Tuesday, December 17, 2013

My Christmas present? Lots of videos, what else?

As the holiday season (gosh, how politically correct of me!) is fast approaching, I have a very nice Christmas present for you all. It's a collection of videos, some more recent than others, that have been produced to raise awareness on issues and campaigns and that, for one reason or another, have struck a chord with me. They are all very different in style, format and objective. But what they do have in common, is that that they all show how beautiful, powerful, controversial, effective and courageous the visual medium can be.

Which one do you like best?

One of the most successful campaigns of 2013:




Celebrities always work:




As do moving coloured maps:




This is an ad but the message is powerful nonetheless. And why do the good ones come so often from South-East Asia? Remember this one?:




A nice idea, well executed:




Will Greenpeace ever cease to provoke? Does this work?



And before Santa gives up and retires, let me wish you a lovely Christmas.



Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Time for some answers and to reflect. And a video, of course.

My lovely reader(s) and friend(s) (one and the same?) have been asking me questions related to my near obsession with virality and effective visual communications.

Question number 1: is there a magic way to ensure that a video goes viral? No, there is not. You can try to follow some basic rules that might increase the chances, but 'virality' is never guaranteed. I am pretty sure that if you look at the top 20 most viral videos of all times, only few were made with the calculated intention of becoming 'viral'; they just did. There is however a way to make sure your video is good and effective which brings us to..

Question number 2: does having a lot of money increase the probability of success? Not really. It helps in the production and hence increases the chance that the video will be well-executed. But success is another thing.

Question number 3: is it all about emotions? Do I need to make people laugh or cry? Emotions play a big part in the success of a video. You are much more likely to share something that has hit you in some way. Whether you couldn't stop laughing, or started crying like a baby.

Let me be very clear. There are videos made with no specific objective in mind. For example, you filmed something funny or sad by chance; you wanted to try something out; you have cute kids or pets and love filming them, and so on. These are the majority of videos that go viral. But when there is a specific objective, emotions will only work if the video has, how shall I put it, A POINT. I know it sounds almost tautological but believe me, it is not.

What I mean is that if you decide to produce a video, have some money, and someone willing to help you do it, the first question you need to ask yourself is: "What do I want to communicate with this video? Why am I doing it?". If the answer is not convincing - for you first and foremost - then, you can have plenty money and emotions, but your video will not be effective. Let me put it this way: a video can be nicely produced but if it's unclear why it has been produced than it's a waste of money and time for the viewer, never mind the producer. And, you know me, I always have a little example:



On YouTube, below this video it says: How many rights have you spotted in this video? Excuse me? Is this a way to get people to watch it again and increase the views? Way too complicated. There are no emotions, it's true, but it is quite well done. Who doesn't like a nice domino - although I have seen better ones - and the Brooke Shields look-alike, but sorry..what is the point? To explain to EU citizens they have rights, or to spend the remaining communications budget before the end of the year?

Question number 4: can a video be fun and effective without being superficial? This is the typical question of non-communications experts, now working in the communications department of a company or an institution, but engineers or some such by training. For these people, the problem with videos, but also with communications more broadly, is that it does not allow you to say enough, which means that you inevitably end up being superficial. While understandable, the question is flawed. A video needs to be clear. But simple and superficial are not the same. You cannot say everything you want, but you will be able to say what matters.

And here is my favourite - I swear I have been asked. Question number 5: how important are the images for a good video? If this question makes total sense to you, then you better stick to MS Word as your communications tool. How important? They are key. The images should speak for themselves and that is also why the video above does not work very well. The main reason why video can be so powerful is the amazing force of images and text, often with music, all working together. Images and Music = a slideshow. Music and text = a song. Text = a book.

As we are approaching Christmas, I owe it to you to mention also an uncomfortable, personal question. (Don't get your hopes up, nothing too exciting).

Question number 6: 'your blog is nearly two years old; you have watched countless videos and criticised just as many. But how many have you produced? Shouldn't you put your money where your mouth is?'  I have to confess that sometimes I do fear I might have lost the touch...

But does one lose touch for these things? I guess, that is maybe true for all that is practical, especially with technology changing so fast. I remember when the older producers and reporters were talking to me about shooting on film and not on video....I found it all quite tedious, but the relentless change of technology is slightly disconcerting. And hence I do understand now why they felt the need to point it out. So yes, technology changes and you need to adapt if you don't want to stay behind.

Insight and judgement on the other hand, no, you can ever lose. And on top of that, I believe most of have a gut feeling that makes us share and like what works, and ignore what doesn't. Of course all this is a personal thing. But so too is the huge bundle of human emotions that will make something powerful, beautiful, visual, funny or shocking. But still, perhaps I should put myself to the test....another one to add to the list of New Year resolutions?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Commissioner Vassiliou directed by Pedro Almodovar: that's 'Creative Europe'!

You see, I want to be positive and constructive. Above all I would like to be helpful in some very, very small way. I am longing for improved EU communications - OK, maybe longing is a bit exaggerated, I am not that sad. But I can assure you that it gives me no pleasure whatsoever to continuously criticise the audiovisual material coming out of the institutions. OK, if I am totally honest, it does give me a little bit of pleasure, but I am certainly not happy to be persona non grata in a couple of production companies here in Brussels!

What the hell. Don't you think that if I name a programme 'Creative Europe' I should at least make sure that the video that introduces such programme, shows an understanding for the meaning of the word 'creative'?

We are talking about very good news: an increase in the funding for European culture, i.e. cinema, TV, theatre, music, literature, performing arts and so on. For the next seven years, the programme has at its disposal 1.8 billion euros to boost the cultural and creative sector in the continent. So, great news.  Now, here is the video:



Forget the screen shot (a shot of a truncated graphic! It's not that difficult to change, you know?), the video shows a series of numbers - money and people - on a backdrop of ... well, a bit of everything, really: musicians, dancers, cinemas, libraries. Ah, I nearly forgot: there are also two clips of the commissioner in charge of culture, Androulla Vassiliou.  

Creative? Not really. I did not expect Almodovar-style quality (although, imagining Commissioner Vassiliou directed by the Spaniard, à la Penelope Cruz, would be very entertaining..). And to start with the positive, I am really happy that the Commissioner was filmed in the Strip Museum rather than behind her desk (comic strips, I mean. Don't even go there!).

But the problem is that, despite the good news, and despite the fact that we are talking about something potentially very visual, the video is boring. And it is boring for a simple reason: it's too literal. So, when it talks about funds to translate books you see...books! And when it mentions an increased budget for cinemas you see.....cinemas! You get my drift.

I would like to suggest two alternatives that could have been chosen instead of the literal approach (I am trying to be constructive here!):

The first was to use only one of the cultural expressions mentioned and shown in the video, for example the dancer being filmed for a performance. This would have easily sustained the two and a half minute length. A short edit of different kind of shots, interesting movements, close-ups or top-shots; as a result the whole performance would have looked quite abstract -  to symbolise culture in general and not just dance, for instance - and would have allowed the viewer to focus on what really matters, i.e. the graphics. But all the while watching a consistent set of nice pictures, AND a bunch of numbers.

Or, and this is alternative number two, if the focus were indeed the numbers and the increased funding in the different sectors, then maybe it would have been simpler and clearer to do a good animated video such as the one just produced on EU trade policy. But there is a reason why they chose an animation for trade and not for culture. Trade is not very visual. Culture is. More importantly, European culture is possibly THE one thing that gives us some sort of continental identity. So we should not waste any opportunity to show how amazing it really is.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Viral Veteran: opera in four ingredients.

This week I have selected a non European viral video: the makeover of homeless veteran Jim Wolf. The video has been seen by 13 million people in just a couple of days. Here it is:



Why has it gone viral? A couple of possible suggestions that might be worth keeping in mind when producing a video.

