Why the shortage of influential policy bloggers in Brussels?

Some people will tell you there are scores of influential policy bloggers in Brussels. Unfortunately, they’re wrong. There’s an active throng of smart and passionate Eurobloggers who write about the EU and a number of issues surrounding it. Most are aggregated on bloggingportal.eu and many of them are influential: some are being treated in line with members of the press and even being mentioned by Commissioners.  But most influential Eurobloggers are individual citizens who write to raise awareness of issues they care about. They occasionally write about policies, but their primary aim is not to influence a policy area.

That’s the dividing line. An influential policy blogger is an authority on a policy area who has a professional interest in it. They represent an organisation – be it a single issue pressure group or a global corporation – that is one of many stakeholders on a set of policy areas and present that organisation’s positions in blog format. The level of expertise and relevance of the blog is such that it is read by all or at least most other relevant stakeholders including policy makers and key influencers. At this point, the blog can arguably be called an “influential policy blog” (although I’m not going to define influence scientifically.) How many are there in Brussels? Far fewer than I can count on one hand.

Why not? The old “policy makers don’t use the web” chestnut certainly won’t hold any longer. What’s more, it’s advocacy of the most open and transparent kind; and it allows organisations to move beyond purely focusing on key policy areas to engaging on broader issues and build relationships in the process. Plus the flexibility of the medium allows them to enhance their advocacy by producing an ongoing narrative in line with events rather than the “all your eggs in one basket” approach which face-to-face meetings or a one-off position paper demand.

So why the poor uptake? Three broad reasons, I’d say:

  1. Sometimes, the sensitive nature of their industry may force PA professionals’ hand. Fair enough, although I suspect they won’t be able to keep quiet forever.
  2. Other times, it’s just a question of sticking to what they know best – and frankly, who can blame them? It’s worked for years and blogging is both time-consuming and a little frightening. Presenting your views to the world rather than a narrow set of key stakeholders: why bother unless someone is twisting your arm?
  3. Communicators (internal and agency) haven’t done enough to help organisations make the shift. The basic sell is: this is not a fancy add-on but a basic publication tool which, used well, has the potential to improve your reach and influence. Too often, the sell has been tactical i.e. selling “blogging” per se as something near-revolutionary rather than what it can do. We for one are doing our best to change that, but it won’t happen overnight.

Over to you. Do you agree with the premise: are influential policy bloggers indeed far and few between in Brussels? Is that perhaps a good thing?! And the reasons I cite for the scarcity? Keen to hear your thoughts.



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July 20, 2010 | 11:32 PM

I've been meaning to comment to this post for ages, but by the time I got around to it I had so much to say that it became a separate post (see link, above). Firstly, I'd say your reason #2 is the top reason of the 3 you give - if some of the top bloggers you mention are throwing in the towel, and the lobbyists salaries are still getting paid, why bother? But that can't be the whole reason - it is. after all, a competitive landscape. I think a few more emerged from the many excellent comments. For a start, it's certainly true that policy knowledge and editorial talent are not always bedfellows(!). And the "tension between expertise and freedom to write" is probably inhibiting a few people. I'm not a lobbyist, but I can easily imagine that it's not seen as 'good form' to write interesting (i.e., provocative) posts on a subject if it means criticising the people you are trying to influence. But the absence of bloggers specialised in both the EU AND a particular policy area remains startling, particularly when you compare it with Washington. Many EC officials I know would enjoy reading a good blog on their area of expertise, and they are showing increasing signs of allowing themselves to comment on them (as long as they all write exactly the same Line To Take of course). And yet, almost 3 years after Blogactiv offered them an 'Audience in a Box', there remain so few. ;-( Nice post, btw.

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July 16, 2010 | 9:30 PM

Interesting post, and I've enjoyed the replies - naturally as an occasional euroblogger I agree with everything that "Julien", Jon and Ralf said. I don't think it's can't blog, I think it's don't blog. But I also agree with Gawain - policy making processes themselves only ignite the passions of a very limited number of people. And think about announcements from "Brussels" that are in the public eye - is what's being announced a Commission proposal? Parliament's position? Something from the Council? How's it actually going to be implemented and affect me? Most news commentators don't really explain it and so people shut that away in a box marked too complicated. If policy bloggers are what's missing, could this be because there's also a few tensions between expertise and freedom to write? For example sectoral experts might well be busy doing their job at company x and not focused on political activities in the EU. They might have an EU representational function, but many rely on trade associations and organisations like your good selves. Meanwhile I see the self-censorship point a little differently. I'm not convinced that its fear of being seen to be non-Communitaire to criticise EU policy that's at the root of the silence. I wonder if it is simply that most policy makers, by nature of their employment, are not free to blog on policy issues even though they may have a deep level of EU knowledge and indeed of their subject areas. That of course is only really an issue that can be addressed at Member State level - the FCO blogs in the UK go some way to addressing this (although there's no UKRep blog at present). It's good because increasing public understanding decreases unwarranted fear. And surely that's something we should all want when it comes to the EU - EU level policymaking is after all part of our democratic process no matter where in the EU we live.

