Interview with Christophe Leclercq for the book “Rebranding Europe. Fundamentals for Leadership Communication”
February 23, 2017
In the frame of a series of interviews conducted for his book “Rebranding Europe”, Stavros Papagianneas interviewed Christophe Leclercq, Founder of EurActiv in October 2016. The book was published by Academic & Scientific Publishers and can be obtained on the ASP website. It will also be available in book stores from March 15, and on Amazon shortly thereafter.
Read more: Erasmus4media – Media4EU
Let’s consider how Brexit and the Euro crisis in the so called PIGS –countries were covered in the press of certain EU members like Germany, the Netherlands, UK, Greece and others. Do you think we can reconcile the public opinions of the different member states in the EU? If yes, how?
Sure we can! I think the discrepancies between different public opinion spheres are not new, but what we are observing now is a slow convergence. The reason why we are experiencing multiple crises isn’t because public opinions are diverging, but rather because we have more common policies and interests, and most of all, a common currency and trade policy, so we need to agree on more things than we did in the past.
Determining whether public opinions can be reconciled is a bit of a value judgment. I think that the debate is necessary and that it involve national public opinions, but also different stakeholders groups, including business, NGOs, political parties etc. This process will progressively contribute to the emergence of a European public sphere, but what is still missing today is cross-border cooperation.
Is there need of a European code of ethics for the media?
The most important principle in this regards the freedom of the press, because the journalistic profession is generally against accepting imposed codes of ethics. The best way to proceed is to encourage journalists to decide on their own guidelines. Then each media organisation will choose how to apply them.
Establishing an ethical code sounds good on principle but actually, depending on who is in charge, it could be misused to reduce the freedom of the press.
In January 2015 I have attended the #Media4EU event at the European Parliament, where a stakeholder working group of journalists, publishers and other media experts presented six policy principles on media independence and sustainability. You have chaired this group. How have things evolved since?
Indeed the media4EU project comprises several stages, two of which have been completed. The first consisted in assembling a working group, chaired by me and set up by the Association of European Journalists. It prepared a report proposing numerous recommendations related to media independence and sustainability to the EU institutions, just before the elections of the European Parliament.
One of them has actually been implemented, namely the suggestion to regroup all media-related competences in one Directorate General at the EU Commission. This DG would be separate from the communication department (DG COMM) in order to reduce the risk of interference and to treat the media industry as any other economic sector.
The second stage of the project was to involve other stakeholders such as journalists, publisher associations and a number of individual MEPs and officials, which led to the conference you attended at the EU Parliament on January 29 2015. There, we presented a number of policy principles, most notably one on innovation.
Now we are focusing more on the needs of media companies. I am leaving management at EurActiv to concentrate on governance and external relations, and in particular on the activities of Fondation EurActiv, whose main project, the ‘Tour d’Europe’, builds on the work of #Media4EU. We have a team four people cooperating with academics at the ULB and a steering committee made of top media experts.
Based on this premise, I will interview editors and publishers of national media companies in the six main capitals of the EU. I will listen to their needs and views regarding European cooperation. This project will be less policy-oriented and Brussels-centric, and more geared towards potential media innovators.
Between January and June of next year we will speak at a number of media conferences and present the key findings of this project, which will be tested and improved as we interact with top media leaders. I expect that the topic of innovation will remain central, but it should be introduced by the media and not by the EU or by national governments. Nevertheless, public services could play some form of auxiliary role.
Can the media contribute to the creation of a European public sphere?
For me, it is a dream, a dream I share, but it is not reality. Moreover, the European public sphere is not a goal in and of itself, and the same is true even for European integration. I support them, but the most important thing is to have democratic processes.
Now, I do think that the EU public sphere is progressively emerging, but not all times and not on all topics. In fact, it is a little bit more active when there are European elections or deep European crises like the Greek debt crisis or the Brexit vote.
It also gets more involved when it comes to a few specific topics, like for example TTIP. A very vocal and influential cross-border debate is currently developing on this issue, and it may well lead regulators to abandon this policy proposal. Every now and then, other topics make the news like, for example, the energy crises of 2015 when Russia cut off gas supplies to Europe. Progressively more and more of these stories will be covered.
The problem at the moment is that these debates are disproportionately negative and mainly take place on social media, where we are also witnessing a rise in populism. This is not a coincidence. Social media represents an important development, which has many advantages and cannot be slowed down. But it should be complemented with the quality and the added value only journalists can bring. These results can be delivered not only in traditional ways, but also working across borders and harnessing new technologies to rejuvenate the support to the emergence of a healthy public debate both at national and European level.
What are the major communication challenges for the EU institutions and Europe today?
Communication has always been the weaker link of EU integration strategy. In fact, it was initially not a priority. The founding fathers were not in favour of open debates because they knew that at that time public opinion in different EU countries would not have followed. But times have changed, and the EU institutions cannot work today as they did in the past. They have progressed, but communications will always be a challenge because we live in different cultures and speak different languages.
My recommendation is to decentralize the debate. Unfortunately most EU communication officials have one of two reactions when confronted with a challenge. The first one is to ask for more resources, which can be either budget or communications staff. However, in parallel to this phenomenon, the media is getting less and less resources. This is a disconnect: In this town [NDLR in Brussels] you have an increasing number of spokespeople and communication experts and fewer and fewer journalists.
The second response is to launch an international campaign, but the issue is that officials think that a good EU campaign is an operation that uses the same messages across borders. I believe this is completely wrong. The EU brings many interesting things to the table, but is it like a diamond: you should look at it from different facets depending from where you are. What is relevant for Greece will probably not be important for Spain and definitively not for Central Europe. There is nothing wrong with presenting Europe from a different angle.
