Exclusive testamentary interview of Claus Sørensen, the former Director General at the DG Communication of the European Commission

As of today, 1st of July, Claus Sørensen is no longer the Director General at the DG Communication (of the European Commission). Before he leaves his office, he replied to my questions on his “testamentary”…

What is your greatest achievement as head of DG COMM?

Communication is now much more linked to the policy process than it was the case, before I arrived. At that time, communication was tool driven, meaning that it was decided in an isolated manner for each communication tool what we are going to do over the next month.

Now we have an holistic and substance driven approach: we take as a starting point the political priorities of the College and decide on how we want to communicate them.

We first agree on the narrative and the messages, as well as the target groups, in order to get the good stories out.

Then we decide which tools to use to do so. All the different communication tools are available including working with partners in Member States.

In this way the Commission is present on the different communication channels with the same subjects and the same messages. When I say « we », I mean the prime communicators, be it the President, the Commissioners or officials.

Over the last year we considerably improved the performance of the Commission’s communication tools:

Better Representations: Experienced managers and even senior managers were appointed as Heads of the Commission Representations. There is now a mandatory rotation for officials in Commission Representation, so that they do not go native…

Management partnerships: The first Management Partnership started off in Germany in 2006, nowadays this concept is implemented in 18 Member States: Austria, Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden.

Revamped EUROPA: Over the last years, the Commission has been conducting extensive user research, through usability testing, user surveys (more than 2 000 replies each month) and regular user feedback (more than 4 000 comments each month) , to find out what visitors want when consulting Europa and what their level of satisfaction is.

This work is translating into constantly improving the whole site based on a user-centric approach facilitating navigation.

The most recent example of this process is the re-launch, in May 2011, of the section « About the EU » in 23 languages. It contains around 80 short pages that will replace some 250 existing pages which were spread across many different websites.

More EURONEWS: At the end of 2010 the Commission signed a 4 years partnership framework agreement with Euronews. In this framework, the Commission has so far supported the setting up of a Brussels office of Euronews and the production and broadcast of European programmes. The Commission is also supporting the Arabic ad Farsi versions of Euronews, which is important for the democratic development in those regions.

Europe by Satellite (EbS): the EU’s TV information service has been the main source of radio and TV material on EU issues for the media since 1995. The programming, transmitted via satellite and internet, consists of a mix of live events, news and miscellaneous productions on EU policies. EbS capacity was doubled in January 2009 by adding a second channel (EbS+) in response to increasing demand for EU-related audiovisual news. In 2010, the AV Services delivered 2 150 hours of EbS transmission to more than 20 000 journalists and to 650 000 users on a worldwide basis.

Eutube: multimedia productions for the general public – video-clips, documentaries on the main EC policies as well as CD-Rom presentations for conferences and educational purposes.

Euranet: a European Radio Network of 27 international, national, regional and local radio stations from 18 EU Member States. The Network started its programmes on EU affairs in April 2008 in 17 languages, reaching 19 million EU citizens and 30 million non-EU citizens around the world weekly. It operates an interactive and multilingual website aimed at fostering public debate.

Presseurop: an Internet portal dedicated to the printed and online press. It offers a daily overview of the most interesting press articles on EU affairs published the same or the previous day. These articles are selected from around 250 newspapers and magazines around the world and are translated into 10 languages.

Social media: The Commission uses nowadays social media at three different levels:

  • Political messaging, i.e. centrally agreed messages are sent out via Twitter by Commissioners and Spokespeople.
  • Stakeholder and campaign communication carried out by DGs and services, using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, etc.
  • Staff members are active on all social media platforms in their personal capacity. Guidelines for all staff exist.

Europe Direct Contact Centre: The Centre is accessible from all Member States in all EU official languages via a toll-free telephone number (00800/6 7 8 9 10 11), and a single web address. Web chat is available in EN, FR and DE. It has been vastly expanded these last years.

Europe for Citizens: This programme supports discussions and networking of citizens across Europe and will now benefit from a closer link to the real policy issues that are being debated in Europe. This will help the citizens to participate in big trans-European decisions as for example the Economic recovery, jobs, energy efficiency, immigration, climate change etc.

Furthermore, we now work much closer together with the other European institutions when it comes to communicating Europe, especially with the European parliament and with the Council. The collaboration is based on the political declaration entitled « Communicating Europe in Partnership » signed in 2008.

The improvement of the tools and the cooperation with the EP, the Council and Member States allows the Commission to explain to and to communicate EU policies much better to and with citizens and to help closing the « gap » between citizens and European institutions. The communication on the economic recovery and the European semester is a good example: the proposals and views of the Commission are now very present in the different media in the Member States.

The communication on the next multi-annual financial framework will be the next test case to see, how effective we are in communicating the Commission’s major proposals.

What is, on the contrary, your biggest disappointment?

Some of the reforms I had in mind kicked in very late or not yet realised.

Human and financial resources of the Commission available are spread all over the Commission. This is an obstacle for focusing our efforts on those topics which really matter for citizens and business. I think we could be even more efficient in communicating Europe if we could pool more the resources for communication so as to develop a stronger corporate communication platform.

The creation of the communication steering board, which guides the corporate communication, and which I proposed in 2008, was create  towards the end of my mandate with the arrival of Vice-President Reding. It turned out to be a very useful way to steer the Commission’s communication activities, but should have been done earlier.

What did you learn mostly from communication?

The importance of localising messages to conditions in Member States. Communicating needs to take into consideration sensitivities, culture, history and obviously languages. What is the richness of the European Union diversity is in fact a big challenge for communication across Europe. And overcoming these obstacles is essential for an efficient exchange of view points across Europe.

In this respect the Commission Representations in the Member States have played and will play a key role. I am very happy that they have been strengthened through more and better qualified staff and they are now better plugged into the communication line-up of the Commission at different stages: giving more qualitative feedback from the Member States and getting the messages out to media and citizens.

But more could be done! We have to engage more with schools, with stakeholders, NGOs, pro-Europeans and euro sceptics alike! Long live a lively democracy.

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