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July 01, 2010 | 12:21 PM

Julien Yes, integration is key to success given that there are far more players involved in the political process nowadays, spread across far more channels. Fact is that PA professionals in Brussels almost always have a policy background. That’s fine, but for too long communications was actually kept relatively separate from PA and seen as less important, so the PA pros didn’t make it part of the parcel. That’s changing rapidly, although again, won’t happen overnight. Gawain Yes the dullness factor is certainly frightening citizens off. What I’m hoping for though is that the people who already deal with the policy on a day-to-day basis might engage more openly, perhaps by blogging. I’m not expecting them to develop huge readerships, but if they’re good, they should at least be read by the people who matter. As for your point about self-censorship, yes, the EU is appalling at taking criticism of the bigger picture stuff (and it’s worse off for it.) At the level of nitty-gritty policy they do need to listen I think (they certainly read critical position papers every day.) Blogging would provide a more flexible medium to engage at that level. Jon Absolutely. They key is – as with all comms – knowing your audience. Approaching bloggers who you know might very well be interested in an issue on which they can provide valuable input is one thing. Spamming every “influential” blogger on bloggingportal.eu with something totally irrelevant is another. Ralf The complexity certainly doesn’t help, but players outside the institutions do have an impact. And they’re more likely to do so if they produce high-quality, relevant, timely input. That’s where many fail now and where more flexible channels like blogs can play a real part (with the added element of transparency and interaction.) I agree with you on your point that they’ll appear some day - but I think it’ll be sooner rather than later. Steffen

Ralf Grahn
July 01, 2010 | 10:10 AM

Steffen, I would like to add a few aspects to your thought-provoking post. 1) The EU institutions are complex enough to become practically fully occupied among themselves, in Parkinson's Law manner. Little need for outside input. 2) The institutional processes leading to legislation and policy decisions are opaque enough to rob "policy bloggers" of most materials and drama needed for arguments about policy choices. Cf. diplomacy between member states in the Council, as well as Commission, Council and EP collusion to reach first reading compromises. 3) The Commission and the Council are not dependent on outside advice or responsible towards voters. If they don't need to care, or even read, why should anyone bother to write? You don't have to be mad to blog about the EU, but it certainly helps. Some day the influential policy bloggers will appear, for reasons unknown today, but until then we still have better euroblogs than the EU deserves.

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Jon Worth
June 30, 2010 | 10:07 PM

I agree with Julien and Gawain here, and I would just add one additional point: don't underestimate the ability of bloggers with a certain reputation to turn their hand to policy work. Having been blogging about the EU for years I'm linked all over the place, and have a high Google ranking. I don't blog about policy that much, but I could leverage the readership I have, my blog's reputation, and also the fact that I have a background in policy work, to blog about EU policy very effectively. I don't do it now because there are no EU policies that I'm immensely interested in just at the moment. So I think the message for FH - and this is a corporate blog after all (!) - is that it could be possible to leverage bloggers who don't write about policy on an everyday basis for policy ends.

June 30, 2010 | 7:20 PM

Julien You are right in almost everything you say. The political blogs are by their nature lightweight and are more interested in scoring political points (and here I accept that criticism). Policy bloggers are few and far between though I suspect for another, slight maybe but important reason. Most policy at an EU level is frankly dull. The procedures and progress of policy in Brussels is interminable and requires, for somebody unpaid to blog, the patience of Job to both follow and comprehend. It is like a series of politbureau watchers, noting slight changes in diplomatic temprature. Another problem is that overt criticism of decisions made or planned in Brussels is frowned upon, and therefore if one was a professional within a field, the level of self-censorship for perfectly rational reasons would stifle good writing. Most bloggers write because they enjoy it, and a little because they like an audience. EU policy bloggers would struggle to enjoy it personally, and then struggle to find an audience.

Julien Frisch
June 30, 2010 | 5:55 PM

The problem is that it is rare that policy expertise, knowledge of modern communication tools and the freedom to use them come together. You may have a policy expert who is asked to communicate more actively but who doesn't understand the way this is done. You may have a communication expert that loves to write and can do so but isn't specialised in any other field than communication. Or you may have a policy exert who understands new communication tools but who is prevented by her/his bosses to use that double knowledge because they fear to lose control. But all three together is still the exception here in the EU bubble, I suppose.