15 May 2011

Sunday music -Eurovision Pidgin English

UPDATE (17/05/2011)

We have received a few comments regarding voting patterns at Eurovision. Is this a good tool to map likes and dislikes between Europen countries? Not, because of the voting system (see here), the non-representative selection and the lack of clear patterns in the majority of the countries.

(Fellow blogger and Eurovision "expert" Anjci is giving some interesting explanations on nationa l voting habits - see here) However, what we can do is a limited conclusion of some regional groups of countries that tend to vote for each other.

Here is a good map showing the regional voting preference blocks between 2001-2005:

Even though the voting rules have been changed since, if you look at this year's voting results (see here), you can find the above patterns repeating themselves. Slovenian TV has produced an interesting map, that you can reach here (Thanks for @DraganBrBr for the link - for those few who don't speak Slovenian look at the video around the middle of the page). Through @anamariadutceac we found that Spiegel online has also published an interesting take on the cultural significance of Eurovision - see here.

Sunday Music - Eurovision Pidgin English (15/05/2011)

Where is the soul of Gainsbourg? - So, this weekend has been about Eurovision. 130 million viewers in 40+ countries, 3 hours of music of very much varying quality and the usual impossibility to predict the outcome even with some accuracy. And now, here's our take:

The first great thing about Eurovision is that it represents a rare point of agreement in the longstanding language argument between Kováts and Kovács (1, 2, 3), or even to some extent a role reversal. While Kováts keeps arguing for multilingualism (aka affirmative action for French) in Brussels, and Kovács embraces monolingualism (code for not having been able to properly learn French), we both agree that contest songs should be in (one of) the national language(s) of the contestant’s country. In fact, Kovács feels much stronger about it, and would have preferred a Gaelic entry from Ireland.

We have tweeted about it before and were criticised by @spignal of the Financial Times for meddling with things that are not related to the EU. Well, the Eurovision is more closely related to the EU than many would think. It brings understanding between coutnries through sharing their culture. Started in 1956, as a project of Western European unity, it has soon become a weapon in the cold war and to the repressed people of the Communist bloc it has brought a taste of the free world through the airwaves (even if Communist authorities did their best to disturb those waves). After the fall of the iron curtain, the coutnries of Central Europe not only started negotiating their acession to NATO and the EU, but they also joined the Eurovision Song Contest as a symbol of their European identity.

Here is a nice documentary on the importance of Eurovision in the cold war (in German).

According to the original rules, songs had to be sung in the national language (an exception was made between 1973 to 1977, which resulted in the success of ABBA with Waterloo and of Teach-In with Ding-A-Dong ). This requirement has been lifted in 1999, which now created a situation where the majority of the songs are in some form of simplified English. We wonder, how can performers share their country's culture by singing in simplistic English?

We are probably irreparably old fashioned, but Gainsbourg’s song performed by France Gall in French (which won forLuxembourg in ’65!!) remains the best thing that ever came out of Eurovision for us (see here). Whether you like it or not, it represents a long-lasting contribution to European culture. Even though it has been translated into many languages could you imagine Gainsbourg-Gall in English? Well, this is exactly the point.

Originality Second, we were both baffled by the degree to which songs have, well, “showed similarity” to earlier works. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, the first 15 or so seconds of the Swedish song is sampled 100% from Boney M’s “Night flight to Venus” (at 0:34). But in many other cases, even our musically illiterate ears picked up very strong similarities with other hit songs. Hat-tip to Serbia - Third, the favourites. It was of course with great sadness that we saw the Hungarian entry linger in the lower ranks all through the voting, even though many in Hungary and some even outside it predicted it to be among the top songs. (A good example of distorted Hungarian domestic debate is that some commentators blame the Fidesz Gorvernment for the lack of success in this year's Eurovision) It was no consolation either that the first 13 places went to English language songs (excusable from our perspective only for Ireland and the UK) with Serbia coming in at place 14 with a Serbian song – goes to show that going all English is probably a rational strategy for contestants.

Finally, the voting. A subject of considerable debate and even some serious looking research, this is one of the highlights of the contest. We wouldn’t like to comment on possible voting patterns, suffice it to say that people’s preferences, as usual, are more difficult to predict (read: impossible) than a few rules of thumb would suggest. In the end, the winner did not disappoint, even though it wasn’t the favourite of either of us, and thus it’s time to congratulate Azerbaijan and wish Baku the best for hosting next year’s contest – they will have large shoes to fill.

