The communication strategy of the European Parliament

An interview with former Director-General Juana Lahousse

, by Anna Ferrari

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English] [français]

The communication strategy of the European Parliament
Juana Lahousse (right) in May 2012 © European Union 2012 - European Parliament

Juana Lahousse was in charge of the communications of the European Parliament from 2007 onwards. In February 2017 she left the office to the former Parliament spokesperson Jaume Duch Guillot. I had the chance to interview her when she was still in charge, on the occasion of the European Youth Event 2016 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

People say that they perceive the EU institutions as distant. Do you think that there is something that goes ‘lost in translation’ and why? I know you started your career as an interpreter…

Information is the same as translation. It is very difficult to send the same message in twenty-four languages to all the EU countries, but this is our work. In terms of the political message, what can get lost in the process? Certainly confidence. Citizens in general, and especially young people, do not trust politicians and political decision makers the same way they trusted them fifty years ago, that is when this whole project started. Prosperity has also been lost, which has implications on the future of youth, employment, healthcare, education. Also, the fact that the project was supported and defended by those who knew what war meant. The aim of wanting to create a Europe with peace, development and growth without any barriers. So there are many ideological elements that were lost along the way that we need to reinvent now. It is a process of creating a new dynamic based on a different ground. Currently we are in the middle of something: some would like to go backwards, while someone else would like to go further in integration. This is why people are lost with what it is happening now.

I suppose that you are trying to send out a positive message of the EU, or are you also trying to recognise that the crisis is there, without hiding it?

Look, the crisis is there, we cannot hide it. However, if you look back to all the things that we have achieved and that we are achieving now, there are so many positive things that without any lie, without any blind eye, it is possible to express a positive and dynamic Europe. You have to help us to deliver stories that correspond to reality because the media in particular focus only on the crisis. We always talk about the trains that are late, but never about the trains that are on time. This is exactly what it is happening.

How are you trying to address this problem in practice in terms of communication on the side of the European Parliament?

It is not because of my position that I am saying this, but it is true, the Parliament has a very dynamic communication policy. We have three main special targets: media, citizens and stakeholders.

As for the media, we understood two elections ago already that social media and direct contact with politicians is one of the most effective ways to create this relationship of trust between media and the parliament. I think we have achieved it through seminars, with the way we prepare our work and inform the press. The media are now following us. We also offer a very good set of equipment in Brussels and Strasbourg, free for the press to use. They can come, plug in and use their programs. We are very open and transparent. On our websites we also have many links to the members, streaming options for our meetings. The registration is very open.

Then we have the citizens. We try to use the most modern ways to communicate. We also have the Parlamentarium museum in Brussels and the House of European History in Brussels that will explain the process of unification, illustrating conflicts and achievements. We have a policy that is very open to groups and we will open another Parlamentarium in Strasbourg next year. In Berlin we inaugurated another Parlamentarium in Unter den Linden. It is open to the public and it is a very interactive exhibition. In each of our capitals we will have welcome areas for visitors, in order to be up to date.

Finally stakeholders: if in any country there is an issue on a specific piece of legislation, we organise seminars around it. Youth is a particular target group and a particular stakeholder. You see what we are doing with young people at the European Youth Event, for example, as a way to improve connection and communication. The objective is to put the members in the centre. We are facilitators, we are not politicians. We bring all our knowledge and tools at their service.

If you could make a change on the spot in the way you communicate in the European Parliament, what would it be?

I dream of more participative members of the European Parliament. They are so busy because it is hard for some of them to catch up with all these different workplaces in Brussels and Strasbourg and they come from all over Europe.

What has changed in the communication of the European Parliament compared to the time before the economic crisis? I have noticed that the EP Facebook page is quite quick in answering questions in the comments. Is that part of a new policy, more active and proactive?

Yes, now we invest a lot in social media because citizens want to know more about the work we do here. Essentially, social media give more access to information. What has changed is the quantity of what we have to communicate: it is huge and it is increasing. Citizens want politicians, not only members of the European Parliament, to be really accountable.

On the other side of communication: what are the most common mistakes that the media make when reporting on the EP?

Some superficiality sometimes. Politics is not an easy game and it is not because it is Europe. National policy is very complicated, too. Very often, because they do not have the means to go deeper, because we all know the conditions in which the press is working now – with limited time and resources – they tend to reproduce given ideas without checking them.

Do you think that communication can be a tool to boost democracy in the EU?

Yes, because it boosts transparency and accountability, it is empowering. Without communication there is no legislation. Without communication there is no discussion, no debate. We are essential and politicians understood it a long time ago. Even in the worst period of history, communication was used in such a way that it is the most beautiful thing, but it can also be the most dangerous.

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