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. You should send this straight to your Polish colleagues, save them the 1 million euros they're wasting on Burson who will just steal your stuff anyway.

  2. Great! Two nice posts! Looking forward for your lessons learned in the 3rd post. In between, could you please explain why spokespersons are standing/sitting next to the VIP though they barely open the mouth? What's the reason of having the spokesperson during the press conference.. They only make welcome introduction and the closing ceremony of 30 sec....

  3. Dear Anonymous nr 2.
    Thanks for your nice words.
    We will only be able to explain in detail (with examples) the role or usefulness of spokespersons in this situation after the presidency :)
    But in a nutshell:

    1. it relieves the VIPs of the need to focus on the nitty gritty logistics (who speaks first, which journalists to select, finsih on time, etc.) so that they can focus on their thing

    2. in the selection of journalists it also adds value because we know them better than the VIPs do. I am not saying this is always the case, but we do have some room for playing with the order, to set the tone, to make sure that important or useful questions get asked, etc.

    3. we also provide some reassurance to the ministers - we can whisper in their ears about what to do with sensitive questions or help them out with details if needed.

    4. finally, it gives us visibility, so jouornalists always know whom to approach afterwards if they need some background information or they need clarification