29 June 2011

The (many) mistakes we made

From the feedback we get from all over in Brussels, it seems the Hungarian Presidency is considered a great success. From Olli Rehn, arguing for a Schuman Prize, to Hannes Swoboda wanting to stop the clock on the 30th of June, all actors are impressed by the results. (We could have another post on whether this is unfair or not, as a Presidency cannot be evaluated on its own but in cooperation with its partners, but this is not the point here.)

The point is that Kovács & Kováts believe the way to success in life leads through small failures. We achieve results if first we make mistakes and learn from them. (This is why we look forward to reading the new book of Tim Harford this summer.) It is of course important to make mistakes at a small scale, so when you get to the important tasks, you have already cut your teeth . It’s common sense, and we are looking forward to experiencing it with our children, when we will actually see them, that is, after the Presidency is over… 

We of course like to think that we did contribute something to the Presidency’s success, so it is just fair if we try to take stock of the mistakes we made on the way - especially as it was the mother of all learning curves for us, newbies to the Council. So here is our ’best of mistakes’ collection. (Please feel absolutely free to point out other mistakes we made, even we know more but we are reluctant to share them) 

1. Limited engagement with electronic media

While we did well with the print media, our performance vis-a-vis electronic media was mixed. While we made some e effort with the Brussels based online media and also with Hungarian online media, we were not able to connect like we did with the print media. We also connected superbly with the Brussels blogosphere, so our lack of success with online papers leaves a bit of a bad taste.

We also connected relatively well with radios (although could have paid more attention to their specific needs), but we totally missed TVs. At the beginning of the presidency there was an increased interest, we gave several interviews (especially on the famous carpet), but as the results of the Presidency work started to show in February, the TVs have all but disappeared. We have been too busy reacting to the recurring crises so we simply had no energy to look for „sexy” subjects and proposals. The nitty-gritty of European Union legislation is hard to sell to TV audiences (and especially to editors), though not impossible. Lately we had some success, e.g. with the issue of Macedonia or the ’cross‑border exchange of information on road safety related traffic offences’. The latter sounds like a super boring subject, but it’s extremely timely before the summer vacation, so we could achieve prime airtime. We should have worked on this much more. 

2. Sticking to known journalists only

This is a variation of the electronic/online media problem. Not all journalists are equal in importance, and we did not have the same „chemistry” with all journalists. Therefore there was a tendency to only talk to the same circle of journalists whom we trusted and liked and/or who we thought were super-important. We invited them for backgrounds, we called them (back) first, we sent them press releases under embargo, etc. It took us quite some time to recognize this trap at all. At a later stage, so that we don’t miss everything, we tried to expand our circle. Invited new faces for a background to see what they are like, talked to them and checked out their reporting. But we could have done more and earlier.

3. Reaching out to national bloggers

We had no energy and no plan to connect with the national blogospheres. Our lack of engagement with Hungarian bloggers is a special shame. We have only thought about it at the end of the Presidency after some discussion with the Bloggingportal editors, but by then it was too late.

We know that the Holy Grail in Brussels is to connect the Brussels blogosphere to the national blogospheres. (Something that seems to be starting with the UK blogosphere thanks to committed people like Jon Worth and Joe Litobarski.) The presidency has offered us a golden opportunity to connect with Hungarian bloggers and we missed it. We can only hope that the Polish Presidency will not make the same mistake towards Polish bloggers.

4. Not reaching out properly to fellow spokespeople

Our record is decidedly mixed here. We worked perfectly well with the press officers and spokespeople of the Council (General Secretariat and some embassies).Cooperation was OK with the communication team of both the President of the European Council and of the High Representative. We also received support from the European Parliament’s press team, even though there were some spectacular clashes between the institutions. Where we feel we failed was in setting up a systematically good cooperation with the Commission – an especially sore point for Kovács (“once a Commission official, always a Commission official.”) After a promising start we only managed to have random contacts with the spokespeople, even in cases where cooperation, early warning, etc. could have been helpful. 

5. Being too cautious with on the record information

Especially in the beginning, we held back and offered only background information because we wanted to play it safe, or wait for the actual decision to take place. What then happened was that the media ran our stories without us being quoted. Happened more than once, and difficult to avoid even with a full speaking mandate that we thankfully have.

6. Not engaging our diplomats proactively enough 

Let’s face it, most administrations are not geared towards external communications, and the unsung heroes of a presidency, the diplomats below the ambassadors did not necessarily have the spokespeople on their mind in everything they did. We had mixed results in the beginning, and we were certainly not pushy enough in regularly going around and collecting information. We realised that sometimes a reminder is enough, but sometimes you have to fight for the info. 

Was that frustrating? No doubt. Could we have done better? Absolutely. Have the diplomats improved? Tremendously. (By the end we had more suggestions/requests coming in for „some press work” than we could handle, and there are "hidden gems" who draft better press releases than we do (almost))

7. Not considering the personal preferences of our clients (the ministers)

Being a spokesperson for half a dozen VIPs once a month (or less) is difficult and very different from being a personal spokesperson. So in the beginning we were struggling with offering a one-size fits all approach to all ministers. Predictably, all of them had issues to take with our approach. With repeat councils it became much better as time passed, but we could have done a better job in gathering information about personal preferences in advance (e.g. from the ministry press people.)

8. Focusing only on journalists 1., (not engaging other opinion leaders)

In the beginning, we missed a large part of the opinion leaders by focusing solely on journalists. Surely, what you want is to get your message across and that the media gives you favourable coverage, but indirect ways are often useful, too. It took us some time to realise that we should talk to think tanks, academics, lobbyists, etc., who are sources for news stories, and whose opinion matters more to a journalists than what a spokesperson says. Now we are doing it as much as we can (and find pleasure in the intellectual exchange) but it is somewhat late.

