Earlier this week BBC World’s Have Your Say Forum chaired an interesting radio and online debate entitled; “Do political bloggers make a difference?” Certainly the comments in the forum represent a mixed bag. On the one hand we find the likes of Lamii Kpargoi, Coordinator for Initiative for Mobile Training of Community Radio in Liberia, who feel that blogs played an important role in drawing the attention of the world to “the situation in [Liberia] during the tyranny of Charles Taylor.” But on the other hand we come across Dwight, who explains that “As much as I hate to admit it, political bloggers rarely make a difference. I have no illusions that my blog is changing any opinions. The people who agree with me occasionally write and tell me, “I agree”. The people who don’t agree, rarely get past the opening paragraph before they move on.”
Relating this to Brussels, the influence of blogs is one question we are increasingly having amongst ourselves and with others. There are a number of points that we keep coming back to that we thought might be worth sharing:
1. Blogs are helping to shape the communications environment in which work
Data from the likes of Ipsos MORI suggests that 1 in 5 Europeans are indeed reading blogs (Italy apparently comes top with 27% of Italians having read blogs). And while we have (currently) no data to quantify the numbers of policymakers, stakeholders and political media in Brussels reading blogs on a daily basis, if such actors reflect the population then blogs as a form of communication could be influential in shaping the debate around issues in the future. The number of journalists, Commissioners and MEPs that are blogging themselves would suggest that there at least some of the same are reading blogs. (Yes, we know, we need “facts, only facts” in terms of the levels of such readership. We are working on it.)
2. Blogs can be used to amplify your message
Monitoring blogs will of course only tell you what’s going on, not what to do about it. However, it has already struck us (and thankfully some of the people we work with) that in some cases bloggers focused on specific issues of relevance to the policy debate may be fertile ground for what is known as “Online Editorial Outreach” for public affairs purposes. It’s the online equivalent of media relations with some subtle but important differences. Bloggers of course are not journalists…and there are some best practices we have developed as a company that take this into account.
In any case, seeking out expert bloggers, often with decent day jobs, that can amplify an organisation’s message online could prove useful in a public affairs context where policymakers and those that influence them go online to find information and insights. Noise in the blogosphere may become as much a part of the mood music to policy debates in Brussels as articles in the FT. Is it going to change a vote, probably no. Is it going to help make people more receptive to a message, perhaps yes.
3. Blogger influence is more likely to be about quality rather than quantity
When thinking about monitoring or indeed outreach, it’s the quality of the bloggers and their posts that is important rather than the sheer numbers of readers. Who are they, what do they know, how often do they post, who comments and who links to them? All questions to ask. On some of the obscure EU issues we love, the numbers are not likely to be great but the influence may be.
To conclude on the BBC World piece, the advent of the blog does not mean the end of BBC correspondents like John Simpson covertly walking the streets of Africa canvassing opinion. However, his back story may equally come from what has been written by Africans on their own blogs. This of course happened in the case of Burma recently, where the only outlet for many of the individuals involved in the crisis was their blogs. News came out through people involved on the ground and was relayed through the long tail of social media.
In all communications activities, whether you are the Director General of the BBC or the public affairs practitioner in Brussels, the online environment (blogs included) have an important role to play in how people are communicating with each other. It would be remiss of us not to take them into account in what we do.