1) Time-lapses are fun. Always. If they are not too long. It is physically gratifying to watch something that normally takes a long time, happen in a couple of minutes; it makes you feel powerful because it helps you escape from the slowness of your daily grind.

2) The Cinderella syndrome. Make-overs are fantastic stories. The sad becoming happy, the poor becoming rich, the homeless finally buying a house; the lonely finding love and so on.

3) The f-word. The producer Rob Bliss (I mean, what a great name!) says that the virality of a video - and he does this for living - is linked to the f-eeling it produces in the person watching it: the stronger the f-eeling the more likely to become viral. Almost obvious I would say. In this case the Cinderella feeling obviously worked, but would it work with any strong feeling, even negative?

4) Maybe not, but could another reason of its success be that the protagonist looks like Chuck Norris' brother or Brad Pitt's older cousin?

I am all for virality when it raises awareness - and a lot of money as it seems - for important issues, homelessness in this case. But, is it me or does the man not look really happy when he watches himself in the mirror?  I know that the video says that he has taken control of his own life and he is going to AA meetings. I don't dispute that he is better now. I am just saying that he did not seem to like himself after all the hard work to make him look just like.... everyone else his age. And it leaves a bit of a bitter taste at the end. It's must be just me.

Anyway, well done to Bliss and Wolf.  

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Digital is natural, aka Digital makes me feel old. (Little Red Riding Hood revisited)

On the whole, I consider myself rather digital-savvy. I use the computer, have an I-Pad, and am familiar with most social media and some of the coolest apps. I love and use new technologies even if I don't necessarily understand how they work. Of course I am a total Luddite compared to some friends who have made being digitally knowledgeable a priority, even a profession. And I am talking about people my age, or just a couple of years younger.




But if, in a moment of self-flagellation, I were to compare myself to the next generation (to be clear: this means only slightly older than my children) I feel a moron. And please tell me I am not the only one.

I know what I am saying is not earth-shattering. New generations are exponentially better at using and understanding new technologies. Right.

So how does one explain....Neelie Kroes? Is she for real?

Don't want to go into the speculations about her wanting to stay on as commissioner (although at 72???). Nor am I  interested in whether she is really into innovation and digital things as much as she is obliged to say. The fact is that you hear the phrase the 'digital agenda' more often than before. This is at least in part thanks to her, her team and their open and fresh communications strategy. It's true that the digital economy and all that is technology fascinates a wider section of the population than, say, agriculture. But there is more.

The video in this post is quite fun and people can relate to it. It is slightly worrying though: I do confess, I have tried increasing the font of a book with the thumb and index finger, or at least I wished it worked. - It's called a Kindle, Virginia!-

Commissioner Kroes has a huge following on Twitter; she is open to discussion and possible criticism; her spokesperson tweets in a fun and friendly fashion - as does the head of the spokesperson service of the Commission and a few others to be fair. (Interesting side-quiz: how many spokespersons actually have their Twitter names in their press contact details on the Commission's website? And is there a relation with the number of followers?)

Anyway, back to the digital agenda and the next generation. This week the Commission announced the winners of the 'Digital Woman and Digital Girl of the year' and when I read the press release (yes, despite my general aversion, I do read press releases sometimes; this is a post full of confessions!) I wanted to cry. Not because I was moved by the poetry of it, nor by the originality of its layout. No, I wanted to cry because I read that one of the two 'digital girls of the year', now 13, has started CODING. Did you read that? CODING...three years ago! Did you even know what coding was three years ago?? Ok, she wouldn't be digital girl of the year if she only knew how to find a comma on the keyboard, but still, coding at 10? Scary but fantastic.

And so here goes the new version of the 'Little Red Riding Hood' tale: once upon a time there was a grandmother with more than 86.000 followers and a 10 year old girl.. coding...and they all lived happily ever after...Amazing. Sorry, need to go and get my handkerchief!
   

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Flickr, steadicams and the European Council

Rock, paper scissors?  No, Angela, you can only use one hand! 
When there is a European Council in Brussels, you cannot miss it. Traffic is worse than usual; normally it rains (a divine warning?); the city is full of police and motorcades. If you live near the Council building, pedestrian access is denied, so you need to make an incredible detour to go from A to B. People see it and talk about it, even if just to complain about all the nuisance.

But what about other EU countries? What can people in Member States see of this important event? What do they make of it all?

As I am a woman full of surprises you will be pleased to hear I have done a small,  very unscientific piece of research. I looked at the online visual coverage of this last European Council in some random European countries: I checked the websites of their main national broadsheets and of their national television. I then compared what I found with what was on offer from the institutions (in terms of photo and video material). Didn't you have something better to do Virginia on a grey autumn day, you will ask? Maybe, but bear with me.

I will tell you why I did this: I came across, the European Council photo-stream on Flickr. For those who are not familiar with Flickr, I am talking about an application that allows you to share good quality photos online. Anyway, I started looking at the photos and I was actually quite impressed. Here you have an event that has always been incredibly visually challenging: mostly men, in suits, arriving in front of a boring looking building, shaking hands, talking to each other in boring looking rooms, giving a press conference in another boring looking room and taking a family photo in a bigger boring looking room. Plus a car arrival and a car exit. That's it. When I was working for BBC Newsnight, covering the summits, it was always incredibly difficult to come up with an original and interesting visual treatment for the piece. But now, I know what I would do: I would use a sequence of the pictures on Flickr. It seems that, if we are talking about photos, there has been a conscious effort to increase the visual interest of the event.

You can see behind-the-scenes preparations pictures,

Untitled

leaders taken from unusual angles or assembled for colour combination,

European Council 24-25.10.2013
This one is called "Fifty shades of red"; can you believe it? 


motorcades but from a different perspective


European Council 24-25.10.2013


or simply strange and weirdly interesting pictures


European Council 24-25.10.2013


No life changing photos - it's a summit after all - but still.

Two thoughts: first, the conscious effort done for pictures, has not yet been done for videos. Unfortunately all you see on the video stream are the press briefing and conferences, arrivals and doorsteps. There is some footage of preparations but these are old stock shots.  So, nothing new, slightly more original and visually attractive (despite the amazingly-looking camera in the photo above).

Second thought, to come back to the results of the research I mentioned before: the material you see on the national media has nothing to do with what the EU offers. Here too, photos are more interesting than moving images, but most of them are taken by press agency photographers.

Video material is scarcely used and I can understand why. I know what you are thinking: on these occasions, what leaders have to say is far more important than nice footage. That is why you see only press briefings and doorstep interviews. Maybe so. But I fear this is more a sign of the decreasing interest for EU Council summits by national media, certainly by television news. Take this last one for example: how much coverage did immigration, youth unemployment and the digital agenda get, compared to the NSA spying on EU leaders scandal that is of course a big news story but not originally connected to the EU as such? Understandable, but also intensely frustrating.

I don't want to say that using fancy steadicams to get more inspiring shots than the smiling super tall chap in the photo above would do the trick (am I failing to recognise a famous Prime Minister here?). But it might be well worth a try.



Monday, October 21, 2013

EuroPCom2013 aka "Communicating Europe is a bitch"

Last week I spent two days at a conference in Brussels called EuroPCom2013. The conference brought together public communicators, i.e. communications specialists that work in the public sector (European institutions, national and local governments). But the 700 participants actually came also from different sectors - that is why I could attend after all...

Anyway, we were all there to share experiences and hear advice on how to communicate better. Mostly on how to communicate Europe better, but not just. So I was hoping to get some major insight on what Europe and comms people need to do to get the message across.

Here is what I got out of it.

