Austrian-born Michael Dickstein (above), global director of sustainable development at HEINEKEN, has lived and worked in the Netherlands for the past 12 years. After last year’s tumultuous presidential elections in his homeland – which saw the second round in May annulled and a re-vote held in December – Michael is especially interested in the upcoming general elections to be held in his new home, the Netherlands. Communication Director asked Michael to draw some parallels between the election campaigns in both countries. In this interview he describes what last year’s election results have taught him about his work as a public affairs and communications professional – and what to expect for this year’s political outcomes.
Austria’s presidential elections last year were bitterly contested. The Die Presse daily dubbed the final TV debate between right-wing Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer and his opponent, Alexander Van der Bellen, as a "key scene in the screenplay of the slow decline of Austria's political culture". The Österreich tabloid's front page headline was "Hass-Wahl" ("Election of Hate"). What are your views on the tone of the debate in the Austrian election?
The success formula in several elections in 2016, not only in Austria, was polarisation. Polarisation combined with simple solutions for complex topics, or at least perceived simple solutions. And that trend was paired with a growing sentiment of anti-establishment, against institutions and the perceived elite. This also affects traditional media, which is one driver for the decline of mass media in my view. So overall, bold and even perhaps even ‘naughty’ statements have become fashionable. The irony is the obvious challenge to utilise the electoral mandate for driving real change. Societal issues tend to be more complex in reality. Solutions depend in practice often on compromise. I believe that the need for cross border cooperation is now more important than ever before. And I see an opportunity for the private sector to position itself and to even play a facilitating role. On the one hand, as a business you need to maintain equidistance to all political parties and to maintain professional relations with government. On the other hand, you should make it clear what you stand for as a business and how you define responsibility, transparency or sustainability.
Norbert Hofer said he drew encouragement from Donald Trump's success in the US presidential nominations. How do you see Trump having an impact on the debate around the Netherlands general elections?
Let me approach this question from a holistic view. In many instances the political debate has turned towards negative topics. You are against something rather than for something. People are against globalization, people are against refugees, people are against one political camp or another. People vote for a political candidate not because they are in favour of that person but because they believe that the other one is worse. It seems that there is a rising desire for change without a defined goal. Following the presidential elections in Austria I found a study about growing disparities paired with declining economic growth in the developed world. According to that study, 10% of the lowest incomes have to live on 65% of what they had in 1998, if you adjust inflation. That results in fears of decline and related frustrations, which in turn leads to political movements addressing such sentiments. I guess that played a certain role during the US elections, too, particularly in the mid-west. And again the private sector could be a key contributor to counter those disparities. Think of the Sustainable Development Goals which address topics like fighting poverty and discrimination through job creation, responsible tax strategies and other forms of economic contribution. Consequently, corporate governance will become even more important for business than previously. I think now more than ever companies need to have a proactive CSR strategy.
What lessons can we take from a communications angle?
I think it is fascinating to see the emergence of completely new communications patterns such as micro targeting. The interesting thing about micro targeting is that it comes from the private sector: it’s a proven marketing strategy where consumer data and demographics are used to identify the interests of very small groups of like-minded individuals in order to influence their thoughts and actions. The risk related to that, and we’ve heard a lot about that in the aftermath of the U.S. elections, is that it facilitates also the emergence of fake news. These trends revolutionised the election campaign overseas but also to a certain extent in Austria. I’m curious to which extent this will play a role in the Dutch campaign as well.
Do you also see conclusions from a government affairs perspective?
Geopolitics have become more complex than ever. Economic and social wealth, climate change, but also free trade, migration or digitalisation are big European themes – worldwide themes actually. Traditional public affairs strategies have been focusing primarily on resulting government regulations which impact individual business, rather than on the geopolitical drivers themselves. The key lesson from the recent World Economic Forum in Davos is that the private sector is gradually engaging in the broader global strategic debate itself. In my view we will see more of that.
Would you expect these factors playing a role in the Dutch general elections in March, too?
Possibly, to some extent. However, there is one crucial distinction which I foresee. The political landscape in the Netherlands is rather fragmented. So contrary to what we’ve experienced last year with the Austrian presidential elections, but also with the Brexit referendum, the US elections, the Columbia Peace Referendum, I do not expect a 50/50 result but a more complex outcome.
Eventually, what are your hopes and expectations for the next Dutch government?
What I hope for is a stable government which strives for inclusiveness of all parts of society. A government which understands that business can play a catalyst role in resolving economic, social and environmental issues. And a government which concludes that, the private sector needs sufficient commercial freedom to maintain competitiveness so that companies are able to contribute to these solutions.
Follow Michael on Twitter at @MichDickstein
A version of this article originally appeared on the website of the European Association of Communication Directors (EACD)