9. Focusing only on journalists 2., (not taking the direct route)

Again, in the beginning we did not realise that the Presidency can appear directly in newspapers, with opinion pieces and articles, as long as they are relevant, well written and provocative. It’s a difficult balancing act, but one that’s nevertheless worth a try in order to increase your audience and get your message through. We think we are doing well in the end, but again, we could and should have been doing this a long time ago. (It’s also extremely time consuming, and a pain to cut and cut again your carefully worded sentences…)

Now it's your turn - what could we have done better?


  1. Hindsight is a great thing. but while you are making your confession to an audience which already knows it, the EU image is sinking into the abyss.

    you could have gotten over many earlier hurdles by touching base with established press officers, editors, new media and observers and forged an early understanding of working together at all costs. This US and Them (enemy) thing is all so easy to get trapped in, especially as it seems from reading the article there were personallity clashes within and outside your operation. This you have to rise above.


  2. nangle,
    I don't see your point.
    Where did you see 'us' and 'them' in this post? Or personality clashes?
    You misunderstood either this post or the Brussels Bubble. But anyhow keep reading us for more insight :)

  3. I think the bloggers should have made clear in the title or at the beginning of the post that the evaluation will cover ONLY Presidency communication and not the overall evaluation of substantial work. Because I would still like to believe that substantial work is the one that actually matters.

  4. Anonymous,

    I guess we were "playing to the regular audience" and therefore didnt feel the need to specify it. As spokespeople, of course we can only talk about (our) mistakes in Presidency communication. (which, btw, I'd like to think is substantial work, and I know at least that it is substantial workload)

    I hope your dissapointment was not too big - but why do not you tell us how you saw the communication/overall presidency work?

  5. Thanks for sharing this with us! If every comms team across the EU Institutions were to:
    (a) experiment and risk failure
    (b) share the resulting lessons with everyone

    the way you have, maybe we'd have a few more successes, rather than a series of short-term projects, all working in different directions and reinventing the wheel twice each year.

    I can't judge your overall record, but you guys definitely did a great job just by setting this example. I hope others follow.

    Mathew, bloggingportal.eu

  6. Interesting post. Next time, just contact the blogosphere - we are open for news & debate!

  7. Not all journalists are equal in importance, and we did not have the same „chemistry” with all journalists. Therefore there was a tendency to only talk to the same circle of journalists whom we trusted and liked and/or who we thought were super-important.... It took us quite some time to recognize this trap at all......US & Them

    this reads like a bad day at the animal farm spin doctors office....I mean words such as trust, chemistry, super-important, trap and not equal.

    Given the foolish attempts by the presidency to engage facebook and youtube in the style and manner it was done, raises doubts over the operations understanding of propaganda purpose and its planning.

    but don't take it too seriously the damage is done and it a fight now for EU survival.


  8. Nangle,

    this was not about spin doctoring, this was about our comfort zone and getting out of it.
    As you probably know, there are about 1000 accredited journalist, so it would have been very dificult to reach out to all and every one of them in 6 months. Yet we started out with a big push (press trip, press breakfasts, etc) and then we slowed down when we already knew quie a lot but nearly not all of them.

    But lets go through the words you mention to clarify what we meant by them, because your mentioning of animal farm spin doctors office suggest you are seriously misinterpreting our words:

    Trust - we didnt mean it as in "trusting them to write what we want", that would have been foolish and immoral (we regard journalism and Brussels journalists much higher than that.) It meant simply that there was a (rather large) circle of journalists who we have gotten to know well enough to be sure that they will respect the rules of the game (backgrounds, off the record stuff, etc.) and so we dared to offer them much more than the strict official on the record line to take.

    Chemistry - if you ever had to work in a professional environment with a lot of external stakeholders then you will realise that personal relationships do matter here as much as everywhere else. Of course we tried to be polite and professional with everyone who turned to us for information. But it's human nature that we simply got along better with some journalists than with others. N.B., this didnt even mean exactly the same journalists for the two of us, although there was a big common set whom both of us liked.

    Super-important and not equal - that is again a fact of life when you face a task with limited resources. One way to prioritise was based on importance. If I had limited space for a background briefing and lots of interested journalists, I tended to select the bigger papers/agencies over the smaller ones, but that was only one aspect. A well respected journalist, or one who has shown specific interest beforehand or asked good questions woudl also be able to get a place, even if he/she comes from a smaller paper.

    Trap - we meant here the trap of being in our comfort zone. Sticking to your comfort zone is a trap that we all fall into very often...

    As for facebook, we didnt have a direct visibility on that (being done from Budapest) but on social media I think many organisations are still on a learning curve. Our colleagues did what they did, obviously not perfect, but we'd rather not comment on something that we didnt see from inside and wehre we werent making the decisions. (We would be glad to hear your comments of course, because that is what we can all learn from.)

    Finally, I dont understand your words on damage having been done and EU survival...

  9. Well, you really do seem to have a grasp on the nature of working with the wolves. Was just testing your patience a bit.
    There has been a lot of damage recently to the image of the EU and especially to the prominent players. But this is not your doing. However it will be up to you and other press officers departments to fix the problem. The EU presidency, amongst others needs permanent offices which build up relations with the media over a lifetime of work and professional association. Familiarity can breed content or contempt. And with the media, it is always a hot and cold thing. For now I am not quite sure of your full role in the EU.
    Best regards

  10. this is amazing that you guys can show how many "mistakes we made".respect

  11. yes this is it! and i love it! go kovacs!

  12. Did you learn from the mistake of banning Buddhism from your list of religious organisations? Or has that been forgotten? You are an EU Country and must uphold Human Rights for all!