A necessary explanatory digression beforehand though: I will make very bold statements below, not because I normally write in bold statements, although I do sometimes, but because this seems to be the thing to do. Simon Anholt - an independent policy advisor - was one of the speakers closing the conference. He missed the first day, but still had very strong opinions on how good and useful the conference was or was not; he decided to make some provocative remarks, summing up it all up in seven bold statements; and then left abruptly because he had a plane to catch. Now, if I thought that communications is all propaganda (statement number 2) and that the EU is behaving as a corporation (statement number 7) the least I would do at an EU communications conference is to allow the ones I am accusing of being redundant or even fascist (statement number 1: branding is fascism) to defend themselves and rebut my rather simplistic statements. The most amazing thing for me was that the participants, in some sort of self-flagellation, seem to be enthusiastic about what Anholt was saying and cheerfully tweeted these statements like there was no tomorrow. And perhaps, just perhaps, Anholt used short and bold statements exactly because they were so easily twittable. Which in turn slightly contradicts his own anti-branding, anti PR, anti-gimmicks preaching. But hey, it seemed to work for him so will try it out myself. End of explanatory digression...Here we go:

Bold statement 1: communicating Europe is a bitch.

Bold - well actually....more like, obvious - statement 2: when you are surrounded by comms people, there is no need to keep on stressing the importance of communications.

Bold (eh-mm..) statement 3: the great thing about this type of conferences is that you meet an incredible variety of people that work in your field; you feel energised after it and you have lots of things to think about.

Bold (eh-mm again...) statement 4: the terrible thing about this type of conferences is that you meet an incredible variety of people that work in your field; you feel slightly depressed after it and you think that probably you should consider another profession.

Bold statement 5: there should be more risk taking in public communications, as there is in corporate communications.

Bold statement 6: Evaluation in communications is great and important but not easy. What are the metrics and who is going to evaluate the evaluators?

Bold statement 7: communicating Europe is a bitch but somebody's got to do it because we have the European elections in less than 9 months.

PS: I apologise if I have not stuck to the stylistic requirements as specified in the fascinating Interinstitutional Style Guide on display at the conference (276 pages: how is that for Twitter-friendly communications?)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Alternative (do you mean cheaper, better, lighter?) European Elections campaign.

Have a look at this video, a cooperation between the web series "Eurobubble" writer Yacine Kouhen and "Old Continent" communications agency: spot on messages, and more to the point than some videos on next year's elections, coming out of the institutions. Why do I like it? Because it's trying to be fun and light while remaining accurate. Because it does not try to please everyone. Because it's visually interesting but short. And all this, I bet, with a relatively small budget.

Well done!

Love the disclaimer "This is not a message from the European Parliament" Really? Don't say.

Just a small question though: why an American sounding voice-over?




Thursday, September 26, 2013

Has anyone seen Tom Cruise on the roof of the UN yet?

At times, when you want to promote something, if you use the wrong tone, wording, music or images you might end up with people thinking the exact opposite of what you were trying to communicate. Here is a classic example.

This was the opening week of the UNGA, the United Nations General Assembly. Held every year in September - and a recurring nightmare for resident New Yorkers - the opening of the UN General Assembly becomes the stage for world leaders:

- to see and be seen;

- to say what's on their minds at that time;

- to meet each other formally or informally, and by informally I mean 'we just bumped into each other in the corridor' - yeah, right; or

- to make a point of not meeting someone. Are you still following me?

As we saw this time, there is a lot of media attention. It is an important foreign policy event because everyone is in town but no major decisions - certainly not binding- are taken - it's the General Assembly after all, not the Security Council.  A frenetic week, where most of the participants go - more like run - from one event to another across town whether it is a UN event or not. At the end of these hectic days, everyone returns home and the world - maybe I should say, the media - forgets about the General Assembly until the following year. Before you think I am as usual too cynical; I think this is an amazing occasion, I guess quite a unique one, where "the world" gets together to discuss various issues, and it is one of the few places - if not the only -  where some leaders can speak, be heard and meet. And in the grand scheme of things the fact that the speeches and the discussions lead to very little is neither very surprising nor the point.

Still, it is widely acknowledged that while UNGA week is an important arena, it has never changed, and probably never will, the course of history. Feel free to disagree, by the way.

Now, have a look at this video - found on the homepage of the UN website:



'HISTORY IS HAPPENING NOW'? Please.

Never mind the technical mistake of the two quotes (you first hear  Ban-Ki moon and then Ellen Johnson Sirleaf spelling out a list of issues, but while the latter is talking about problems to eradicate, the former is referring to principles and values to uphold. Not great editing). The style, the music (some sort of Mission Impossible soundtrack) the graphics (i.e. the script) give you the impression that this week is 'make or break' week, that the world, after this week, will be something else altogether - of course, thanks to some Tom Cruise look-alike that will come and save us all, climbing the building and entering from the roof, as doors are not cool.

The natural reaction after watching such a video is to start thinking about what this week is NOT and that the world will not change an iota after it. Ultimately, these thoughts will bring you to the realisation that actually, despite the great hopes and the emotional rhetoric of the UN symbol, this clunky and rusty organisation has not delivered what it had promised at its inception, mostly because its member states did not want it to. So, you see? The exact opposite of what the makers of the video wanted to communicate. Not ideal. Promote the UN by all means, but make sure that what you are saying - and the way you say it - reflect accurately what this week is really about.  

Interesting - Eurocentric - side note: it was pointed out to me that the video does not show a single EU representative - please correct me if I am wrong - A clear message trying to imply a perceived or real decrease of relevance of the old continent when it comes to the United Nations and more broadly to foreign policy. I fear this was the actual message that the video wanted to communicate, not its opposite. Food for thought.

Friday, September 20, 2013

MyVote2014: facts, lies and videotape (minus...videotape!)

I am obviously not alone in worrying about next year's European elections. Here in Brussels we are witnessing a flurry of initiatives that are trying to tackle key concerns. You will say, how useful is it to do things in Brussels? You are right, but some - actually a lot - of these initiatives may have started here but are meant for the wider European audience that will vote - or not - in next year's elections.

One such initiative is MyVote2014, a website created by the VoteWatch Europe team - the one that tells you which European parliamentarian is voting what on which topic. MyVote2014 is a special tool that starts by asking your opinion on 15 key issues and then compares this with the views of members of the European Parliament (MEPs) that have actually voted on those issues. The aim is:

- to give you a sense of what is happening in the European Parliament; 

- to show you that your vote counts; and 

- to tell you who - in terms of national or European party or single MEP - might be closest to your opinion, to help decide who to vote for.     

More broadly the site is trying to engage people. The main 'target' are young voters across the continent. So, I had to try it! OK, OK...am no longer in that age bracket, but anyone is invited to have a go - just like in next year's elections! 

The tool is very well done. Cool, clear, simple and based on solid data: each issue has an explanation, a short list of arguments for and against, and a section that tells you which MEP has voted in favour of that particular issue and which against. Once you have made your choice, the 'results' appear, i.e. a list of MEPs (which you can divide per country or political affiliation) sharing your ideas, broken down by percentage of agreement. You can also compare your choices with the choices of national political parties, if you are more familiar with them. It is true that - as pointed out at the launch - it does not have yet the list of new candidates which means that the votes you see are only those of sitting MEPs who might not run in next year's elections. But, they say, once these new candidates are known, they too will be asked to cast their vote, so you will have an idea of what they think as well.  

The tool is very well done. You have said it already, Virginia! Yes, I have. I am repeating it because I want to make a point.

So, as I was repeating, the tool is very well done. But you have TO GO to the site to see that it is very well done. Only 29% of young voters bothered to vote at the last EP elections. How are we going to reach the other 71%? Will they go to the MyVote2014 site? How will we convince them to do so? And even if they do go to the site, and let's say take the test, will they go and vote afterwards? I fear not. The sense of mistrust, anger even, towards national political parties has never been stronger; and, when it comes to European rather than national elections, one has to add distance, lack of knowledge and lack of interest; an truly explosive set of ingredients that would and will keep many away from the polling booths.