11 May 2011

Survival guide for spokespeople III. – on lessons learned in presidency communications

Following our post on gaffes by spokespeople (see here) and part two on communication dilemmas in Brussels (see here), we present our first take on lessons learned with only two months left to go in the presidency. This is a rather theoretical piece, to be followed with a post on practical arrangements of presidency communications.

1. Expectations management

Over one year since Lisbon entered into force, people still misunderstand the role of the rotating presidency, falsely comparing it to the pre-Lisbon reality in their minds (those who knew the pre-Lisbon reality, at all). International media as well as our domestic audience expects the same visibility from a presidency as before the permanent President of the European Council and the High Representative was spun off from the Council. This is obvious from the common mistake of talking about the “EU Presidency” (Van Rompuy cabinet member Richard Corbett is on a constant crusade against its usage.)

Unrealistic expectations about what the rotating presidency can and cannot do pose a challenge, manifesting itself in the most surprising questions: Why was the presidency not invited to the Paris Summit on Libya? Why did the presidency decide to organize a summit on energy? Why was the Eastern Partnership summit postponed? And these questions came from people working in EU affairs…imagine the level of confusion in citizens’ heads about the role of the rotating presidency.

Our advice to future presidencies is to exercise the virtues of humility and patience, use every opportunity to educate people about the post-Lisbon reality and never take it personally.

2. Know your environment
The folly of talking about an “EU Presidency” becomes evident if we look at all the other players around it. Although we talk about Presidency Priorities, in reality a rotating presidency can hardly influence more than a small fraction of its agenda. The rest is either inherited from previous presidencies (who would have often inherited them from even earlier, such as the patent dossier) or comes from new proposals by the Commission, from a report adopted in Parliament, from European Council conclusions, or simply from external events. It is justified to talk about presidency priorities, but they must be understood in their context: the presidency’s ultimate priority is to make the best possible effort on all files, but we can indicate those where we are planning to pay special attention.

We have been asked why did we decide to push for closing accession negotiations with Croatia, adopting a Roma Framework Strategy and furthering the Schengen Accession of Romania and Bulgaria. - While not denying that these subjects are specially dear to us, we did not put them on the agenda, we could not have.

As a result, presidency communication on individual issues is often surrounded by communication on the same issue by other players. They will further their own image and often “forget” to mention the presidency (except if it comes to the blame game – see here).

There is nothing malicious in this as all institutions have their own agenda, creating Brussels’ version of checks and balances. But in practice it can be frustrating for spokespeople, especially as presidencies are handicapped in this game. Presidencies come and go, thus press staff from other institutions usually look at presidency communicators as the weakest link. Plus ‘permanent’ institutions usually have more firepower – just think of the Commission’s 27 spokespeople and their support staff, or the EP which has 700+ spokespeople…

So what can a presidency do?

- First, take it easy and keep it fair and reasonable. Don’t pick fights on small issues. If you are a troublemaker, you lose influence.

- Be open and courteous. We hold the cabinet of the President of the European Council and the press people at the European Parliament and the Commission in high regard and we never kept that opinion to ourselves - they proved to be very cooperative in different ways.

- Rely on the Council General Secretariat – they are professional, non-political, know their way around and dedicated to help the presidencies. At the beginning of the presidency regular coordination with them helped us a lot and it still does.

3. Stereotypes
As fellow blogger Europasionaria put it, being a new member state in Brussels is like being a woman at work. You have to work twice as hard and you will never win full approval from your male colleagues. (We take her word for what it must feel like.) A presidency from a new member state is double the pain. If one looks simply at the number of files advanced substantially or closed during the Slovenian or Czech presidencies, they were clearly among the best presidencies lately. Still, collective memory in Brussels has practically forgotten the Slovenian Presidency and remembers the Czech Presidency as a failure, which is infuriating.

The strategy to cope with this is simple: do work twice as hard, learn the rules of the game, be assertive to a point but don’t be judgmental or bitter about it, and don’t be shy about your achievements.

