Share stories, not stats: Improving the communication of EU-funded projects

Do you know how much funding the EU has contributed to projects in your local community? If you do, then you are in a minority. Not many European citizens are aware of the extent to which the EU finances regional projects that affect their lives and communities. This is perhaps illustrated only too well by the recent Brexit. Britain voted Leave and perhaps — dare I say it — this is a much-needed wake-up call. It’s a chance for the EU to step up its game and ensure that European citizens in other countries are more aware of what it does for them.

During October, I attended the annual European Week of Regions and Cities (EUWRC) in Brussels, together with 5000 policymakers, press, researchers, students and representatives of various regional projects around Europe. The event focuses on the successes and ongoing challenges of EU Cohesion Policy and the role of regions in Europe. One of the issues raised at the event was that of communicating the impact of Cohesion Policy to the people of Europe — those that benefit from it. During the EUWRC Opening Session, Commissioner for Regional Policy Corina Crețu stressed that the impact of EU funding was not being made known to people:

“Cohesion Policy is maybe the most visible part of the EU to peoples’ lives. Our weakness is that we fail to communicate what a big difference European funds have made in peoples’ lives” — Corina Crețu, Commissioner for Regional Policy

And what a serious weakness this is. At a time when Europe is facing severe social and economic crises, 60–70% of people don’t even know what the EU is, let alone what the Committee of the Regions, as one speaker pointed out during the Opening Session. The fact that so many Europeans are unaware of what the EU has done and is doing for them is nothing short of disastrous if the EU wishes to remain relevant in the lives of people across Europe.

But how should the European Commission respond to this problem? How can it better communicate the results of its funding efforts and the successes of its projects? What is desperately needed is a more effective strategy that communicates the impact of EU-funded projects to those people that benefit from them: the people living in Europe. Students, families, schools, communities, local organisations should all know just how many roads, bicycle paths, parks, social inclusion programs, research studies, experiments and so on have been assisted by EU funding.

With all due respect, I believe that information about EU Cohesion Policy and its impact could be communicated a whole lot more effectively. So here’s my idea for a better communication strategy that could help spread the word about EU-funded regional projects to more people.

Don’t preach to the converted

The EUWRC is a great event, and a necessary one at that. But it felt as though it was more about networking. During her address at the Opening Session, Corina Crețu suggested that we meet more than once a year. But I would suggest that instead of increasing the number of such large-scale events, that more effort be put into the local and regional events that happen in conjunction with the program in Brussels.

I’m a researcher working on regional issues and there were stories and examples raised during the week that I was completely unaware of. I attended a seminar on the Academy for Smart Specialisation at Region Värmland’s office, where it was acknowledged that the Swedish region has been incredibly innovative in linking universities with regional authorities to focus on areas that the region can specialise in. The EU Commissioner invited to speak at the event suggested similar programs be replicated across other regions in Europe.

What genuinely fantastic and inspiring news! Except for the fact that this event was held at the Region Värmland office in Brussels, for an audience who (besides myself) already knew about all of this. What does the Academy for Smart Specialisation mean for residents of Värmland? How does focusing on particular industries in Värmland benefit them?

It is not enough that the EU and those working on these projects know what’s going on. The beneficiaries of projects need to be targeted and communicated to.

Encourage the involvement of European citizens

Andrea, one of the other EU in my Region blogging competition winners, recently published a post about the Regio Stars Awards that took place during the EUWRC, where successful projects are celebrated for their efforts in improving smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, sustainable urban development, and effective management. It’s an event Andrea believes has serious potential to become more democratic: “In the digital age, it isn’t unreasonable to believe the public would be interested in voting for the most popular project via their mobile devices from the comfort of their own homes,” she writes. “Ideas come to mind such as creating a television channel for European entertainment — this could provide the support and infrastructure required to bring the RegioStars Awards into everyone’s homes just like other competitions such as the Eurovision Song Contest.”

It is ideas such as this that are sorely needed and should be considered seriously by the European Commission as part of its efforts to ramp up general awareness and understanding of regional projects.

Share stories, not stats

I wholeheartedly agree with Mr Nichele that what is needed are stories, not stats. How many times during the week at EUWRC did I hear this fact recited: every 1 euro spent in cohesion brings an added value of 2.7 euros. That’s a nice statistic, I can understand why it is repeated so often. But what does this mean to a school teacher in rural Spain? To an Erasmus student from the Czech Republic studying in Sweden? Or to a mother juggling a full-time job with taking care of her three children in Poland? And where and how is this money being spent?

As Mr Nichele pointed out, we as people connect with stories, not with numbers, figures, graphs and tables. While I’m sure many think it’s excellent that the EU is spending a certain amount of money, they need to know about how that money is helping them, specifically. And storytelling is a key component of this.

So I’m going to contribute to spreading the word about a project that I found truly inspiring. During a session on the EU’s external borders, a woman from Palestine shared her story about the RUWOMED project, which aims to support and connect rural women’s traditional know-how within the Mediterranean Sea Basin.

