Avid curiosity and keen perception make for a good journalist. Journalists obtain information and fashion it to appeal to a specific readership shaped by unique geographical, cultural, political and linguistic factors. Journalists must know their readership intimately if they wish to succeed in landing a story. 

This is particularly challenging for journalists reporting on European affairs, which can seem a little removed from reality to a national readership unfamiliar with the workings of the European Union. With Brussels at the centre of European decision-making, the massive concentration of media in the same city is no surprise. In a multi-cultural, multi-lingual environment, a sizeable cohort of Brussels-based journalists grapple daily with the internal machinations of the EU and are tasked with communicating their findings to diverse readerships, each with a different demographic to the next. 

But what about the demographic of the press corps itself? Brussels media – a diverse blend of national correspondents, trade journalists, local journalists, EU affairs specialists and freelancers – is a lively entity worthy of its own story. Journalists operate in a setting that is anything but static, no matter how bland EU affairs may appear to the average spectator. An effective media strategy requires a deep understanding of the media landscape and its moving parts, whether it be the journalists or the audience. An analysis of Brussels-based media reveals that throughout turbulent change and amid miscellaneous members, one thing remains central to the media relations game: language, the most valuable tool in the world. 

Factions of the Fourth Estate.

When pitching to Brussels-based media, the ability to distinguish between categories of journalists and their respective modus operandi is vital. First and foremost, we have national correspondents, who deliver national news from a foreign location. Let’s say an Italian newspaper deploys one foreign correspondent to São Paulo and another to Brussels. The former will report exclusively on Brazilian affairs while the latter will report on Italian affairs from the perspective of European institutions. This style of reporting often leads to an explicative rather than investigative approach; journalists seek above all to render internal EU developments comprehensible to a national audience less tuned in to the legislative process than those of us inside the bubble.  

In contrast, EU-focused outlets such as POLITICO Europe and EURACTIV provide coverage that resonates within the bubble rather than outside it. Understandably, a Brussels-based audience is infinitely more interested in an ostensibly inconsequential story about a minor decision reached by the European Commission than anyone else. Trade media offer another degree of specificity, where everything from a technical business perspective to an expert voice on door handles is available to the most esoteric of audiences.   

Each individual journalist is profoundly aware of the type of coverage a particular audience covets. From a public affairs perspective, understanding and appreciating this specificity is the first step to success when engaging with the media. 

British media after Brexit.

Insight into the nuances of Brussels media means nothing if not paired with the ability to adapt to change in a fast-paced environment. The EU has experienced extreme upheaval in the past few years, and the media has followed suit. Take Brexit, for example. Media underwent the same enormous disruption as every other sector, and the fundamental overhaul of the press corps offers a fascinating look at what Brexit means for Brussels-based journalists, Brits and Europeans alike.  

The hierarchy of the press corps was transformed in such a way that favoured media outlets with a base on the continent. London was previously considered the media capital of Europe, but this reign effectively ended with Brexit, and Brussels now serves as the focal point for any media serious about reporting on EU affairs. Before, it was a common joke that the Financial Times computers were directly connected to the Commission. Now, the same can be said for media such as POLITICO Europe and Contexte, whose notorious insider access lands them the top spot among Brussels’ most influential outlets. Although the Financial Times retains its reputation, its status as the go-to for EU press has dwindled alongside that of the BBC. 

That said, the decline of British media in Europe should not be overplayed: UK journalists have not been erased from the board by any stretch of the imagination. Interestingly, there were more British journalists accredited with the European Commission than journalists from any other country in 2020. Despite leaving the Union, UK media outlets continue to prioritise reporting on European institutions. This, we will see, may be something to do with language. 

Speaking in tongues.

English is Europe’s lingua franca, and its everyday use in the EU excludes the least amount of people over any other language. Its value is therefore enormous: it represents a non-partisan tool of communication, a common second language. According to Eurostat, 96% of pupils in upper secondary education in Member States learnt English as a foreign language in 2018. The indisputable prevalence of the English language in the EU gives the obvious upper hand to British media despite the events of June 2016. If a stakeholder wants a story to take off, English-speaking press is the quickest route to maximum reach simply because more people speak English. 

However, EU-based media such as POLITICO and EURACTIV report mostly in English so that coverage is accessible to a wider audience. The concept of “Euro English” demonstrates the extent to which language is becoming increasingly separate from nation. The linguistic makeup of Brussels is a testament to the melting pot that is Europe: while we tend to default to English, it is extremely common to partake in a conversation which incorporates three languages or more. With that in mind, let’s talk media relations: when interacting with Brussels-based journalists who likely speak more than one language, speaking multiple yourself is highly advantageous. Articles can be pitched in multiple languages to outlets in multiple countries, and coverage on a particular story might span across the entire continent if the correct strategy is deployed. No matter what language dominates a network at any given time, it never hurts to have several more in your back pocket. 

Just as journalists decode target audiences, media relations specialists decode journalists. Brussels media has a potent ability to impact the perception of EU affairs and it is our job at SEC Newgate EU to tap into this force, which is impossible without an acute knowledge of what makes reporters tick.   

By Ciara Carolan, consultant at SEC Newgate EU.