4. The unbearable lightness of temporariness
All other presidencies are permanent (meaning they last at least 2,5 years), it is only the rotating presidency that changes every 6-months. This has an effect on practical communications:

- The rotating presidency works harder than others. It is a frantic 6-months, with people working 6 days a week and 12 hours a day (or more). Initially for example we were surprised that some other spokespersons were not in the office by 07:30 am and would not be available after 8 pm. Also, there were several important events where other spokespeople simply did not show up to our surprise – which by the way means we have the first-hand experience of the events, which can be used (by tweeting, quick phone calls, background discussions, etc.) Since the others don’t need to prove themselves in a mere 6 months and such frantic pace obviously cannot be sustained permanently, we had to learn to tolerate normal people working at other institutions. After all, it was us, not them, who at the end of last year said goodbye to our families, who accepted that we would leave home in the mornings before they wake up and arrive after they have gone to bed. (The upside is that our kids can hardly tell if we are in Brussels or Strasbourg…if that’s an upside…)

- The institutional bureaucracy tends to follow the permanent president, not the temporary one, which will be gone in a few months’ time. The only way for presidency spokespeople to deal with this is to team up with future and previous presidencies and come to common understandings vis-à-vis the permanent presidencies and the bureaucracies.

- Steep learning curve. By the time you would get used to it, the presidency is over, so you have to get used to it quicker. Try and prepare a lot, but also remember that you cannot “out-prepare” life and the more you prepare the less flexible you are...

5. Know your value
Finally, with all the challenges, this is why we think we are still important: the rotating presidency is the only institution that is not completely Brussels based, and the one with which EU citizens, nationals of the different Member States, can identify with. If we really want to bring the EU closer to the citizens, then long-live the rotating presidency with all its shortcomings!

9 May 2011

Europe Day’s three degrees of separation from Humphrey Bogart

Six degrees of separation refers to the idea that everyone on Earth is on average approximately six connections away from any other person on Earth. The notion has been invented by a Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy and first introduced in his short story titled Chain-links (“Láncszemek”, see an excerpt here in Hungarian.)

It has been popularized by the Bacon-number (how many degrees away an actor is from Kevin Bacon) and by the Erdős-number (how many degrees away a mathematician is from the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős, who published more papers than anyone in mathematics and who worked with hundreds of collaborators.) For the select few, having acted in a film and written a science paper, there is even a Bacon-Erdős Number (e.g. Natalie Portman or Stephen Hawking).

But how does Humphrey Bogart relate to Europe Day? Well, loosely interpreting the six degrees of separation theory, everything is connected on Earth to everything, you just have to find the links.

So let's see a thought experiment Although everyone connects in their minds Europe Day to Robert Schumann and his declaration, the original idea actually comes from someone else. It was an Austro-Hungarian-Japanese count, Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, who proposed to organize a Europe Day. Of course, the originally proposed day was not the 9th of May, but the 21st of March, the day of the Spring equinox. (He addressed a letter to the Council of Europe to suggest this solution in 1955.)

But how to get from Coudenhove-Kalergi to Bogart? We, Kalergi was the model for the resistance hero, Victor Laszlo in the movie Casablanca (played by actor Paul Henreid ).

So it’s easy: Europe Day was invented by Coudenhove-Kalergi, who served as the model for Viktor Laszlo in Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart. That makes three degrees of separation in our opinion.

Now we may start working on the Kovács & Kováts number in Brussels... this will deserve another post. But for the time being, Happy Europe Day to all!

3 May 2011

Survival guide for spokespeople II. – on Brussels communication dilemmas

Following on our previous post on communication gaffes, we want to make good on our promise of sharing with you some of our dilemmas and lessons learned as spokespeople for the presidency of the Council of the European Union. We have learnt some of these from friendly advisers (journalists and other spokespeople), and some through the hard way, through gaffs if you will.

Presidency hat or Member State hat?
The first lesson we learned already before the start of the Presidency was that the media does not differentiate between the Presidency and the Member State holding it. At the same time, we are bound by rules that make a very clear difference. We speak on behalf of the Council, so we had to forget any national positions on-the-record. By now, we have managed to more or less separate the Presidency from domestic debates, at least in our direct communication. (This does not mean taking any position in those debates – simply a Presidency is aimed at building compromise between 27 member states, while domestic political debates are rarely about compromise.)

Still, as a Council insider told us before the start of our Presidency, politicians cannot change hats just because they are speaking in Brussels. We think, this may be true for politicians, but not for civil servants and diplomats, who have a job to do.