This is why I truly favour radical decentralisation of EU communication. We must give more power to the respective national offices of the Commission and the Parliament instead of centralizing most of the staff and budget in Brussels.
How can the EU provide a strategy for a healthy media sector to overcome technology and economic crises?
First of all, I think the EU has a secondary role in transforming the sector, media companies and national governments have to take up the initiative first. However, the EU can be very helpful: as to this day, the media sector has never been handled as a regular economic sector. That is why I said at in the beginning of this interview that one of the most significant successes was to regroup the different media competences in one Directorate General separate from communications, because one should not or try to subsidize the media and then ask them to report about the EU institutions.
More generally, in the past the EU has dealt quite successfully with industries like coal and steel at the very beginning, and more recently with the chemical industry, IT, etc. Two main factors have produced interesting developments: R&D programs like Horizon 2020 and social funds created to finance training schemes to help the transition of industries in difficulty.
This transformation is crucial for the EU because we cannot have democracy without a vibrant media sector. I am therefore suggesting that the institutions should adopt a strategy for the media sector. In reality there are many conflicting views on this issue. In Anglo-Saxon countries, any intervention in the media sphere would be seen with suspicion, while in other countries it can vary significantly. Essentially, we are trying to put forward two messages.
First of all, the digital single market is a key policy issue on the current Commission’s agenda but it is not sufficient. Opening communication channels is not enough, you also have to think of how different content can be distributed sustainably through those channels.
Secondly, it may seem paradoxical, but is possible to coordinate better policies and budgets. Currently a lot of focus is put on three elements:
- copyright regime renewal
- other visual-service directives, the latest incarnation of the TV without frontier project which has begun many years ago, and
- investment in the broadband – the infrastructure side of the information society.
However, five other policies are also relevant to the media sector:
(1) Billions are being spent on research, which is becoming progressively more innovation-oriented. However, until recently, very few R&D was directed towards the media sector. This industry is undergoing a crisis and it requires a huge push towards innovation. Some pilot projects are going in the right direction and they should be strengthened.
(2) The EU has developed wonderful technologies, including the MTITC, but there is a whole language technology ecosystem which could benefit the media sector and the more traditional translation industry. This is crucial for any kind of cross-border cooperation. Brussels, by the way, could be an excellent centre of competence for this.
(3) The third area is training. Our hypothesis is that technologies are a challenge for the media sector but not a problem in and of itself. The main hurdle is actually the mindset of journalists. Paradoxically, they are very news-oriented but not as open to change as they should be. Of course, important principles such as press freedom and editorial independence should be preserved. However, that does not mean that we should work online as we used to in the 20th century: training and change management could help in this regard.
(4) The fourth aspect is more technical and regards procurement policy. At national level, governments typically consider the impact of their communication and advertising strategies on the media sector. In fact, in some countries, public investment is one of the sector’s main sources of revenue – especially as the proceeds from subscriptions are decreasing. At the European level, hundreds of millions of euros are allocated every year to communication campaigns. A lot of is spent on conferences organised by various communication consultancies, where few participants invest in ads on media platforms based in the Silicon Valley. I believe that EU communication officials should be equipped with toolboxes to help them take advantage of the full advertisement capacity of the media sector, both conceptually and legally. This is typically a part of most procurement measures, which are crucial to any industrial policy.
(5) The fifth point pertains competition-policy cases, like the ones concerning the dominant position of Google and Facebook and the possible risk of abuse of this power. These cases are very important to the media sector, and could be coordinated with other policy areas while still respecting the principles of the EU Treaty and the fact that individual competition cases should be autonomous from political decisions. [I would not object to stronger concentration in the media sector.] This may sound paradoxical but I think that cross-border concentration of the media could actually enhance press freedom and pluralism. Why? Because on some topics and for some type of media organisations, the relevant competitors market is not anymore at national level, and soon it will not be limited to one language sphere.
Foreign investments in the media is not necessarily a bad thing. In Central and Eastern Europe the top media companies are often foreign-owned and they are very important for democracy even if they are American or British. In Western Europe, there is very little cross-border investment in the media sector apart from some specialized areas. I think it should be intensified. Moreover, DG Competition should analyse competition rules in the sector and define under what conditions media concentration and cooperation models can be allowed under such rules.
To conclude, I would add a sixth area. Both the amount of R&D and of conferences that bring together policy makers, editors, publishers, technology providers and translators should be increased. There are interesting initiatives where the results of the #Media4EU project will be presented from January to June 2017. But the EU and national governments should push for more of these events given what is at stake.
Short description of the book:
Rebranding Europe explores why EU communication fails and how to make it succeed. It examines the future of communication in Europe full of complex issues involving: the creation of a European public sphere, the European identity crisis, multilingualism, the lessons learned from the Brexit campaigns, challenging myths and populism, communicating Europe, grassroots communication and how to support quality journalism. It provides key recommendations and describes what can be done to show in a simple and clear way what is the added value of the EU for the daily lives of its citizens, and how to rebrand Europe. It gives original and logical answers to communication questions. The author has spoken to a number of key stakeholders in European communications and has conducted several interviews with important opinion leaders. Their input is invaluable and they provide different perspectives.
About the author:
With a background that includes positions such as communication officer at the European Commission and press officer and spokesperson to diplomatic missions in Brussels, Stavros Papagianneas is the founder and managing director of public relations consultancy StP Communications. He is a well-travelled senior communications expert with more than 20 years of experience in strategic communications, public relations, reputation management, public affairs, branding, social media and media relations.He has been a member of the Working Party on Information of the Council of the European Union. He has published several articles in EU media such as New Europe, Communication Director, Research Europe, De Tijd and L’ Echo.