knowledge, the opinions or the participation of citizens? And where does this problem come from? Buters did not have a clue.

These trainers also teach students that they have to take the perspective of the receiver into account in all their work. What is their perspective on this issue, how do they inform themselvers, what is their current knowledge, what kind of information do they want to have, and what do they want to do with it? After collecting this information, information officers are able to write an advice that is effective. What is the real perspective of citizens on Europe? Buters does not want to know.

It is alarming that information officers whose daily work consists of giving citizens information about Europe, apparently do not know these basic notions of communication. It seems that information officers think that the problem of citizens and Europe is very clear. As long as citizens do not watch European television programmes voluntarily the whole night, their engagement is not large enough. Information officers do not think it is necessary to analyse the gap between citizens and Europe or to look at Europe from a citizen’s perspective. After all, it is already clear that citizens have a faulty, prejudiced and uninformed view on Europe. Everything else is irrelevant.

Because of this attitude, these information officers will experience the same what students in communication trainings notice when they forget about the main principles of communication: if you do not make an analysis of the problem and if you do not look from the perspective of the receiver, your goals will not be achieved. 

Chris Aalberts*
Amsterdam - The Netherlands 

* Chris Aalberts is lecturer and researcher in political communication. Visit his blog: www.chrisaalberts.nl - This paper is also accessible in Dutch: http://www.newropeans-magazine.org/content/category/6/193/323/
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