I will do my best to tell people about the site and will continue to hope for increased interest in these elections. Not just from those who want to express a protest vote but also from those, such as myself, who believe that a better Europe, a stronger Europe, a more influential Europe is one where citizens have a say and express their opinion freely. An opinion based on facts and data rather than emotional lies used for political expediency. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A digression? Well, actually....

Brief digressive question: how come there are so many beautiful and effective Thai commercials? I mean, why not Chinese, Indonesian or Indian just to remain in Asia?

Well, anyway, talking about the power of visual communications...not really digressing that much I guess....enjoy.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

28 countries, 24 languages and everyone is happy: the inevitability of mediocrity.

Here it is. The communication campaign for the 2014 European elections has started officially. One video, 28 countries, 24 languages. The whole campaign, as it is keenly pointed out, is costing 16 million Euros, exactly 0,031 euro per citizen. So, money well spent?

Have a look at the video:



I like the tagline. It works better in English than in other languages - as is often the case. But I like it. The three words are right and effective.

The music, the pictures and the script are less convincing though. No need to dwell on the music that is simply uninspiring. The pictures, some of which quite strong, have no logical connection with each other if it weren't for the script. They seemed to have been chosen a bit randomly, but this could not be the case, right? Perhaps the reason is that the script itself starts with a long list of opposite generic verbs (love-hate, begin-end etc.. couldn't they chose verbs related to issues the EU actually deals with?): in the attempt to make it quite obvious and easy to understand, the producers have decided to be slightly too broad and too literal and, when selecting the images,  made them simply fit with the words. In a powerful video, the images speak for themselves. It is not quite the case here.

But this brings me to the main issue: I can only imagine the amount of negotiations that must have taken place during the production as it had to make everyone happy in every language! So, I shouldn't be too critical. No, I won't be critical. I am just mad. Not mad with the Parliament, mind you.

Mad with the inevitability of mediocrity - gosh, I sound like Salieri in the film 'Amadeus'! By mediocrity I don't mean inferior, I mean ordinary, not outstanding.

Mad because national euro-sceptic parties will not have the constraint of trying to please everyone.

Mad because they will be allowed and will use provocative messages, possibly even outrageous ones, that will reflect their simple narrative, a black and white vision of the EU.

Mad because next year's elections will probably have a higher turnout, not thanks to this video, but thanks to those messages; messages, that will strike a chord with a substantial number of disaffected European citizens.

Mad because, as a result, we might end up with a European Parliament that will be representative only of a specific - to use a neutral term - section of the European demos.    

So, the question is not whether the money invested in this campaign is money well spent, but rather what kind of messages we - as pro-Europeans - will need to communicate to tackle effectively what will no doubt be the toughest European election campaign we have had so far.

I know that this is an information campaign: the Parliament cannot be openly pro-European. But for someone such as myself who deeply cares about the results of next year's elections, it is discouraging to come to the conclusion that a "love-hate, begin-end, win-lose" script is not quite the much needed knock-out blow to euro-phobia. But come on Virginia, it's early days....  

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Europe: a beautiful brand

I am very proud of being a European. I had countless arguments with British friends that could not imagine considering themselves European before British (or actually English, Scottish, Welsh but that is a different story). I do (certainly before British, way, way before!).

There must be something of a European identity since I feel it, and I am sure I am not alone. It's not easy to explain; I guess it's not the same for everyone and I think one feels it more on some occasions than others. But it's there. This video could just be one possible way to look at it, but certainly it shows that brand "Europe" can be very attractive indeed.

Whenever you are ready: more than one meaning in this title.

Enjoy.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Lower roaming charges? Don't thank the Commission!

Will go back to country branding soon, but now I need to talk about something that really pissed me off.

As well reported by the EU media - and by some European broadsheets - roaming charges (and especially the ones for data download) have gone down, again, the 1st of July; this is because the European Commission has reviewed once again the rules about European mobile charges and has achieved further price reductions. Data roaming is now 91% (yes 91%!) cheaper than it was five years ago.

You should be happy, not pissed off, you will say! Yes, I am super happy about the reduction. I always found roaming charges in Europe quite ludicrous. What I am really NOT happy about is the fact that the way most people heard about this news across Europe is through commercials of their mobile company announcing some incredibly generous new tariffs that would allow everyone to roam cheaply in the old continent. AAAAHH! Most companies have been opposing and lobbying against changes in roaming tariffs for years! They have lost their battle and now.....what do they do? They take all the credit!  Mind you, of course they would do that! They are smart!

Here are just a couple of ads - not really edifying - to show you what I mean:





But where is the big across-Europe campaign that says that it was actually the EU that forced them to do so? One of the few understandable and incredibly appreciated new pieces of legislation; a rare piece of good news; one that should have been used as an example of what the EU does for its citizens; certainly one which was worth investing or re-directing some money to communicate, maybe producing an ad that could set the record straight; but no, instead... it's down to mobile companies!! Give me a break! Even excluding the big spender idea of making a TV ad, how about the online presence? There are some news reports, documents, a press release and yes, a couple of videos.

 A weird video of a cartoon strip and a grandmother (453 views):



And the unmissable commissioner (I guess the slight resemblance to the grandmother of the previous video is purely coincidental!) in one of her many talk to camera interviews – in fact the video is one year old, after the first reductions - (1959 views):

 

 The impact? You be the judge.

 What a missed opportunity. Better go back to country branding!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Videos as a tool for country branding: two case studies (Belgium and .... Switzerland!)

It finally feels like summer and I will soon go off on holiday. The few posts before my departure will focus on a slightly different theme. Don't worry, it's still all about Europe, communications and videos; but the summer weather made me want to leave the European quarter of Brussels just for a while and look at...the whole of Belgium! And beyond! I want to look into European country branding! Why? Mainly because of a new video made to promote Belgium. The video, two actually, have been heavily criticised as they are considered too old fashioned, full of clichés and badly executed.

Here they are. One is aimed at potential tourists, or, as they say, at the general public:

 

And the other at potential business investors:

 

I am not sure whether the criticism was the same for both videos. I can certainly understand it for the first one. But understanding does not mean agreeing. Old fashioned? A bit maybe. Clichés? Yes for sure, but frankly this type of videos will almost inevitably contain clichés because they are trying to attract tourists - i.e. people who do not know much about Belgium. So, any surprise that all the famous sites are on show? Where should they have filmed? In Charleroi? And of course there will be chocolate, beer, frites and mussels: what else? Pizza? As for the execution, it is indeed a bit conventional (and quite long actually) but, again, you need to think at the target audience: non Belgians, and not necessarily social media, computer or animation buffs, which means a totally different group of people from the one criticising it this much. Maybe they should have chosen a different name (it is not exactly beyond expectations) and the music is pretty bad. Independent of the target.

Having said this, I really don't understand nor agree with the criticism if applied to the second video. True, it's quite straight forward but, unlike for the first one, the title is more appropriate because it told me interesting things I did not know; and I live here.

But talking more generally, are these videos effective? Is this a successful way to do country branding? What are the key ingredients? Is it necessary to stereotype? Do you need to be controversial? Remember the Danish one that was so criticised that had to be pulled? That one too played heavily on stereotypes and it went viral only because people thought it was a true story.

Can you afford in this day and age to be 'conservative' as the Belgians have done? And how would you measure success? An increase in country visits or high levels of criticism hence notoriety?

Let's look at a successful country - I guess in more ways than one. Last year, Switzerland was number one on the Country Brand Index. So, where are the effective Swiss videos? I found two that can be compared to the Belgian ones. The first is well filmed, although, as clichés goes, we are up there with the Belgians.



 But the second that looks at the business side of tourism is just so fantastically Swiss.


It's a spoof of a news coverage of an important tourism fair. The thought that not all the people interviewed probably understood they were being made fun of, cracks me up. So does the fact that they had to write 'funny' above the title on the video page of the Swiss tourism website, just in case someone took it seriously and thought they were being slightly unprofessional, to say the least. Unprofessional in Switzerland? NEVER!

