ECPA and the value of blogging in Brussels

May 18, 2008 at 10:06 pm 4 comments

Our lunch event on trade associations and the use of the internet the other week turned out to be interesting for all sorts of reasons. While our own experience on this blog and that of Pat Cleary, our US colleague, was clearly a draw, the real value was the exchange of experience between participants all fighting to persuade internal audiences of the (pretty obvious) merits of online communications in a Brussels public affairs context. Hopefully some more trade association blogs will spring up as a result.

Chief amongst those sharing their experience was perhaps Brussels’ foremost trade association blogger, Helen Dunnett. Helen is the eCommunications Manager (cool title) for the European Crop Protection Association. She writes the association’s blog, which is available on wordpress platform as well as on the blogactiv platform. Happily on the back of our discussions, Helen agreed to answer a few (ok, lots) questions about her experience to share with you all on this blog. Unsurprisingly, she has a lot of interesting insights so we’ve posted her response in full to all our questions.

Why did ECPA decide to start a blog?

The blogging site, pesticideinformation.eu, was launched in March 2008 as part of our new online communications strategy. We created this information portal, which is separate from ECPA’s public website, to bring together the different perspectives on pesticide legislation and use, be it press coverage, the latest reports or events or discussions in other blogs, into one place online. I’m the only one writing or recording blog entries right now and my blogs are intentionally unbiased because I’m not an expert on the subject, but I’m on the hunt for regular guest bloggers with reasoned and informed viewpoints to contribute to the debate. So any pesticide lovers or haters reading this, please feel free to contact me!

Another objective with pesticideinformation.eu is to bring the pesticide industry out from behind those factory walls and feel the ‘breeze’ of public opinion. It’s a way of showing them the conversation taking place online, direct from critics, the misinformed, opinion leaders or previously unknown allies, so it’s also an internal communication exercise. My industry is quietly proud of it products and their contribution to Europe’s sustainable food supply. I’d be overjoyed if they starting blogging too to explain in everyday language why they are happy to work for the industry, because they have an important and honest story to tell. That goal will take a bit more time and I am currently concentrating on recruiting non-industry content providers.

Not only is there a blog on topical issues, we also have incoming news feeds with unmonitored positive, neutral and negative pesticide news and comment. We have a Delicious plug-in so I can tag good quality news articles and blogs with simple key words as they get published. This is to help visitors read up on subjects connected to pesticides and make an informed opinion for themselves, rather than be unnecessary worried by yet another ‘pesticide porn’ story… you know the kind, cancerous pesticides found in wine, NGOs just forget to add that even after drinking 200 litres of wine in one go, it’s completely safe….. from pesticides residues anyway!

Who are you aiming to reach with your blog?

The site is aimed at key stakeholders involved in the reform of the European pesticide legislation, so journalists and bloggers, EU legislators including politicians, farmer groups, our critics, our supporters and the concerned general public, plus industry itself.

What advantages do you feel a blog gives you vs. other forms of communication with those audiences?

Blogging isn’t filtered like press releases. The blog is published and then picked up by RSS feeds and search engines, whereas press releases have to first arrive at the right email address, it has to interest the journalist within a nanosecond before he clicks on the delete button, you have that calling courtship with the journalist and the stress of if/when he’s going to publish something. In the meantime, journalists are researching their topics by going online and reading blogs and even quoting bloggers and adding blog links in their final article. How cool is that? All forms of communication are necessary but I think good quality blogs are a very useful tool in the mix.

Because I believe blogging isn’t taken seriously by the vast majority of people, right now I’m quietly doing what I want, without any interference. Don’t get me wrong, the concept was approved first by all the key people but I think the attitude was ‘we can’t ignore the web any longer so as long as someone is doing something in that area and it doesn’t cause me extra work, let’s do it’. I guess the day I get orders for my blog entries to be approved first will be an extremely frustrating day, but it will also show that there’s an increased respect and understanding of the power of blogging. So I have much more freedom to highlight issues than the normal communications people do. Another advantage is that any blog entry is an opinion, it doesn’t make it fact and it can be challenged. The amazing thing I’m seeing online is that the traditional voices of opinion leaders, journalists, and marketers are being questioned by individuals immediately, because they can. Either by using the comment function that all self-respecting newspapers and bloggers offer or by writing their own blog. If somebody important says something unacceptable, it’s not just a question of ranting about it to a friend in the pub or being a captive audience to the enraged taxi driver, they can get online and state their case to potentially millions. That’s really useful feedback, very quickly, like never before.

What reactions have you had to your blog so far?

If I have had any reaction (meaning I haven’t had much), it’s been 99% positive. I sent an email to the internal network of about 1000 people to introduce the blog about 4 weeks after it was launched, and I received practically no feedback from the Europeans and only positive support from the rest of the world. However when I’m walking around the office I can sometimes hear my blog videos being played, which is reassuring. Blogging and creating imperfect videos is changing the traditions of communication and will take time for my own colleagues to feel more at ease with it, but between you and me, I think they see the potential.

Before the launch those in the know were concerned that I’d get a deluge of comments and I’d be overwhelmed and wouldn’t be able to respond to them. I’ve had one comment so far and a couple of questions in two months. Also there was concern that I wasn’t prepared with carefully scripted messages to respond to comments, which I haven’t done, I just WANT comments please! But seriously I’m trying to build a conversation and a central point where someone can go to read up on the subject and get a balanced view, the site would lose all authenticity if I feed in ECPA messages.

