The European Commission’s EMPL presence on Twitter in 2012: Conclusions
This set of articles reports on the 2012 Twitter communications of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion (DG EMPL). The research focused on their communication content, purposes, features and patterns as well as some aspects on whether these communications could be categorised as social network or social media behaviour. According to the three account holders, namely Social Europe, EURes and Commissioner Andor, DG EMPL’s Twitter activities in 2012 were a pioneering stage.
However, the results provide evidence that in 2012, the European Commission (EC) successfully integrated Twitter into their communication strategies, which year by year, has aimed to develop consistent and rich communications on the platform.
Twitter enables both personal and institutional communications. For example an institution may communicate with the public by bypassing traditional media: newspapers, radio, and TV. While in case of traditional media, the public consumes what media owners offer them, with Twitter the public is empowered to voice its needs and expectations and therefore co-author, influence and redistribute the content.
The content published by Social Europe, EURes and Commissioner Andor is a policy narrative which flows throughout the 2012 Twitter timelines, with peaks and dips that illustrate the communication and information activities tweeted on the platform. The 2012 communication “mood” tended to focus upon the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations (EY2012).
The content was scalable and embedded some practical value, especially for job seekers. The content was also well tailored to suit different audience segments: for instance EURes addressed people in certain EU countries and Commissioner Andor hosted a chat. Although most of the content was based on specific policy vocabulary, the three account holders adapted and adjusted the tweets to ensure their accessibility to the audience. Therefore the content was meaningful and relevant to the audience and carried a solid social dimension by referring to the latest policy developments and events. The results clearly reflect the communication subjects and the trending topics, which contributed to achieving an efficient and successful communication throughout the year.
The three account holders engaged with their audience to a degree and the most employed Twitter function was retweeting. Engagement increased during online and offline events, which showed a certain degree of interaction between the communicators and the audience. The chat hosted by Commissioner Andor enabled live temporality and synchronous communication, which is an essential Twitter function.
The intended audience, mainly based in EU countries, responded to the content by engaging with it differently, depending on the expertise level and interest of the audience. For instance, the EY2012 activities affected a significant number of senior people, while the chat was attended mainly by youth, given the chat topic, namely Youth Employment Package.
There were countries which responded better to DG EMPL’s Twitter communications according to their national economic and social contexts. Belgium was on top as the country is also the home of most EU institutions, which prove that a number of EU staff and key political figures endorsed the communications by redistributing parts of the content. Some relevant examples include Spain, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Ireland and Greece. Spain and Greece experienced some crisis peaks in 2012 and it should be noted that the audience based in these countries was significantly engaged with the content. It is worth noting that in Spain, total engagement accounted for about 20% of the aggregate country engagement, which is a substantial figure. The UK came in third position because of two reasons: 1) a well organised network of DG EMPL’s counterparts at national and local level, who redistributed key pieces of content published by the three account holders, and 2) the content language, which was English, the language of the country and of most Twitter communications.
It appears that a significant part of the audience consisted of “elite” groups. Ordinary people preferred to get involved in EURes activities, some EY2012 activities and the chat hosted by Commissioner Andor. The “elite” audience, which was composed of experts, EU bodies and staff, national bodies, public figures and academia, showed the highest interest in the content. The results indicate that the “elite” audience redistributed (retweeted) parts of the content to their own followers at European, national, regional, and local levels.
Given the staff shortage and a number of limitations in terms of language coverage, the three account holders stated that they have achieved what they aimed to, even though the reciprocity of followers and followees is particularly unbalanced.
The results confirm that even though the account holders’ semantic profiles feature different basic attributes, they were able to complement each other and share communication tasks. The results also indicate that 8.35% of the followers engaged with the content. This ratio is closer to the standard 1/9/90 distribution on the Web in terms of content creation, customisation and consumption. Therefore the remaining followers could be the “listeners” who, in theory, consumed the content passively without engaging with it.
At the moment, there is no standardised method to measure the level of engagement of the three account holders since there are no benchmarks validated by scholars.
However, there were two major limitations that the three account holders encountered: a shortage of staff in terms of content language coverage and Twitter’s non-existent reciprocity of follower-followee users, which normally promotes one-way communication. In terms of language coverage there is evidence that the content suited mainly an English speaking community as 96% of the tweets and 70% of the external content were in English. It may mean that non-English speaking users might have been excluded from accessing key information. This may explain the unremarkable and poor coverage in certain EU countries. In terms of follower-followees, with 3% of people followed by the three account holders, the communication looks unbalanced.
However, Twitter as a communication tool encourages this behaviour and evidence of this can be seen in how the platform is used by celebrities. Both practitioners and scholars would not encourage the adaptation of “celebrity behaviour” by institutions. Instead, an institution should expand their network of followees and try to listen to their information needs.
The communication pattern of the three account holders could be portrayed as follows:
- Standard institutional behaviour on Twitter with content based mainly on EU policy vocabulary combined with plain language, in English mainly.
- A linguistic pattern dominated by positivism and some signs of genuine dialogue with the audience, notably during certain online and offline events. Positive communication aspects are demonstrated by the Losada Line algorithm and backed up by the commitment of the three account holders to genuinely serve an EU-based audience.
- A well-developed Twitter strategy with no missing key communication points and clear and measurable communication objectives. This statement is based on the results and their related parameters which were discussed earlier against Lasswell’s paradigm, as enhanced by Heinderyckx (1999).
Research challenges and limitations
The main challenge of this research was to identify all the relevant communication variables and place them into a coherent entity of a Twitter communication pattern. DG EMPL used Twitter as a complementary communication channel in 2012, in addition to traditional communication channels. Given the Twitter expertise level of the three account holders, the findings of this research could be applicable in other institutions.