But it's more than 9 minutes long  and I am afraid it's too much. Ironically both videos are trying to be funny which is not necessarily what you would expect or associated with the Swiss. So, I guess they should be praised for it. But does it work?

My feeling is that Switzerland is number one because it is Switzerland, not because of its more or less successful attempts at being funny. What do you think?

And this only got me started on country branding!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Welcome Croatia and the missing commissioner..

I am not particularly proud of it, but will confess nonetheless.

I like the simple and rather cheesy video that welcomes Croatia in the European Union.

I said it.

What else can I add? I am a total sucker for videos of people saying the same thing in different languages. Why? I guess it's Jeux Sans Frontières nostalgia (was it 'Games without Borders' or 'It's a Knockout' in English?). Or my deeply rooted internationalism; or perhaps it's just that I am still moved at the thought of Europeans getting together and speaking as 'one voice' (or actually 'many voices but the same two words'). Actually the Happy Commission Family is not complete. Someone is missing.  

Start counting:




What do you think: too busy to bother or still implementing the self-boycott strategy?  

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

One small step...or an impossible leap?

I promise, I really promise, my dear reader, that I did seriously try to stop criticising the institutions and their ability to communicate visually - well, if not stop, at least make the criticism less frequent. Some friends have said to me: 'What if one day you want to work for the EU on communications? If you keep on talking badly about them, you will only have enemies there!' Maybe they are right, I should think about that. Actually no. The communications jobs in the institutions - if one excludes the spokespersons service - are for EU officials only. Whether I criticise or not.

No, the reason I tried to be less critical was that I thought you, my dear reader, would be bored with it. I think I made my point on a number of occasions and now I should move on. Sharing interesting and successful campaigns was part of this moving on exercise.

But it seems that you, my dear reader, are not bored with it, because I regularly receive suggestions and  get sent links to videos that come out of the institutions. Videos that I cannot avoid commenting on. I try to, but when I see them, suddenly my eyes become watery, my muscles (both of them) tense up and a flow of thoughts gets into my head; this flow needs, I really mean needs, to be let out on paper, well, on screen, if I want to continue my day peacefully. Do I sound exaggerated? Ok, I am a bit, but wait you see this.

It was sent to me by someone that regularly produces videos - 'For a Commissioner in charge of energy, Oettinger really needs to boost his energy levels!' he wrote in his email. Well, that is the least one can say about the video message by the energy Commissioner introducing 'Sustainable Energy Week 2013 - One small step from you, one giant leap for Europe' -



Leaving aside the cheesy tagline, the ten seconds jingle is nice, but who has seriously been able to watch through all the other 94 seconds?

One small step from you, Commissioner Oettinger, and this video could have been quite different.
Last year Commissioner Potočnik did a great one with a similar purpose - introducing Green Week. As I said at the time, that video worked because it was shot outside, because the Commissioner inter-acted with his surroundings, because he had learned his lines by heart and hence delivered them more naturally and because it was directed and edited in a catchy way. So you would think it would be success to emulate. But it was not - not even for Green Week this year, may I add. Was it considered too extravagant or was the Environment Commissioner smiling too much?

One small step outside the Berlaymont, Commissioner Oettinger, maybe in a 'sustainable' environment - and the message would have sounded more credible.

One small step from your communications people, Commissioner Oettinger, and they might have suggested a different format to make it more interesting. Or maybe they have, but have not been listened to.

The voice, the background, and the constant zooming in and out that makes you sea-sick, do I really need to comment? A giant leap for Europe? Feels more like an impossible one! Let me stop here - I got it out of my system and so can continue my normal life!

Seriously, what drive me nuts, as usual, is that the question is not the lack of ability; there are plenty of capable communications people in the institutions - and many of them, by the way, are just as frustrated as I am at the difficulty of getting the message across. No, the question is the lack of willingness to spend time on it (not money, time), to listen to new ideas, to implement proper communications strategies; all this because communications, despite what people might say, is not a priority.

Will a European Parliament filled with Eurosceptics make it a priority? A fool too late bewares when all the peril is past, a famous queen once said, not me.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Saving lives with 'likes'? UNICEF 1 - Facebook 0?

I will leave the EU in peace this week, and let them negotiate TTIP. Someone pointed out that it is an unfortunate name for an Agreement that has not yet been reached. I agree actually. Virginia, stop it.

Anyway, I saw an interesting campaign idea a couple of days ago. It somehow links to the comments I made on the Kony 2012 campaign months back. This one is a UNICEF Sweden campaign.

Together with the UNHCR, I find that UNICEF is one of the few UN institutions - or maybe should I say institutions in general?- to have understood and well interpreted the power of visual communications. Their campaigns, partly because children are at the centre of the organisation, are very often incredibly moving and effective. This one, though, is particularly well done because it makes you think not just about children, but also about our own behaviour, as target audience of the campaign. First you have the powerful TV commercial showing a 10 year old boy who says that his and his brother's life will improve because the Facebook page of UNICEF Sweden has more and more  'Likes'. Sadly surreal but very thought provoking.

 Here it is (think about children):




And then there is the funny part of the campaign with three online clips showing someone trying to pay with 'likes'.

Here is one of the three (think about yourself):




These clips are OK. The characters could be funnier - or maybe they are to the Swedish audience - but the idea is good and anyway it is beside the point.

This campaign makes a not so subtle criticism of all those initiatives that want you to like, click and share for free from the comfort of your chair. Initiatives that, often, do not achieve much or change anything. The fact that online tools are a great help when it comes to reaching as many people as possible, does not alter the fact that, in most cases, what is really needed - and even more so in this time of crisis - is money. The quirkiness of this one for me is that the results of this campaign will be, yes, more donations, but also inevitably many more likes on the Facebook page of UNICEF Sweden. Or will it? Quite surprisingly the Facebook statistics seem to imply that there was a huge buzz the weeks following the campaign launch a month ago, but that there has been only a marginal increase in likes.

Pure coincidence or has the message gone through?  

Friday, June 14, 2013

A somewhat different Barroso statement on Syria and EU Foreign Policy

European Foreign Policy. A fascinating subject that I had decided not to cover. Why should I talk about it in a blog that covers visual communications and Europe? It is by now well known that the current High Representative runs away from video cameras so it would be a cheap shot to dig at the lack of interesting visuals. By the way, I understand now that cameras run away from her too, as EU photographers have decided to boycott her, but that is another story.

As I was saying, I had decided not to cover European Foreign policy. Until now. Why? Because of a video. The protagonist of the video - surprise, surprise -  is not Lady Ashton. No, this video is an inspiring statement by the Commission President José Manuel Barroso on Syria.

Here it is ( it's just under 1 minute 30 so watch it before reading on!):



Now, a key caveat to what I am about to say: the situation in Syria is catastrophic. It is indeed a stain on the world's conscience. It is painful to watch the country being destroyed and its people dying in huge numbers. Having been there and seeing all the places that we visited transformed into war zones makes me feel incredibly sad. So it should definitely be time to act in some way or another.

But....what is the point of this video statement? I ask because I am puzzled on two levels, one technical and the other linked to the actual content.

Let's get technical:
Why a video? If you read it, the statement has some strong elements, especially at the end. But this delivery straight to camera, in a monotone voice reduces enormously the dramatic impact of what is being said. Why this incredibly ugly blue background (OK, we get it that you represent the EU so everything needs to be blue and yellow but there is a limit!): why couldn't it have been recorded in a normal office?

Video is a great tool, but needs to be used properly. With some small adjustments, this video statement could have been much more powerful and might have had more than the current 270 views.

Adjustment number 1) Avoid the studio and record in a nice office.