Anyhow, this problem will continue to exist and haunt future presidencies. We have to speak as Presidency and respecting the limits inherent in the post, while we cannot reject the fact that we are identified with a particular country.

Just look at the case of the FYROM. Or are we allowed to utter the word “Macedonia”? In bilateral relations Hungary (like a 100 other countries) does refer to this country as Macedonia, and in the Hungarian language we only have this word for this country, but we are talking on behalf of the Council of the EU, where it is referred to as FYROM. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán did use the word Macedonia at this press conference in the Council, for which he was criticized. But at the same time, he was also asked about the Hungarian constitution while on the podium, which has nothing to do with the presidency… so how does it work?

EU speaking with one voice?
Presidency and the EU - We are seen as one, as “Europe” (which is wrong, but unavoidable) both by our own public and by our global partners, still we communicate in a cacophony. From the British tabloid press talking about “EU chiefs” plotting against the UK (see a classic piece here), to US or Chinese diplomats, it is almost impossible to explain the intricacies of EU institutional infighting decision-making. (Through Euramerican we learned that the EU Delegation in Washington has published a good explanation, see here. But we wonder how many people inside the Beltway would know the difference.)

We have been struggling with this repeatedly and tried our best to show a brave face to communication slaps from other institutions and not to hit back. For an example, when we did find it important to advertise our position, see our post here. We maintain that this cacophony in communications does hurt the EU

Brussels journalists, a special species?
We must talk about the Brussels press corps with appreciation. They were not only very helpful with us, but showed slightly different attitudes than the national press. Brussels journalists are non-political, but very subject oriented (most of the time). A fellow spokesman has hit the nail on its head by claiming that ministers coming to Brussels must be shocked by questions like “in article 3, paragraph 4, an extra word has been added, does this mean that…”. We always call the attention of colleagues from home that journalists in Brussels have an incredible institutional memory, sometimes working here for decades and knowing the files on the table better than some experts. This is a challenge for spokespeople, but it also improves our performance. Not only do they keep us on our toes non-stop, but we often learn things from the journalists themselves.

Also, as with everything in life, relationships do matter. Not because journalists would be biased if they knew you, but a good working relationship builds trust and allows for some maneuvering room. We would be disappointed if any of our fellow journalist colleagues would spare us form criticism or praise us without a reason. But we do certainly appreciate the occasional early warning, the friendly double-checking, once or twice a strategically placed question in a press conference, and the friendly mood in discussions. Spokespeople are humans, too 

What makes a good spokesperson?
The in-depth knowledge of journalists and the importance of relationships bring up the evergreen question of what makes a good spokesperson: is it more in-depth knowledge of the subject (aka credibility) or a longer experience in communications and media? (Don’t get us wrong, both are needed, but to a varying degree.) The answer obviously depends on the nature of the job: being a spokesperson for a nuclear power plant requires a good understanding of the complex processes, thus professional background is required, while the example of BP shows that a good expert may not be the best spokesperson in a crisis situation.

In case of EU spokespeople we feel a stronger emphasis on understanding the very complex EU institutional structure and the policies as compared to an extensive experience with the media.

On- or off-the-record?
The Brussels media scene is different from many national ones in the extensive use of off-the-record briefings. There is a complex web of unwritten arrangements of how the information given to journalists can be used: deep background, EU-sources only, presidency sources, etc. The reason for this is the complex nature of EU negotiations, where the most valuable information usually cannot be attributed to its source, and nobody has an information monopoly. In the Council, there are at least 27 national delegations that the journalists can contact for information, creating a unique information exchange – see our post ‘Under the buttonwood tree in Brussels’ for more on this.

In line with the above, the main dilemma is that the Brussels communication atmosphere is rather unorthodox. Most communication experts for example would advise against speaking freely with journalists or going off-the-record. Still, life in Brussels would probably stop without off-the-record briefings and without the trust between journalists and diplomats that enables such a system to function. This has been a challenge in the beginning – our diplomats were not necessarily used to speaking to the press at all, and we were only progressing very carefully in pushing them and ourselves towards more openness, testing the environment and the reactions. In the end, we found that these discussions are extremely subject oriented and will very rarely develop a political twist.

