Senior public communicators, journalists, academics and civil society leaders from South East Europe met in Tirana to discuss communication in times of COVID-19

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The 9th South East Europe Government Communication Conference “Communication in times of the pandemic: Protecting lives, values, and togetherness”, co-hosted by SEECOM and KAS Media Programme South East Europe, took place in Tirana on 25 June 2021.

The event brought together senior public communicators from South East Europe with some of the region’s leading journalists, academics and civil society leaders, for an exchange of views on the challenges, opportunities and ways forward for public sector communication in times of the COVID-19 pandemic.

EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi addressed the conference through a keynote video message. “Joining the EU brings huge benefits and the latest Eurobarometer shows that trust in the EU is the highest in 11 years. Even if other players have interest in the region, only the EU perspective based on shared values offers to transform societies and economies in a comprehensive and sustainable way to build their long-term prosperity, stability and resilience,” said the Commissioner.  

The conference reached the following conclusions.

CONCLUSIONS

Challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic has proved fertile ground for disinformation, populism and different forms of extremist narratives, which threaten to weaken public trust in democratic institutions, national authorities, the European Union and traditional quality media. Narratives perpetuated by national politics and third party interests tend to downplay the EU’s role in handling this unprecedented health and economic crisis. The fact that EU-related reforms are sometimes difficult and may not always produce immediately visible benefits can be misused, in the short term, to generate negative perceptions in the enlargement region.

Crisis communication in the region is rarely scientifically driven and strategically focused on research and audience insight. Instead, it is often handled by politicians in line with their current agendas, which contributes to further polarisation of the already deeply divided societies. Although popular support for the EU is relatively high in most countries of the enlargement region, support for the EU is still largely contextualised through the prism of national politics.

The COVID-19 crisis has seriously undermined media sustainability in the Western Balkan region, bringing print media, in particular, to the verge of economic collapse. Media environment remains highly polarised across the enlargement region, with the media widely perceived as being either pro- or anti-government. Declining reporting standards and a media environment dominated by tabloid journalism, have made the elderly people increasingly more susceptible to conspiracy theories and anti-vaccine narratives.

Despite the fact that young people’s lives, education and livelihood prospects have been particularly seriously affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, their views are still insufficiently taken into consideration in the process of designing and implementing policy response to the crisis.

Opportunities

According to the latest EU barometer, the image of the EU is best today since 2009 and people’s trust in the EU is the highest in 11 years. This suggests a high level of public awareness of the benefits of EU membership, as well as appreciation for the EU’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The power of the EU enlargement policy to bring long-term prosperity, stability and resilience to the Western Balkan societies and economies is unmatched by any other offer that might be on the table for the region. This transformative power of the EU enlargement policy, based on shared values, is a major communication asset.

The EU’s prompt and substantial support to the enlargement region in times when EU member states themselves were faced with an unprecedented health and economic crisis tell a real and compelling story. Those facts need to be used and the EU’s strong presence and visibility on the ground is a vital tool in winning the hearts and minds of people in the enlargement region. To be successful in this public diplomacy effort, the EU needs the engagement of national authorities, in particular government communicators, who are crucially placed to help secure broad support for the EU and the accession process among the people in the region.

The role of citizens should not be disregarded in times of crisis. Instead, citizens should always be considered as part of the solution, and remain engaged in crisis communication efforts, rather than being kept at the receiving end of public communication. Policy of transparency, dialogue and compromise is conducive to more trust in government, and no communication practice, however advanced or well-polished, can substitute for lack of accountability and meaningful participation in policy making. 

Democracy is not reserved for capitals – it needs to work for all people in all regions and communities.

However, traditional town hall meetings with speeches and Q&A sessions are simply not sufficient in the digital era. Regional administrations need to be able to include citizens in policymaking by creating online feedback tools and procedures to make sure that the input by citizens can feed into the policy making process. 

Ways forward

In times of crisis, perception can be even more important than facts, which makes it essential for crisis communication to be quick, consistent and open. Consistency, in particular, is key in sustaining public trust in institutions and support for crisis policy response. In addition, the authorities that provide vital information in times of crisis are responsible for complying with the highest standards of ethics and expertise. 

Rather than relying predominantly on the narrative of imminent anti-EU geopolitical threats as a case for EU enlargement, the candidate countries should project an image of readiness to assume all the rights and responsibilities of EU membership.

In order to be able to tackle disinformation and anti-EU narratives more effectively, the authorities in the enlargement region need to invest more coordinated efforts in the areas of general education, media literacy and civic education. Education, both formal and informal, is key to building social resilience and ultimately countering disinformation. To this end, closer coordination and deeper synergies are needed between the EU’s strategic communication efforts and those of the national governments in the enlargement region.

Instead of focusing solely on debunking disinformation, looking into the reasons for its effectiveness will reveal the people’s perceptions, concerns and fears, which need to be addressed through public communication and policy efforts. In countering disinformation, the authorities should never aspire to eliminate dissonant views, but rather provide for a genuine dialogue and meaningful interaction between “resonance” and “dissonance”.

In order to ensure that citizens are capable of making informed democratic choices, building at least a certain level of mutual trust between journalists and government communicators is essential. Promoting the highest ethical and professional standards, as well as solidarity and peer exchange are major steps towards greater accountability and professionalism in both professions. For public authorities, finding ways to engage young people in key policy issues is vital in sustaining their trust in democratic institutions and support for shared European values. Civil society organisations are indispensable as partners in reaching out to the citizens, attracting their interest and getting them engaged in policy design and implementation.