Adjustment number 2) I am guessing that the recording was done in between series of official meetings, almost on the run; the text would have been written by his staff and given to him just before entering the studio. Had he managed to read it a couple more times before recording it, the delivery would have sounded more heartfelt and sincere;

Adjustment number 3) To sound sincere and heartfelt the statement would have had to be slightly more personal with maybe a couple of short extra sentences, but this goes to touch on the content, hence...

Puzzlement number two:
Why announce that you are giving more money (I guess the reason for the statement in the first place) and then shrink its importance by saying that it is only a palliative?  Here, one little extra sentence I was referring to, might have helped to personalise it, something like:' I know it's far from being the perfect solution but sometimes keeping people alive is the only thing we can do and should do'.

But then, maybe, the reason for the statement is in the final sentences: "What we need is a political solution to the conflict...And we need a transitional inclusive government". Strong but necessarily vague words.  And while we could all agree with them in principle, what is the EU doing to make this happen? To make WHAT happen exactly? And what CAN the EU do? 'We have a duty to act', he says. Never mind the fact that he used exactly the same 'stain' metaphor talking about Syria when he picked up the Nobel peace prize six months ago. What he should have added though is ....'but we really cannot do much because we don't agree with each other, and for that matter there are very few things we really all agree on, when it comes to foreign policy'.

And he could have concluded - ad lib - along these lines:

"So, you can blame the Commission and the High Representative until the cows come home but you should actually blame the Member States who still have not got it that together we would be much more effective and influential in the world. Or maybe they have got it but simply cannot let go of the notion that foreign policy is a member states' prerogative.  A strong European foreign policy requires courageous and visionary leaders both here in Brussels and in national capitals. Leaders that actually believe that Europeans deciding and acting - or maybe deciding not to act - together will make this world a better place, not just Europe.

OK, maybe he could not have concluded like this...I will.







Friday, May 31, 2013

I need you. First pictures, first cameras, iconic Europe: last seen in 1984?

I have been spending the last couple of days watching photographs. Great, you will say. Not really. Why not? You will ask. Because I have not found what I was looking for. And before you start singing U2 or Rolling Stones songs about not finding what you are looking for and not always getting what you want, let me tell you that I have not found I got what I needed either. What EUROPE needed actually. There was absolutely no need for this musical reference but boy, I love these songs! What was I looking for? An iconic image. A memorable photo. One that could immediately transmit what the EU has been, is and hopefully will be about. The main reason for my search is that I realised that every big event, moment or big change in history, good or bad, has at least one picture that captures it and makes it indelible for future generations. Here is just an incredibly small selection:












Pretty strong images don't you find? Truth be told, I did find one for the European Union as well. But it dates back to 1984. And I am sure some of you will dispute this is a photo of an  iconic EU moment as it was taken during a Franco-German meeting but it does epitomise perfectly the raison d'être of the EU.


So, as I think I should try to be more interactive, - and I need help! - I will ask you to help me find another one.  Is there somewhere a more recent photo that represents the EU, just as memorable as Mitterrand and Kohl holding hands? If it's hard to find, does that mean it is difficult to find anything memorable? What should we make of that?

We all agree the EU needs stronger symbols. If you search  'European Union' in Google Images all that comes out, in every possible shape or form, is the blue flag with yellow stars. So, increasing the variety of symbols would not be a bad start. But symbols alone are not enough. Inspiring behaviour of European leaders would itself create memorable images and with that new, positive associations with the European Union.

Such imagery would easily replace the tedious family photos and stills of the press conferences of European Summits. Unless, of course, these beautiful EU images already exist and I had simply missed them...

And just to leave you with a funny question about iconic photos and cameras... I know it's not really the first camera and it is a bit silly, but it did make me laugh:

The world's first camera in the making: but, which camera took the picture?


Monday, May 27, 2013

Olive oil and the three Brussels ailments

I love olive oil. I love good olive oil. But why oh why, did the olive oil jug ban in restaurants and the subsequent U-turn become the main EU news coming out of Brussels last week? Has anyone noticed that there has been a European Council as well? Yes, it did get a bit of attention, but way less than the olive oil story.

This made me think. I often complain about how badly the EU institutions communicate. But there is more to it. I realised that there are three syndromes that from now on I will need to keep in mind when trying to find ways for the European Union to (re)connect with its citizens. And I will also have to be careful and remember that many in and around the EU suffer severely from these conditions, and not all of them are working in the Communications department of the European Union.

1) The shape of cucumbers syndrome: the problem sometimes is not how the EU communicates its decisions but what those decisions are. The Commission works on a vast number of portfolios and agriculture is a big one. But in the current economical situation, well, at any time for that matter, there are some things that the EU simply should not be dealing with. And jugs in restaurants is such a thing. Especially since countries that have such legislation already in place have serious difficulty implementing it - I wonder why.... So let's just leave it to the customer shall we?

 2) The damned if you do and damned if you don't syndrome: the fact that after the barrage of criticism Commissioner Ciolos decided to withdraw the proposal has been criticised just as much as the proposal itself. If you believe in something, then stick to it and defend it. But if you have actually changed your mind and you have the courage - because it is slightly embarrassing - to go out and openly say it, then be prepared to be slagged off anyway. Funnily, at the press conference, since most of the questions were related to how bad the proposal was in the first place, the Commissioner, after his u-turning statement, spent most of the time defending the original proposal and certainly not enough on why he had changed his mind.

Here the inspiring press conference:



3)The powerful lobbies syndrome: the typical Brussels conspiracy scenario: the olive oil industry lobby versus the butter producers lobby; the northern lobby versus the southern lobby; the quality lobby versus the quantity lobby; 'the-Commission-is-too-weak-in-front-of-industry' lobby versus 'the-Commission-is-too-weak-in-front-of-powerful-member-states lobby'. Couldn't it simply be that the Commission has made a mistake, realised it (admittedly after some external pressure) and acted on it (again, a bit too late)? Don't get me wrong: I am not saying that lobbies in Brussels are not powerful; I am only pointing out that everyone has got their 'bad lobby' to blame for something or other.

The Commission, the member states - for or against the proposal - and the European media have all behaved in a typical but frankly disappointing way: not one of them has actually explained properly what has happened: why has the idea come up in the first place? How serious of an issue it is? Why did countries like the UK abstain and later shouted against it to please their Euro-sceptic audience? Why has Cameron decided not to explain the reason for this strange behaviour, a question posed brilliantly also by Wall Street Journal's journalist Simon Nixon? Why has the coverage been so extensive but not particularly rigorous? Sadly, everyone stuck to their defensive position and kept on pursuing their own agenda.

And in the end, once again, the real losers are the European citizens whether they love olive oil or not.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Creativity for Space and space for Creativity

As you surely will have seen, Commander Chris Hadfield is back on Earth.

And if you don't know what on earth (ah ah, have not done it on purpose, I swear!) I am talking about, it means that you have obviously missed a great opportunity to see social and traditional media communications - at its best - in action! (Ok, insulting your readers may not be the best way to increase readership, but you know me!)

Anyway, Commander Chris Hadfield is a Canadian (as a Canadian friend proudly made me notice) astronaut. He has spent the last 5 months on the International Space Station. From up there (and with the help of teams of professionals back on Earth), he has been 'reporting' using tweets, videos and photos.

The videos covered quite trivial matters: very trivial actually, like how to brush your teeth, but being in space made it very entertaining indeed. They were done professionally, with humour but always informative.

Here are a some of the most fun ones:







I should probably stop here, but I can't! Here is a couple more, food related:




Some of the photos he took of the Earth were amazing. But he also took interesting or funny pictures inside the station.

And just before coming back he sang David Bowie's 'Space Oddity'.



It went viral. How cool is that? (And even if he pre-recorded it on Earth and lip-synced it in space, as it is being pointed out, so what?)