We tried to list our questions in this post in a very honest way (maybe too honest?). As you could see, we do not have a definite answer to most of these dilemmas, even though we did succeed in dealing with them in our daily routine.

But we do have some definite answers and recommendations based on lessons learned, which we will present in our next post on this issue.

1 May 2011

Survival guide for spokespeople I. – famous gaffes

The daily routine of people facing the press and publicity can be rather grueling and unspectacular – but what everyone remembers are the gaffes. This is unfair, but that is how communication works.

Politicians make gaffes (think of Gordon Brown’s “bigoted woman”), businessmen make gaffes (Tony Hayward of BP made a few) and even media professionals make gaffes (CNN editor Octavia Nasr’s tweet and Helen Thomas’s comments on Jews come to our mind).

For spokespeople, such mishaps are the more painful as the ‘raison d’être’ for us is to avoid erroneous communication and protect our employer. (Think of the correct reaction of the Czech President’s spokesperson following the affair with the pen in Chile.)

Still, even professional spokespeople make mistakes. Here are three examples from people far more experienced than Kovács & Kováts.

A classic example is the spokesman of the Czech Prime Minister, Jiří Potužník, who started the Czech Presidency in 2009 by stating that Israel’s action in Gaza was defensive, not offensive. (The exact quote according to our research was: "At the moment, from the perspective of the last days, we understand this step as a defensive, not offensive, action") A “flying pig’s moment” for some commentators, outrageous for others. The spokesman quickly corrected and offered his resignation, but it has inspired euroblogger Jon Worth to adapt the Joe Biden Gaffe-o-Meter into a Czech Presidency Gaffe-o-Meter and later the Praise-o-Meter. (Just like many of his readers, we disagree with Jon on this issue, as we remember the Czech Presidency as one of the best ones. But this is not the point here.)

In March 2011, the US State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley resigned following his comments on treatment of Bradley Manning.

Also in March this year, a less reported, but from our perspective remarkable case has happened, involving a member from HR Ashton’s press team. Today it is water under the bridge but at the March 11th extraordinary European Council the question of a no-fly-zone in Libya has been highly debated. It was in this heated atmosphere that the press corps were busy playing the waiting game, when, according to reports, a “rogue briefing” by a member of Catherine Ashton’s staff took place. The event is described in detail in the Guardian’s blog. And Laura Shields has an interesting opinion on the issue.

We do not want to judge fellow spokespeople, rather to defend them by highlighting in our next post on this issue some of the dilemmas we are facing and the lessons we have learned in EU communications.

In a sign of how much ahead of the curve we are, after having posted this yesterday (Sunday) on famous gaffes, the killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces has brought an avalanche of Obama-Osama gaffes today (which already has quite a history, see below.)

1. Wishful thinking? Fox News anchor announcing "President Obama is in fact dead, it was a US led strategic..."

Btw, this was not the first time Fox News mixed up knocking off Osama and Obama http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BjYpkvcmog0

2. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesperson tweeting today "@RegSprecher #Kanzlerin: Obama verantwortlich für Tod tausender Unschuldiger, hat Grundwerte des Islam und aller Religionen verhöhnt." (Obama responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people, derided the basic values of Islam and other religions. Incidentally, another possible translation instead of deride, according to the dictionary, would be "barracked".) This was of course quickly corrected, and then both the original tweet and the correction deleted.

This complements the long line of Obama-Osama blunders. Here are a few:

3. Mitt Romney back in 2007, going off on the wrong track after getting it almost right at the start “Actually, just look at what Osam — uh — Barack Obama, said just yesterday. Barack Obama calling on radicals, jihadists of all different types, to come together in Iraq. That is the battlefield. That is the central place, he said. Come join us under one banner.”

Talking about spokespeople, we especally like the explanation given by his spokesman afterwards.

4. AP's Dean Singleton standing right next to Obama, asking him about troop deployments given that "Obama bin Laden is still at large". Obama (the real one) handles it quite well... http://abcnews.go.com/video/playerIndex?id=4651743

5. NBC running a story on Obama's campaign with a picture of bin Laden briefly flashed on the screen and CNN reporting that "Barack Obama's campaign has been dogged by false rumors, among them that Osama is a Muslim, Obama rather." http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/politics/5553902.html

These were of course all innocent gaffes (we woudl like to belive) but they go to show how hard it can be to speak in public about important issues under pressure...