8th SEE Government Communication Conference “Government Communication in the Age of Populism” takes place in Belgrade

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Around 70 government communicators, journalists and editors from South East Europe, together with EU officials and communication experts, participated in the 8th South East Europe Government Communication Conference entitled “Government Communication in the Age of Populism “, taking place in Belgrade, Serbia, on 18 October 2019.

The conference participants shared experiences, best practices and lessons learned on how public institutions can win the attention, trust and support of citizens for pro-European policies, in a communication environment flooded with simplistic populist and anti-European messages.

Since the 1st South East Europe Government Communication Conference, which took place in Budva, Montenegro in 2012, the event is organized every year by the regional government communication association SEECOM and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Media Programme for South East Europe.

The annual conference was followed by the SEECOM Members’ Assembly, which elected as SEECOM Chairman Ognian Zlatev, Head of the European Commission Representation in Zagreb, and as members of the association’s Steering Committee the European Commission’s Regional Policy Spokesperson Christian Spahr, Spokesperson of the EU Office in Pristina Dinka Živalj, Head of Communications at the MFA of Bosnia and Herzegovina Nebojša Regoje Head of Communication Unit at the Serbian Ministry of European Integration and Ivana Đurić. Vuk Vujnović from Montenegro has been given another three year term as SEECOM Secretary General.

The 8th SEE Government Communication Conference reached the following conclusions:

Challenges

The failure to set the date for the opening of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania has seriously undermined the EU’s credibility and reputation in South East Europe. In some cases, it has even led to claims that the most powerful anti-European narrative in the region is actually coming from Brussels. Therefore, the political decision of one member state is clearly affecting public attitude towards the whole Union and its institutions.

Populism is not a new phenomenon, nor is it uncommon in modern democracies. Populism thrives with the weakening of democratic institutions and it goes hand in hand with disinformation. The simplistic appeal to people’s concerns and fears makes populist messages and disinformation very effective and engaging, especially on social media.

A major challenge in combating disinformation is the lack of regulation and tools to respond effectively to what is going on social media. The countries of South East Europe, due to their small markets, are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to getting global tech and social media companies to support their anti-disinformation efforts.

Another big hurdle to effective government communication is an illusion that communication took place. This happens when public institutions expect to engage their audiences by simply broadcasting their messages, without offering their audiences any opportunity for meaningful engagement and without ever measuring the impact of their communication efforts. This is a particularly notable challenge when it comes to communicating with the excluded segments of the society, which are most likely to be influenced by disinformation and disruptive narratives.

There is a major communication deficit between journalists and government communicators in South East Europe. The relationship between government communicators and journalists is rarely based on the shared responsibility to serve the public interest, but is much more likely to be affected by their, real or perceived, political bias.

In worst cases, media are seen as politically biased, either in favour or against government, while government communicators are perceived as serving the interests of political elites rather than the public. As far as respect for professional and ethical standards is concerned, there seems to be strong interdependence between how governments communicate and how media report about their policies.

Opportunities

Public institutions can actually learn a lot from the communication approach of some populist movements, when it comes to clarity of messages and attentiveness to the needs and concerns of their audiences.

Capturing citizen’s attention in a crowded information and media ecosystem relies heavily on a government’s ability to understand and know their audience. Building the professional capabilities of government communicators and allowing them access to robust audience insight is therefore critical for any strategic communication effort.

Contribution of government communications to the principles of open government is underexplored. There is strong evidence suggesting that more open and more engaging government communication leads to better policies that are more responsive to people’s actual needs and concerns. The OECD’s forthcoming first global report on government communications will provide important insights in this respect.

The topic of Europe and European Union is more present in the media in South East Europe today than ever before. Both government communicators and media should seize this opportunity to raise awareness and understanding in their societies of the actual purpose, values and benefits of the idea of a united Europe.

The high voter turnout and the results of the 2019 European Parliament election proved that effective and fact-based institutional communication is capable of competing with populism and disinformation. Therefore, investing more effort is bound to produce even better results.

In particular, public service broadcasters should be able to invest more robust efforts to combat disinformation and build resilience of the population to extremist narratives.

The media are the government’s most important partner in fighting populism and disinformation. There is an underexplored potential for government communicators and journalists to work more closely together on specific issues and practical projects in order to explain to the people the true relevance and benefits of pro-European reforms and policies.

Ways forward

Managing public expectations in the EU aspirant countries is a major task for EU communications, as they need to explain in straightforward and plain terms the complexities of formulating the collective will of all member states. It needs to be made clear that the EU’s failure to reach a consensus about the opening of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania reflects the current political reality, rather than the EU’s long-term vision of a united Europe.

As the EU’s complicated internal position on enlargement is clouding its message in South East Europe, when communicating pro-European reforms and policies, public institutions in the region should go back to basics, by bringing closer to the people the core values and benefits of a united Europe.

It is not possible to debunk every single piece of disinformation, therefore improving government communication capabilities and building resilience to disinformation, including through greater investment in media literacy, is critical.

In the region of South East Europe, the starting point for government communications should be the concerns and interests of citizens, rather than political and administrative processes and procedures. A strong focus in communications must be on the rule of law, as the core value and a precondition for the European quality of life.

In order to bring public policies closer to the people in the increasingly complex communications environment, government communicators need to be able to produce prompt, clear, consistent and truthful messages and narratives in a real and dynamic communication context. Although institutional communication must be based on facts, it must never be boring.

Instead of relying solely on broadcasting public policies, it is critical for government communications to allow for genuine and honest interaction with their audiences – to listen as well as speak, to open opportunities for conversation and to be able to respond to people’s concerns and questions.

By working together more closely with civil society organizations government communicators will have better opportunities to engage citizens in public policies, while advancing the open government principles of transparency, accountability and public participation.

In particular, if they are to compete for public attention with the simplistic messages and narratives of populism and disinformation, public institutions need to be able to present policies in the context of human interest stories. This is an area where government communicators and journalists can work together much more closely and more productively in the best interests of both professions.

Greater adherence to ethical rules and professional standards will help build a more solid partnership and cooperation between government communicators and journalists and enable them to work together more productively in the public interest. Therefore, there is a strong need to build the professional capabilities of both journalists and government communicators in South East Europe and create practical cooperation opportunities based on shared commitment to public good.