So in these five months, Commander Hadfield has become a celebrity and space travel has become fascinating once again: he has now nearly a million followers on Twitter and his videos got thousands and thousands of views. NASA and the Canadian Space Agency could not have had a better promoter. And they - as my Canadian friend Bruce called them 'the naturally conservative people that run these things (they fear failure more than the astronauts do)'  - could not have done a better job allowing this to happen and helping to make it a success.

Granting your employees the space (oops! I did it again!) to express themselves in their own way is  often seen as too risky but in fact, as this brilliant example shows, in most cases it's a great way to get effective communication out. Of course, you can never be sure and you might have to accept the fact that things might go wrong sometimes, but it is definitely more human and hence successful than a restrictive approach to external and internal communications through social media.

Unfortunately big companies and organisation are very often risk-averse when it comes to communications and prefer to 'limit' the expressions of creativity to a few authorised people they can trust. Let me give you an example. The EU! A friend working for the European Commission sent me the paragraph that summarises the rules when it comes to communicating on the Commission's behalf:

"As a general rule, only Commissioners, Spokespersons, Heads of Representations and Press Officers in Representations are entitled to speak on behalf of the European Commission and to relay political messages. In response to the growing interest in social media, ‘mandated staff’ in every DG, working in close cooperation with the Spokespersons, have now been added to this."

In response to the growing interest in social media? Mandated staff? Oh dear. Naturally EU employees can have their personal Twitter and Facebook account but they need to make it clear they speak on a personal capacity. I understand you would want to be careful on specific stories and controversial subjects but in those cases it's quite likely that you will be - and have been actually - criticised no matter what you decide to say and who you decide to allow to say it! 

Imagine for a minute the Canadian Space Agency applying a similar rule:  a twelve o'clock press conference on Earth, in a boring room, with the official CSA spokesperson outlining what Commander Hadfield is doing inside the ISS and how! And that's it. And now tell me that you are not delighted that they have opted for a more individual and less institutional communication strategy!  

Monday, May 13, 2013

The 'visuality' of not being visual.

As you well know, I spend a lot of time telling whoever is interested that being visual is not a nice option in communications but an indispensible one, in our day and age etc etc.You have heard it all before.

But today, as I am a woman full of contradictions, I want to talk about a website that is not visual at all. Well, that is not quite correct. It's not visual in the traditional 'web' sense of the word, i.e it does not have lots of pictures or videos. But it is visual in its own way. Have I lost you?

Bear with me. In my opinion, the aim of visual communications is only one thing: a way to make people read, listen or watch (are these three things?). So in a sense, if a website achieves that successfully, then for me it is visual even if it doesn't have hundreds of colourful pictures. And I will push it even further: how would you react if I told you that the strength of this particular website, is precisely that it is NOT visual in the traditional sense?

Watch this 5 minute video interview with the designer, Ben Terrett and you will understand what I mean. Ah, and the website is the UK's government website GOV.UK:



Did you hear? "The user does not have to understand government to find something out'. And, when talking about the design, he realises that they are 'doing information design, not pushing pictures around the screen'.  As people visit the site looking for specific information, the designers had to 'strip away all those bits that get in the way of that information'.

So stripping away what is not needed can also be considered a visual way of communicating to a public that, in this particular case, is only interested in information.

Now, look instead at the EUROPA. EU website - you knew that I was going to make a comparison, didn't you? - The homepage might even look similar but once you get into the site you drown, and I don't need to elaborate, as I have said this before. The idea to have all the digital information of the EU into one site is commendable - although a couple of people I have spoken to recently here in Brussels did not even know that the 'Europa' site existed as they only check the sites of the different institutions. But Europa.eu is a platform not a merger as all the other sites (institutions, commissioners, DG's etc) are still happily and separately there. 

I realise that centralising digital communications in the EU, as they are doing in the UK, would be a very dangerous suggestion because some of the nicer and more innovative things are coming from creative individuals who work in different parts of the EU and not necessarily in DG Communications. And I  guess that I will be probably dead before they might agree to merge all the sites into one.

So, I am not keeping my hopes up, but at least I had the chance to explain why not being visual sometimes is actually....very visual.

And before you think I am mad, let me tell you that the site Gov.uk was recently named the 2013 best design of the year!  It does not get more visual than that!

Monday, May 6, 2013

I like ‘Debating Europe'. Have I become a softy? Not a chance.

Let it be said that I am doing my bit for the 'European Year of Citizens'.

I say this because, as I was complaining about the lack of clarity recently, today I want to show you something that instead couldn't be clearer: 'Debating Europe'.

Here is a cute video that explains what it is all about:




The idea is very simple. We want European citizens to be more connected with European decision makers (both at EU and national level) and vice versa? Then, let's give them the opportunity to interact directly with each other and start a proper debate on Europe. The website is incredibly well done, easy to understand and pleasant to look at. There are recognisable themes, lots of questions, and lots of answers. The 'infoboxes' are useful and look nice. The creators, the partners and the sponsors are all clearly listed. It is interesting to note that, even if it lists the European Parliament as a strategic partner, this is not an official EU initiative but the idea comes from one of the Brussels' think-tanks 'Friends of Europe'. Microsoft, Gallup and Skype are also strategic  partners. I would have liked to read what each of them actually does on this project, rather than a long spiel on how committed to Europe these companies are, but hey, you cannot have everything, right? Many pro-European and 'pro-debate-in-general' organisations are also mentioned as partners. You can be active in a variety of ways and follow it with every possible social media; it's refreshing to see that their Facebook page has more than 90 thousands likes.

These type of ideas and the careful - and I bet expensive - manner in which they are executed is a great possible way to bring citizens - at least the youngest generations- closer to Europe. I am not becoming a softy because we are approaching Schuman day, don't worry. I am only giving credit where credit is due.  So spread the word! (I want them to have 10.000 followers on Twitter before the summer!)

Monday, April 29, 2013

Clarity: patent pending.

Let me get this straight: 'in the last year over 30.000 patents were granted to European companies and that is more than all the patents issued in the US, Japan, China and South Korea combined". Wow! Did you expect that? I surely did not. Here in Europe we are still inventing like there is no tomorrow...(no pun intended).

Now, you can try to draw all the conclusions you want from this quite incredible fact, but what I get from it are two things (stay with me!):

1) With all this talk of Europe being on the way out, obsolete, backward looking, paralysed by the crisis, it is easy to forget that there are incredibly innovative and creative companies in Europe and that it does not all have to be doom and gloom (mind you, I come from a country where 'dooming and glooming' is a national sport and I am a true representative, I am afraid, especially these days. For a reason, I may add! You see, I can't help myself!).

I know that for most journalists 'good news is no news', so I did not expect headlines in the main broadsheets. And in fact, I took that first quote from this, ehm..mesmerising, video:



The video wants to promote this year's European Inventor Award (or the Oscar of Technology as they call it in the video, yeah right), an event organised by the European Patent Office or EPO. The EPO website says: 'The European Inventor Award pays tribute to the men and women whose quest for new ideas drives technological progress and economic growth, shapes society and improves our daily lives'.  Great idea, and great news, as I was saying. Great video? No. It tries hard but it is, how shall I put it? very, very boring. Boring in the way things are told and in the way it is shot. The elements are all there (and that is probably part of the problem): interesting stats, historical context with museum pictures, description of the event, interview with previous winner and even vox pops!!! But where are the innovation and the creativity one would expect from a video on such a subject? If you don't have the budget (although I think this one was not cheap either), then just don't do it! Or maybe just focus on the inventors and their story, if you want to deliver - as you should - the message about the number of patents in Europe.

But here comes the doubt. (Or, the second thing I got from those numbers -you thought I had forgotten?)

2) Are these numbers true? Let's listen carefully once more. The video starts with the quote I mention above. Then, at 4 minutes 16 seconds into the film, you see a graphic of the world. And the voiceover says: 'Shortly more than 36% of all patent filing in 2012 comes from Europe with Asia following closely behind'.

