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?