Nedaa Salama Fakhira is a self-described former housewife from the Palestinian village of Kufur Malik. As part of the RUWOMED project, she and a small group of other women learned the skills necessary to become beekeepers, including agriculture techniques, business management, accountability and marketing. They have used their newfound knowledge to become entrepreneurs, producing and selling fair trade honey locally, with a vision to expand internationally. As part of the project, Nedaa travelled to Spain and attended networking events and seminars in Lebanon and Jordan. According to another of the project’s participants, Naema Hamayel, RUWOMED “allowed us to empower ourselves, to get out of our homes and not be just there cleaning and making food, but to go out and be leaders in our community.”

Nedaa Salama Fakhira’s presentation took place in Arabic, and the majority of the session attendees listened to translations in our native languages via headsets. Though she was talking about images on a screen, her presentation was captivating. She spoke clearly and confidently. While her presentation slides were interesting, I was more captivated watching her as she spoke and the confidence she exuded as she told a story of female and rural empowerment. Her story had a far greater impact on me than any statistic or speech given by a European Commissioner or MEP during the week.

Stories such as hers need to be told — in writing, in visual format — and told not by the project managers, managing authorities or Commissioners but by real people on the ground. And whether that’s the housewife from a Palestinian village who became an entrepreneur and valued member of her community, the homeless teenager who was taken off the streets and joined the workforce, or the resident of a town who swapped her car for a bicycle during her commute to work, it is these people who give a personal touch to EU Cohesion Policy. Focus on these people and their stories and you will reach more people far more successfully.

Hold the EU in my Region competition again

This year was the first year that the EU in my Region competition was held. As such, it was very much a pilot project, the impact of which remains to be fully analysed. I’m not sure how much other journalists at the event appreciated a bunch of newcomers with no journalism experience barging in and tweeting all over the place (sorry!). But I hope that we can bring something of an outsider’s perspective to the ‘Brussels bubble,’ questioning things that those inside it take for granted and offering some solutions.

I was disappointed to see only one or two other members of the media at the workshops I attended during the week. Perhaps the topics of the sessions I attended (self-employment in Europe, building bridges at the EU’s external borders and the integration of migrants into the labour market) were not considered as interesting to media platforms as other sessions were. But I highly doubt that these issues are uninteresting to people in Europe. I would love to attend the event again in the future and see more press covering such sessions, spreading the word about the impact of EU regional policy.

Get local content creators on board year-round

There are countless projects taking place in all regions across Europe, involving many thousands of people engaged in events on a daily basis. It is clear that the Commission cannot spread the word about these projects alone, it needs help.

The EU in my Region competition was a step in the right direction. It aimed to gather bloggers living in the EU and get them to capture the results of EU-funded projects in written and visual form.

The Instagram feed of EU in my Region winner Janusz Mizerny’s blog Green Projects. Janusz posts images and writes blogs about environmental projects in Poland and Europe.

Beyond making this competition an annual event, I think the Commission needs to get more digital content creators on board and encourage them to write about and capture projects in their local area — not just once per year but all year round. Communications experts within the various Secretariats of regional programmes create content about their projects targeted at policy-makers and potential project partners but content creators external to the EU’s programs offer more objective viewpoints and can connect better with the general public.

Communications teams situated in Brussels can share statistics and information, but it is the people living, working, socialising, exercising, shopping and travelling in European regions that can more accurately convey what is going on there.

I encourage the Commission and regional offices to find writers, bloggers, photographers, videographers and artists who are active in their local area. Regional offices could organise press trips for journalists and bloggers to various EU-funded projects in their region and organise local versions of the EU in my Region competition (EU in Värmland, for example). Harnessing the power of social media by creating Instagram channels and Twitter hashtags (e.g. @EUinVärmland, #EUinVärmland) to get conversations and collaborations happening is not difficult to implement. If the Commission really wants its communications strategy to have an impact, it needs to invest — and to encourage the programmes and projects that it funds to invest — in active and effective communication.

Regional offices could organise press trips for journalists and bloggers to various EU-funded projects in the area and organise local versions of the EU in my Region competition within the region (EU in Värmland, for example). Harnessing the power of social media by creating Instagram channels and Twitter hashtags (e.g. @EUinVärmland, #EUinVärmland) to get conversations and collaborations happening is not difficult to implement.

As part of their marketing and communications budget, individual projects should consider asking freelancers to create content about their project, offering a more genuine perspective than what can be conveyed by those working on the project itself, who would obviously talk it up. This would also support local self-employed and freelance communities.

In the words of Dutch MEP Lambert van Nistelrooij at the Opening Session of EUWRC, “we absolutely need to reform communication strategy” to reach the heads and hearts of Europe’s citizens. Let us not let this remain mere words but take action. The impact of regional policy should not be confined to Brussels but needs to be disseminated in the regions themselves much more effectively. I’ve offered a few ideas as to how this can be done. Perhaps you have some more. Share them below and let’s spread the word so that more people can learn about the EU in their region.

I attended the European Week of Regions and Cities on behalf of the Directorate-General of Urban and Regional Policy.