Four ways European politicians can connect better with young people

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The future of Europe is at stake.

With European elections around the corner, Brexit still up in the air and populism spreading like wildfire in mainstream politics, the EU has hit an inflection point.

Unfortunately, voter turnout rates don’t reflect the severity of the situation.

And while young people statistically have the most confidence in the EU, they have the lowest voter turnout of any age group – why is this?

For starters, their main reason for not voting in the last election cycle was a general lack of trust in politics, which resulted in a 28% turnout rate for young voters – versus a 51% turnout rate for those aged 55 and over in the 2014 election.

So how can we close this gap and reach young people in an authentic way? After all, young people will be the voices of Europe for many years to come.

As a young person resolutely within the 18-30 age bracket, I enlisted the help of Jacques Foul of FleishmanHillard’s Digital, Social and Creative team in Brussels to find ways the EU can better connect with young people ahead of the upcoming elections – and beyond.

Here are our tips for reaching out to young people:

1. Authenticity is crucial

Old, bureaucratic institutions aren’t sexy. Shocking, I know.

But it’s possible to reach young people and connect with them without pandering to them or coming off as condescending. If an organisation or politician is self-aware, then there’s a higher chance of the message coming across positively.

Think of the EU as an old dad. Dads make corny jokes and are the definition of uncool on the internet, but they at least are aware of their “uncoolness” – in a weird way, that makes them cooler.

“Dad jokes” are kind of silly, but that’s what makes them endearing and likeable in the first place.

So use this to your benefit! Admit to young people that you’re kind of lame and lean into all of the irony and playfulness that goes along with it. Don’t be afraid to make fun of your image to get your point across.

If anything, young people will respect you more for being honest and authentic. Self-deprecating humour goes a long way for millennials and generation Z-ers.

And what happens if you aren’t authentic? Well, it can come back to bite you.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker learned this the hard way when he was interviewed by an influencer as part of a campaign with YouTube to reach young people.

Long story short: while the interview went well, details emerged that ended up making the Commission look like a control freak.

You can see the fallout in the video below.

It’s always important to be honest and authentic with people. Otherwise, things like this happen and you can lose credibility.

2. Social media isn’t everything

While I don’t condone feeding bread to ducks, Jacques offered an excellent metaphor for social media during our discussion.

Think of social media as a duck and your messages as breadcrumbs that you’re throwing to it, little by little. It’s crucial to not overdo it.

Social media certainly makes sense as a way to start conversations with young people – after all, that’s where they spend quite a bit of time. But it shouldn’t be the only way you’re connecting with them.

It’s becoming easier to click with potential voters through social media. And, naturally, as a political party or organisation, you’re trying to reach as many people as you can.

However, there is a misconception that social media reaches everyone and organisations quickly become too reliant on it.

Therefore, it’s important to remember that you can connect with young people outside of the social media space. Face-to-face communication is a great alternative. When you are doing something memorable and adding value at the same time, it’s much easier to remember.

As a communicator, it’s not just about the number of clicks – it’s about getting your message across in a clear, meaningful way. And that doesn’t always have to stem from social media campaigns.

On top of that, keep in mind that you can also start from a negative point of view. This is a great way to get conversations started, as it can spark intense passion and reactions out of your audience.

Asking a question such as, “Should European countries raise the voting age to 21?” on Facebook may spark a lot of outrage and angry comments, but it would certainly get people talking.

3. Communicate what’s at stake through storytelling

This one is pretty simple, but many political organisations seem to forget the fact that they are talking to actual people with actual problems that need to be addressed.

So focus on issues that young people care about. Listen to what they’re saying online and at events – really listen to them – and focus your efforts on addressing those issues.

As any communicator knows, a good story is one you actually want to listen to. If your story is weak or not hitting the mark, people will disregard it.

In other words, a story needs to be interesting or meaningful to young people or else you lose their attention.

And don’t forget: you can’t win them all. Don’t try to be all things to all people. Pick a target group and hone in on them.

4. Just connect

Go where young people are! Whether that’s social media or a music festival or even a food truck festival, define your end goal and create simple messages and stories that resonate.

food truck festival

From there, offer something that they would need based on the environment you’re in. Earplugs, water, a space to charge your phone – something that can connect your campaign or tie your message in an organic way.

If you fulfil a need or elicit an emotional response, then people will remember you – and that’s really as good as it gets when it comes to communication.

Connecting with young people needs to go beyond using emoji in tweets or sharing memes on Instagram. It needs to be authentic and memorable.

If you’re connecting with young people as human beings rather than as a large demographic to pander to, then you’re well on your way to carrying out a successful campaign.

A huge thanks to Jacques Foul for discussing this topic with me and for offering his insights from one young communicator to another. You can check out FleishmanHillard EU’s brilliant work here.

About Ali Colwell

Ali Colwell is a trainer, copywriter and the Managing Director of Clear Europe. Her previous work includes helping finance and technology companies in Belgium and New York elevate their online branding and social media efforts.

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