How is your blog content different from your website, or the press release or news section or standard brochures you produce?

The entries are quick, relaxed pieces of information that traditionally I would have sent in an email to a handful of interested contacts, a ‘have you seen this?’ piece of information. Blog entries are responding to existing content or events ‘out there’ whereas the other communication materials are representing industry’s view and are creating news. Pesticideinformation.eu blog might comment and link to a press release issued by ECPA but only if I can also link to another release or report giving another view to balance the coverage. However my aim with other guest bloggers is for them to write short, relaxed opinion pieces.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far and how did you overcome it?

The first was to get internal support from colleagues who didn’t see how a blogging website could have any benefit to their work. However it was our member companies who all supported the need for web communications and supported the idea of being transparent and showing a combination of negative and positive information on pesticides mixed with a relaxed communication style. So resistance very quickly died down and I got on with it, knowing that I had to make it work to convince the silent non-supporters. The second biggest challenge was knowing what to write in the first blog entry. It was like your first ever kiss…you kinda’ got yourself into this awkward spot and now you just need to get it over with as quickly as possible. Post the first entry (no pun intended!) you realize it’s not so shocking or amazing… but you do feel life as you know it has changed forever 😉 .

What would be your recommendation for other similar trade associations or companies that are thinking of creating their own blog?

Stop thinking, sell the benefits to the boss and get one going. Why not start with BlogActiv.eu? It’s quick and easy to set up an account or ask BlogActiv to give you a training session. Second, have one person quietly writing the blogs for few months before you announce it to the world and your members. Then work on building a team of bloggers who write regular entries so it’s not just left to one person. Blog entries can be short and simple i.e. “I’ve just read a really good article on the wonders of new nappy technology by A Wipe”, add a couple of the key points from the nappy article and link to it. It can be that simple and inoffensive. Have a short but good blog title and register your blog with Technorati. You’ll start appearing in RSS feeds of all those people interested in your issues.

How much time and resources do you invest in the blog? (or ideally, how much would you like to…?)

I am being helped by online marketing agency, ZN, who are advising and guiding me through the process of developing an online strategy for pesticideinformation.eu. So together we spend time each week developing the site, adding new tools and planning next steps. Between us we probably spend in man hours 2 – 3 days a week. Ideally I would like personally to spend five days a week working on this project as it needs time and energy to grow the space we occupy online. But if you are talking about blog entries themselves, once I have come across something online that I think is worth giving a mention then an entry typically takes about 5 – 10 minutes to write and another couple of minutes to upload. I’m doing between 1 and 3 entries a week. We have also interviewed scientists and recorded press conferences which is great blog material but takes a lot more time. One hard lesson from this exercise is that I’m a terrible interviewer.

Can you give us an example of how your blog has resulted in a “real-life” outcome?

Gosh I’d love to say something that makes it all worthwhile, but after a couple of months in the game, I can only report minor victories… the site has been listed with key articles reporting on pesticide legislation on EurActiv as a resource for further information, above links to our opponents which is rare. We are getting visits from the Commission (source: Google Analytics), apparently the site has been quoted in the British press, I have possibly attracted my first guest blogger previously unknown to us, Fleishman Hillard has noticed the blog and thought it worthy of a blog entry and I still had a job when this was posted.

Your favorite blogs?

Apart from this one James, right?!…. CABI blogs – “Hand picked… and carefully sorted” it’s a science and research blog with entries written by a ‘handful of carefully sorted’ experts on a broad range of environmental issues. One of the bloggers adds an entry each week, so probably each person is doing one on a monthly basis. It’s written in everyday language, with a sense of humour which I need and it’s good quality information. Their blog is what I would like to aspire to for pesticideinformation.eu. I love the title of their blog and was trying to think of something equally clever for ECPA’s forthcoming blog.. but I could only think of “Safe, when used correctly” or “Read the label” or “As little as possible but as much as necessary” which don’t quite do it. So any good ideas, there’s a bottle of champagne chilling for the best one.

All other blogs I pick up via my iGoogle home page. I haven’t found a personal favourite blog that consistently holds my attention. I have a few RSS readers searching on keywords in blogs, but generally the ones I get forwarded by friends and colleagues by old fashioned email are the best.

What are your future plans for your online communications? Should we expect to see some ECPA twitter soon?

I first want to launch ECPA’s new public site. It’s currently undergoing a personality change, away from the brochure online concept to having a blog as the central feature and offer it to all colleagues and allies to use. We’ve already got a YouTube channel, a Netvibes dash board, Delicious tags, RSS feeds and an online poll running with the pesticide blog. We’re also advertising on Google. So twitter, I can see a huge potential for internal twittering with members but that might just be one step too far for them right now. I’m happy to introduce any web tool or social networking function that I believe could benefit our overall objectives, but if they don’t actually work then it’s just as easy to stop using them.

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A blog on politics, policy, public affairs and communications in Brussels and the European Union. The blog is written by the team at Fleishman-Hillard in Brussels. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect those of the company or its clients. You will find the contact details of our team at www.fleishman-hillard.eu

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