Can industry really expect to have conversations with EU policymakers on Twitter?

Brett Kobie

 “Engagement,”  or two-way conversation with policymakers on Twitter is often cited as a key objective by industry players who use the channel as part of their public affairs strategy.

But relying on engagement as the only measure of success is typically a losing proposition.

Do policymakers really want to have a public conversation?

My answer to that question, based on entirely anecdotal evidence gathered over the last 12 months devising and implementing Twitter efforts on behalf of industry clients, is…sometimes, but not really.

Confirmed in part by FleishmanHillard’s 2015 European Parliament Digital Trends survey, EU policymakers have taken to Twitter en masse. But experience (not just mine – see Jon Worth’s post on how Commissioners are using Twitter) shows that despite the overwhelming belief that social media should indeed be social, most policymakers use Twitter in two ways: as a means of monitoring key policy debates and as one-way messaging platform to broadcast their own activities.

In short, policymakers may not always be tweeting at industry, but they (and/or their staff) are always listening.

Who does engage with industry and why?

Policymakers tend to engage with industry publicly on Twitter when they have a political mandate to do so. MEPs, Commissioners, Commission Directors General are all expected to maintain a certain level of availability to all stakeholders and are often keen to use Twitter to ensure that the Brussels bubble has this perception of them. Ultimately, the personal brands they cultivate are essential to their professional success.

That being said, they still engage sparingly with industry, all of them likely wary of the day POLITICO or Transparency International publishes a count how many times they’ve liked tweets from a certain industry organisation.

FleishmanHillard’s in-house six-person Digital, Social and Creative team, which works across sectors to implement strategic efforts on Twitter, sat down to trade stories on policymaker engagement. We plotted our findings here (again, note that these are entirely anecdotal. No comprehensive data collection excercise was undertaken for this).

Who is least likely to engage with industry?

Policymakers with less political roles, such as Commission service level officers and attaches from member state permanent representations, are nearly invisible on the engagement front. They perceive more risk than benefit in “being seen” with industry on Twitter (an ex-national policymaker told me that engaging on social media in a way that could be perceived as political in any way was “utterly beyond the role of an impartial public servant”). In an age of radical transparency, the jury is still out on what exactly it means to follow an industry account or like or retweet an industry group. Does engaging with them in such a public way mean you favour them? For now, many would say yes.

So most Commission staff don’t use Twitter then, right?

Wrong. We hear time and time again from Commission staff that they maintain “dummy accounts” to follow people and topics of interest on Twitter without leaving any trace of their own. Commissioners may use Twitter to engage sometimes, but both they and service level staff use it to listen, all the time.

The takeaway for industry?

Industry groups are highly unlikely to see policymakers engaging in two-way conversation with them. following their account, retweeting and liking their content. It’s simply not always in their interest to do so. Embracing “engagement” as the sole objective of an industry Twitter effort and measuring it only with these numbers is typically a losing proposition.

It’s clear that communication on Twitter is still mostly one-way, meaning that industry should focus more on ensuring that its messages are delivered clearly, concisely and quickly to their policy audiences.

Metrics not visible to the world—but rather behind the scenes in Twitter’s analytics suite or anecdotal evidence gathered in the real world (“hey, I saw your tweet about…”)—tend to be a better indicator of whether or not those messages are being successfully consumed.