CAMPAIGNS: Public Sector PR - EC's UK office aims to curb scare stories

Client: European Commission PR Team: EC press team in London Campaign: To rebut inaccurate European 'scare stories' Timescale: Ongoing Budget: Absorbed within existing budget

Whether it's the banning of bendy bananas, the demise of prawn-flavoured crisps or, more recently, demands that pigs must have toys - EC scare stories always make good copy.

The fact that under close scrutiny most turn out to be false does not prevent some media outlets from indulging in 'barmy EC bureaucrats threaten UK way of life' articles. Indeed for some euro-sceptic papers, it's a must-have story.

Among recent scare stories was the claim that a village had been forced to remove a swing because Euro rules said it was too high. The truth was that a European organisation which had nothing to do with the EU had recommended a standardised height limit for insurance purposes.

But how much notice do readers or listeners take? Individually, each story may raise a smile or a shake of the head - but collectively, the EC fears the drip-drip effect may damage the image of Europe.

After a spate of inaccurate scare stories in recent months, the EC's representatives have decided to step up efforts to counter the copy. The six-strong PR team in London has implemented a rebuttal strategy since 1996 to answer each story and try to correct the sometimes distant image of the EC - the executive body of the EU. That work has intensified.

Head of European Commission Representation in the UK Jim Dougal said: 'Euromyths spread through the media because of journalists' willingness to disregard facts in order to write stories that conform to a euro-sceptic agenda. To coun-ter myths we take both a pro-active and reactive approach.

'The former involves providing a fast, accurate service for dealing with journalists' enquiries, the latter comprises of writing rebuttal letters to newspapers and broadcast media, as well as maintaining a euromyths website, complimented by Presswatch.'

Objectives

The aim of the campaign is to counter misinformation and inaccurate reporting of the working of the European Commission. It also encourages editors and journalists to contact the office - officially called European Commission Representation in the UK - to check out claims.

Strategy and Plan

A quarterly document called Presswatch, detailing inaccuracies and exaggerations of so-called scare stories emanating from Brussels, is produced and sent to 1,400 addresses, including national and regional newspapers, broadcasters, MPs, MEPs, peers, Whitehall departments, the Press Complaints Commission and other opinion formers.

As part of the ongoing strategy, the press team delivers an instant rebuttal response to inaccurate stories via letter, fax, email or phonecall to editors, news editors or reporters.

Because of the political and emotive issues involved, the press team will rarely demand a correction or published letter and is content to leave the complaint in the hands of the publication or programme. However, the press team does get letters published and has had correspondence back from recipients acknowledging the complaint.

For example, after the 'swings to be banned' story was featured in The Sun, the Daily Express, The Times and The Daily Telegraph, the PR team wrote to each newspaper. An edited version of the letter appeared in the Express and Sun - a typical response says the unit.

Only once has the team felt strong enough to complain to the PCC, after the Mail on Sunday wrote about a Brussels Euro shop claiming to offer massive perks. The complaint was upheld and a small correction paragraph offered, says the EC office.

The team also provides a regularly updated 'euromyths' page on its website - www.cec.org - to put the truth behind the myth. As well as rebuttals, the office pursues more normal PR duties, publicising the work of the EC.

Measurement and Evaluation

After a recent rise in the number of inaccurate stories, the press team decided to step up its rebuttal campaign. Its planned counter offensive attracted coverage in The Guardian, on the BBC and a quiz on BBC Online.

Results

Quantifying how successful the campaign is, and will be, isn't easy with an issue that some claim is largely political. Compared to commercial campaigns, the effects of the rebuttal initiative will be judged as much as by what isn't published or broadcast, as by what is.

The team says it's more about education and nudging editors to get a truer picture by phoning the EC's London office for a response. A spokesman said if reporters did contact the office to check stories, many articles and packages would not be run.

The crackdown has been welcomed by the more euro-friendly Lib Dems. The party's foreign affairs spokesman, Menzies Campbell, said: 'It is high time that the EU got on the front foot when it comes to PR. For too long untruths about straight bananas and custard tarts have gone unchallenged. The EU has got a story to tell and must do so effectively and professionally.'

Director of the Society of Editors Bob Satchwell said improved communication was beneficial, but blamed EU bureaucracy and officialdom for part of the problem: 'More and more of our laws are coming from Brussels, so a better explanation is certainly useful. Part of the problem often arises in the first place from clumsy official language that isn't easy for the man on the street to understand - whether it's the length or shape of bananas or not.

'Like all good PR, it must be accurate and easy to understand so people in the media don't misinterpret it.'

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