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!

1 comment:

  1. Great insights! looks like guys learned the game quick & kept your eyes open...