A major limitation of this study may be the concreteness of its purpose: analysing only one policy package communicated by only one institution through a specialised department. Another drawback might be that the institution may employ different communication patterns with other policy packages. Other EU institutions or bodies may have different communication approaches on Twitter, therefore the study did not intend to generalise the findings but to rather feature a case study.
Another important limitation is the use of the CAQDAS tools, particularly LIWC, which ignored 31% of the tweet content, so valuable pieces of information might have been lost. This percentage could include specific policy vocabulary, which is not part of the LIWC dictionaries. A solution to minimise this drawback was to manually triangulate “word pairs – most frequent words – semantic nodes” and ensure relevant content categorisation through a human filter.
Twitter communication models and behaviours
It appears that the Twitter behaviour of the three account holders borrows features from the four standard behaviours adapted by Waters and Williams (2011), but it does not completely conform to any of them. Therefore DG EMPL’s Twitter behaviour combines both one-way and two-way communication approaches with “publicity”, “public information”, “two-way asymmetrical” and “two-way symmetrical” communications, the last one being the prevailing behaviour. An explanation as to why the Waters and Williams models cannot be adapted could be the difference of both communication channels and the context of when the two scholars transposed the traditional model of public relations to Twitter.
Therefore, further research could look into these variables and come up with other solutions. Furthermore, the advice on Twitter good practice provided by Waters and Williams, which were checked against this Twitter communication example, could be further enhanced by future research to design a Twitter Netiquette, a Twitter code of good behaviour.
Further research should look at the way “elite” audiences transfer and disseminate the information to their own audiences and the tendency of the audiences to shift from the traditional paper-based communication supports to digital support, such as the social media channels when it comes to communicating EU policies to EU-based audiences. As about 7% of the external content recommended by the three account holders was in PDF format, further research may look at the readers’ preferences in accessing either traditional PDFs or the latest eBook formats (ePUB, mobi) for mobile devices, which are often used to connect to Twitter. The findings of this research may be just be a starting point for further research projects where scholars may investigate the communication approaches of a European institution or body addressing multilingual audiences on Twitter.
Further research may also investigate the reasons of supervised communications on Twitter and look at the way political and administrative communications overlap. Another point that future research projects may consider is how audiences perceive the mixture of the two communication types, political and administrative, and how the audiences understand the institutional communication behaviour of a European institution or body.
Even though the EC applies a strict institutional communication framework, based on restrictive guidelines for staff, the results demonstrate a special Twitter relationship between account holders and the audience. This relationship may raise a number of questions about social inclusion versus digital exclusion and how to minimise the digital divide. That may be an issue the Commission wishes to consider, in the context of social inclusion or other policies.
Twitter, an incentive to keep communications going
The audience of the three account holders has been well profiled and represents only part of the EU population who have the ability to use Twitter. Even though the Commission has a strong corporate voice on Twitter, the results do not reflect a full public perception of employment, social affairs and inclusion policies and of Commissioner Andor, in all EU countries. The 2012 audience of the three account holders showed a certain degree of commitment where followers are loyal to an institution, even though the audience acted more as a consumer and multiplier rather than a content co-creator. It is obvious that Twitter mediates the EC’s communications to Twitter-based audiences while there might be audience segments that still need to be reached on other social media and network platforms and perhaps by combining the digital means with traditional communication means such as paper-based publications.
According to the results, Commissioner Andor acted more as a preserver of the political communication dimensions rather than a unifier of both operational and political communications.
The results indicate that Twitter is not only another means for self-promotion by the EC but also an innovative solution with which the institution brings something new in the way it communicates to the public. Twitter, which is a dynamic medium, has grown as an institutional practice as the research findings prove in the case of the EC. Therefore the EC communicates with the citizens in an attempt to bridge the gap between policy makers and policy beneficiaries. The EC experience is an example of how social media, and Twitter in particular, are used for both political and administrative communication purposes, even though Twitter communications need prior approval in most of the cases.
While ordinary people join Twitter every day, the organisations are still trying to find the most appropriate means to manage their Twitter presence. It appears that there is no universal recipe on how to respond to the information needs of people on Twitter. Therefore, in terms of communicating employment, social affairs and inclusion policies through its specialised department and the Commissioner in charge of this area, the Commission has moved from a pioneering stage to a more advanced use of Twitter and the results are already visible. Before 2012, the EC made the strategically correct decision to join Twitter by adding an extra communication channel to their existing channels, in a period of time when more communication was needed to enable an EU institution connect to its audience. In the case of the EC, the Twitter generic question “What’s happening?” proved to be the incentive to keep communications going. The research findings clearly indicate that, in 2012, DG EMPL used Twitter not as a means to overcome or minimise the effects of the crisis, but as a solution to enhance the communications with a loyal audience mainly based in the EU.
In terms of Twitter’s future, it is not possible to make predictions, as van Dijck (2013) stresses: “Since the meaning of microblogging has not stabilized yet and the ecosystem of connective media is still in great flux, predicting the future is like playing the stock market: you can monitor all elements meticulously and not be able to forecast turbulence, owing to the volatility of the system. (…) Twitter’s fate is dependent on its interoperability with other microsystems and also on the equilibrium between owners’ ambitions to exploit tweets and users’ motivation to keep tweeting” (p.88).
 Heinderyckx, F. (1999), Une introduction aux fondements théoriques de l’étude des médias, Liège, Cefal-Sup.
 Waters, D., R. and Williams, M., J. (2011), “Squawking, tweeting, cooing, and hooting: analyzing the communication patterns of government agencies on Twitter” in Journal of Public Affairs, vol. 11, No. 4, pp. 353-363