7 February 2011

Under the buttonwood tree in Brussels (The European Council information exchange)

Inhabitants of the Brussels scene work with information, so it is no surprise that they exchange a lot of it in various settings - a phone call from a diplomat to a commission official to confirm the date of a Commission paper, the paper leaked in an email to a journalist, a quick text to alert others to the surprise appearance of a bigwig in Brussels, etc.

The nature of international negotiations means that most information is unofficial, as it concerns ongoing negotiations. This requires that
off-the-record briefings (and its different subsets, like deep background, non-attributable, 'EU sources', etc.) are a necessary way of interaction between diplomats and journalists.

Much of the information going around may be inaccurate, of course, second hand, distorted or perhaps even deliberately faked. There is much noise, irrelevance and also errors caused by trying to be ahead of the crowd in getting and disseminating the info. (There are some famous cases of newspapers coming out too early and getting it wrong.) You need to have reliable sources; a wide network and you have to be able to give back as well as to take.

How this really works, and how to work it best will be worth many posts as yours truly are discovering the game, stumbling around as it were.

But given our experience of the first jamboree under the Hungarian Presidency, the recent
European Council, it’s perhaps interesting to reflect on an intensive, condensed version of it – the summit information exchange, or information hunt.

European Councils provide this intensive, condensed experience because they are, in fact, a long waiting game for the media. The VIPs arrive in the morning and may give a doorstep announcement, and then retreat to their seclusion. There, only a few notetakers are present, and information trickles down to diplomats (and then, filtered, to journalists) via an intricate system of
Chinese whispers. And at lunch, only a truly inner circle of five top diplomats can listen to the leaders’ debate. (Information leak very rarely from these lunches, as all players try to protect their confidentiality.)
Tweets by European Council President, Herman van Rompuy may be a game-changer in this regard. From the seat of the President he has decided to comment on the events in real time and to publish conclusions as they are agreed (this time he tweeted well before the end both the energy conclusions and the declaration on Egypt - and he did this using url.eu which was a novelty to us).

All through this time, journalists are hanging around in the large Atrium, the restaurant or the press bar. They already come with information gathered in advance from diplomats, member state and Commission officials. (The articles published days before may carry important details of things to come.) They have heard the doorsteps and they have written their morning reports for the Web. And the wait begins, with several hundred news hungry journalists. (The silver lining here is food and non-alcoholic drinks served for free, both at the restaurant and in the bar. And the existence smoking rooms, of course!)

we blogged about it before, diplomats, including spokespeople, can be immediately recognized by the color of their badges on a European Council. And of course, most journalists already know many of them through regular or irregular contacts. So when one of them appears somewhere in the ground floor – where they don’t really have any business to do – people will start to circle around them, trying to find out if they have something to share. Not necessarily secrets, like which prime minister or president said what, but indications of the direction of the talks, so that they can be one step ahead of the competition once the news are officially out and they have to put together their reports.

Finally the scene comes alive. The news breaks that the leaders have finished, the briefing rooms fill up in a few minutes. (Here it pays off for media organizations to have more journalists present, as most heads of state and government will hold their press conference at the same time.) The tension is at its peak, each leader is speaking in a different setup, in their distinct style. Chancellor Merkel prefers to be seated with a spokesperson at her side, and a map of Europe in the back, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy stand alone, without the map. Barroso and Van Rompuy do a joint performance in the main briefing room. When they have listened to their preferred press conference (or the one they have been able to catch) reporters hurry back to their desks to write their reports, then close their laptops and go for a beer. No climax, just another step in European decision making - but a never ending topic of discussion.

But for the spokespeople, the hunt only begins now. During the weekend, we start from the end, flooding the living room floor with newspapers in all languages we can read and taking our time comparing coverage. By the Monday morning meeting, we should understand what went through the mind of journalists, how they filtered the information and we should condense it into new communication proposals.


  1. And, per analogiam: This post was about what exactly? And the target audience was who exactly?

  2. A contrario, this is about information gathering and interpretation, for those not allowed in. We promised to be transparent, not to be interesting :)
    But point well taken, I shortened this post.

  3. Even if there was no target audience, why does this matter in a private blog?

    And even if there was no target audience today, who knows whether there wouldn't be one in a year or two, when spokespeople don't exist anymore because all politicians and officials are allowed and capable to communicate on their own, online and offline, and when the future generations then want to understand how it was during "those times" when spokespeople still existed. (Okay, I'm kidding here.)