Friday 23 April 2010

Navigating the Social Media Space: What the EU can learn from Eurocontrol

I wasn't one of those concerned by the recent ash and airspace crisis, which didn't prevent me from noticing the incredible success of Eurocontrol in the social media sphere, especially since many people whom I follow on Twitter were directly and indirectly concerned.

EU institutions apart from the the great people at the European Parliament are very hesitant to move forward in their social media efforts. One of the lucky exceptions these days seems to be EU Careers. But other EU institutions, organisations and sub-units can learn a lot from what Eurocontrol was able to do these days.

Eurocontrol is not an EU institution but a European intergovernmental organisation working on the development of a single European sky. However, it is still a European organisation that has to work with obvious problems such as multilingualism and quite different stakeholders: State and public authorities, larger and smaller businesses and now also individual citizens, all having their own communication styles, working rhythms, and information needs.

Nevertheless, in of the largest airspace crises in the history they were able to manage a huge increase in communications with just one employee - Aurelie Valtat (who has already been interviewed and profiled by El Mundo).

Just one social media communicator - the second team member was stuck in Spain due to the crisis as Aurelie told me five minutes after I asked her the question on Twitter earlier today - was able to connect both to professional organisations as well as to individual citizens with their individual problems. She transmitted both official information coming from inside Eurocontrol and from relevant national authorities but she was also quickly answering diverse questions coming directly from citizens and stakeholders on Twitter and on Facebook.

On Mashable, Shashank Nigam qualified the work of Eurocontrol as "probably the best effort [he had] seen in aviation crisis management through social media". And the BBCblog concluded that the success of Eurocontrol's communication effort came because:
  • They were open to conversation
  • They were quick with answers
  • They had a loud & clear communication
  • They were consequent in hashtags
  • They sounded like a person
  • They were nice in the right way
How many EU officials and social media channels could you mention that would qualify for all these six points?

In the meantime, the Twitter account of Eurocontrol has over 7300 followers (after 300 before the crisis according to El Mundo) and the Facebook page has 3200 "Likes", a base that they will be able to use for communication when the crisis is over but also whenever a new crisis may arise.

The combination of first-hand knowledge (i.e. working within the institution) and the ability to interact with a diverse public seems to be a major asset for social media communication of institutions. It is also trust in an employee (or several) to handle the communication efforts in the name of the institution, being allowed to answer without hierarchic authorisation of every little answer and thus being able to react at the speed of social communication, not of institutional communication.

And Eurocontrol also had the ability to work only in English, relying on the linguistic capabilities of followers and translation efforts of major stakeholders and of the social web that is able to get message translated into any language when needed, as we have seen in our experiment recently.

EU institutions should study what Eurocontrol and Aurelie Valtat - a single qualified and talented employee - were able to do during these days, how much their image profited from the way they were handling communications in this crisis, and how much added value European public institutions can have for citizens and for other stakeholders if they employ the right social communications strategies with the right people in the right way.

Picture: © anguskirk / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Buzzer said...


I manage a travel-related business; bit one that would not normally have any interaction with Eurocontrol. I have never used Twitter before.

Stumbling across the Eurocontrol Twitter amongst the ash-cloud (will this phrase now become common parlance as a euphemism for "an invisible cloud of mis-information leading to poor decision-making"?) of bad and tardy detail, I signed up for an account and worked out how to follow their messages.

It was the best thing to come out of the eruption. I learned the value of fast, concise and timely communication through an easily available and understandable medium.

Full kudos to the @Eurocontrol tweeters. They could teach us all a lesson in using new media for a purposeful and common end.


Julien Frisch said...

Thanks Ian for sharing; I suppose the people at Eurocontrol will notice.

Laurence said...

As someone who's been stuck in the ash cloud crisis in a foreign country in the possession of a smart phone, I have been truly reassured by the amazing presence of Eurocontrol on my Twitter timeline.
Thumbs up to Aurélie!
French chicks rock!

Janice said...

A number of my colleagues and I were affected and stumbled across the Eurocontrol feed, and joined Twitter as a result. It was invaluable as we coordinated and synched up across UK, Germany, Belgium and South Africa with go / no go decisions on business meetings and cancellations. Very impressed with the timely responses as well as the info as to when there would be twitter 'blackouts' so you didn't wonder why there was no news at certain times. First time I've realised there might be a point to Twitter!

Mathew Lowry said...

@Janice, I don't think you'd be alone there.

Hopefully, others across the EU institutions are taking notes. Nice post, Julien.

Aurelie Valtat said...

Thanks Julien for the post which really summed up well what we did and what was said about what we did. :-)

I must admit it was both an amazing PR experience and a great personal experience, being in direct contact with thousands of people needing something that only I could provide them with at a certain point in time... It certainly made me feel the responsibility on my shoulders.

Reflecting on your article I would like to make a small corrigendum and share my thoughts on the language issue, which you rightly point out as a constraint for EU institutions. We in fact posted mostly in Eng, but also retweeted live interviews in French (providing Eng translation shortly after). We replied to questions in English, French and German, and questions were also asked in Spanish and Dutch to which I replied in English.

So while it is true that the lingua franca of Twitter is and will remain English, nothing prevents you from receiving and answering questions in as much languages as your Twitter team can/should speak. Starting already with EN FR and DE would be a good start for EU institutions, without having to necessarily create separate twitter accounts.

Sorry for making the comment so long - that's probably due to the frustration of having to tweet in 140 characters so many tweets for such a long period of time!


Julien Frisch said...


First of all, thanks a lot for taking the time to comment, I suppose you are kind of social media exhausted after over a week! And don't hesitate to write comments as long as you want; I still keep the blog because there often is more to say than 140 or 280 characters. :-)

Then, regarding the language issue: I agree with you, and it is perfect to have a multilingual team (or a person that speaks several languages) and to be able to address citizens with different languages needs and abilities.

My remarks were rather directed at those people in the EU institutions who have a focus that is close to obsession regarding coverage in all EU official languages, which prevents them from moving further on in their efforts to strengthen communication with a wider audience.

The main issue should be to be present and to be visible.

The language issue can be solved in a second step. If, with two people, you can cover some 4-6 languages you can already be of great help for large target groups. And if you get requests in language that you do not cover you can still forward them to others and get the translations done - either within an institution or through the help of the social media crowd.

But again, huge thanks to you and the people around you - your example will (hopefully) help others in other European institutions and organisations to move government-to-citizen communication forward.

Have a relaxing weekend,