Here is the graphic:


So, more European companies than US, Japan, China and South Korea combined get a patent but Europe is just marginally above Asia in terms of filing them?  What does that mean?  Does it mean that it is easier in Europe to get a patent? Maybe the EPO has the explicit aim of promoting innovation in the EU, then say it clearly! Can we consider these real numbers and are they still good news for Europe, or isn't more impressive that Asia files almost the same number? Why do I need to guess?

Clarity brings transparency. And neither requires a patent.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Eurobubble: blink at your own risk!

The much anticipated web series 'Eurobubble' - well let's say much anticipated here in Brussels -  has finally put out its first episodes. We have three so far. And that is exactly 10 min and 17 seconds of video in total! I am pointing this out merely because I like them all, especially considering the tiny budget the producers have at their disposal. But I have noticed that the length of the episodes is rapidly decreasing. The first episode was 4:39; the second 3:08 while the third episode came down to 2:38. And each episode has 30 seconds of titles (more on that later). I am scared that if I blink, I'll miss the next one! Seriously, I am all for short videos, to keep people's attention span. But isn't this cutting things too short?

Here is the first episode - the long one!- to give you a taste:



Let me say immediately that I applaud this initiative and I really enjoyed watching them all. Why?

First and most importantly: it's well written. When I spoke about it in one of my previous posts, my worry was that it wouldn't be funny enough. But it is quite funny for a selected audience, I guess, as most of the funny bits are for 'insiders'. It flows and the description of the characters and the situations is accurate and witty.

Second: the graphics and the music are good. The Catch me if you can-style title sequence is definitely well done - if perhaps a bit long - and I suspect Steven Spielberg had a slightly bigger budget!

Third: as non-professional actors go, I think Yacine and the rest of the cast is doing a very good job, probably because they are all pretending to be....themselves!

Having said this, the main issue I have with the series is its speed, which is the flip side of the coin of the qualities I just mentioned. It feels as if someone has left their thumb on the fast forward button. I know it is fashionable to speak fast, especially for non-native speakers, so you can show how well you master the English language. And a lot of people think it makes you look smarter. When I was working for Newsnight, I remember the morning meetings as a race to see who could speak fastest, as if what you had to say would be considered more insightful or newsworthy if told at max speed. I justified it to myself - probably wrongly- by saying: 'we are a news programme, news has to be fast. But in this case, the speed makes some parts of the script incredible - can you actually find a job so easily and quickly in Brussels these days? - or prevents you from understanding some lines, which is a shame. And the lovely graphics appear and then disappear in a nano-second: they are great but fly by and you can't take them in. I guess you could pause the film and read it, but why should that be necessary? Is it so problematic to keep them on screen for a little bit longer?

Maybe I am just getting older - an wiser hopefully! - but I do believe that smart and fast do not always go hand in hand; and neither do funny and fast for that matter. So could we calm down for a second?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Hello Europe! Are you ready to meet your fellow Europeans? Don't worry, only virtually!

The idea is using giant screens and place them in some of the main European cities to get to know one another. A European project, but a very Belgian video. A crazy idea? Maybe but well worth a try! Have a look:



I have checked with one of the producers: they are making good progress but have not found the sponsor yet. I bet they will though, because it's a nice concept and would give good visibility to whoever decided to fund it.  Or at least I hope so. Certainly it confirms the feeling that, these days,  Belgians are the only pro-European people still left in Europe!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Videos and populism: surely, that's not the problem (and don't call me Shirley!)

As some of you know, I am a member of the board (voilà, transparency and full disclosure all in one!) of Avanti Europe! a new online citizens movement that wants to recapture the European narrative from the hands and mouths of the Eurosceptics and create a constructive debate with engaged European citizens. The debate started last week with the launch of the first solidarity campaign with the citizens of Greece. Yes, Greece. I know that all you have been hearing in the last weeks is about Cyprus, but the situation in Greece is dire and it is ordinary citizens who cannot afford healthcare any longer who are suffering, not some Russian oligarchs.

To launch the campaign we wanted to produce a video to put on our website. Ok, on the week before Easter, maybe not the best idea in terms of timing, but it was on Greek National Day, and  it's never too soon or a bad time to be supportive. Now, the video needed to be short, catchy and give enough information to make you:

a) upset about what is happening in Greece
b) interested enough to share the video with your friends
c) want to become a member of Avanti and sign the petition.

Here it is:



On the whole, it has been a successful launch and although one might dispute whether the video succeeded in all three objectives, surely it's a good start (and don't call me Shirley!  - I have re-watched the film 'Airplane' - here is the link to the clip! - after many years and cannot help using that line when I say or write surely, sorry!! ). What I found quite interesting were some of the comments on the video: some could not understand how we could use a war/video game metaphor and some found it very populist. I could have understood people criticising the actual campaign - maybe disputing whether it is wise or possible to revise austerity measures - but criticising the video for me means having a distorted idea of what that kind of video is supposed to do. Quite often I find myself defending videos which are considered too reductionist, too populist and too simplistic. Of course, I am only referring to videos whose aim is to become viral. Those videos HAVE to be simple. Don't get me wrong: this does not for a minute that I condone populism. But the danger of populism for me is in the content, not the form(at). It would be a bit like criticising ballet dancers for not singing well enough: THEY ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO!!!!

By all means, let's have a debate, about solutions, Europe and solidarity. This is why Avanti was born in the first place. But the means to deliver the messages, surely, need to be accepted for what they are and can be. And stop calling me Shirley!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

How about this for an effective video?

A couple of days ago I was invited to attend a seminar in the press room of the Council of the EU. Entering the building brought back memories of my days at the BBC, when I was spending the day running around trying to get  more information and interviews on what the Council was discussing, desperately aiming to finish the piece in time for broadcast. There was no running this time. But, unlike most of those occasions, when I left the building this time I felt I had just been part of something very interesting, surrounded by thought-provoking speakers. 

The title of the seminar was "Public communication in the evolving media landscape: adapt or resist?" . Apart from the fact that everyone seemed to agree that government and institutions need to adapt rather than resist, there was a great variety of views and perspectives on the role and relevance of the Internet in general and social media in particular when it comes to communications. 

From an analysis of the psychology of the social media revolution, through mentions of Tomasi di Lampedusa, famous saying ''everything will need to change if we want everything to remain the same', to a speaker that compared (quoting an American professor) the internet to a dishwasher - it simply helps you doing things you always did, but in an easier way. 

But there was one moment that really struck me. Mischa Coster, a Dutch psychologist, was talking about the triggers and the emotions that push people to like, share, talk about things they see online. One of these emotions is loss aversion. In this context, he referred to the campaigns that most governments have developed to push smokers to stop. After showing pictures of the most commonly used i.e. health warnings and photos on packets of cigarettes, he asked us to look at this video:



I had tears in my eyes. I just couldn't help it. I thought I had seen it all and knew enough about videos and 'manipulation' not to be so moved. But I was wrong. What I find amazingly powerful of this video is that there is no mention of smoking at all, until the very end, but what you see are the possible consequences of smoking in all its dramatic manifestation. And without any doubt - the audience at the seminar all agreed- this is so much more effective than the health warnings on cigarette packs. (A little joke to cheer you up: do you know the one of the man that goes to buy a packet of cigarettes and, once he has it in his hand and has read the warning, gives it back to the shop owner saying: 'I don't want the one that says Smoking Kills You, give me the one that says Smoking hurts the ones around you, please!' Says it all on how successful warnings are, don't you find?)

Anyway, back to the video, it's true that being a parent and an ex-smoker, I probably represent the perfect target audience, but still, I could not have found a better way to show how powerful a video can be. As my sister said though, there should have been a disclaimer saying that the boy was not hurt during the making of the film because he does looks really, really upset.