“You must have a common vision of Europe”

Interview with Claus Haugaard Sørensen, Director General of the DG Communication at the EU Commission

 
In an ever-changing EU - with its complex and diverse media landscape, what challenges does the European Commission face in delocalising its communications activities?
We face what Commissioner Wallstrom calls a “mission impossible” because we have to communicate ideally directly with the citizens. This hits a number of political, linguistic and cultural obstacles. The political obstacles; member states governments as well as other EU institutions such as the council or parliament - have a natural tendency to see communication as competing for the attention of the citizen. We know that the citizen is faced with a number of communication challenges: an overload of information. So getting the attention of the citizen is a problem for every political system and there they seek attention. The other political obstacle or explanation is that national politicians very often tend to want to go to Brussels, negotiate and return with a victory. And this is of course not true. It’s about compromise – very often relevant to a win-win situation. But the way the Commission wants to communicate is to tell people that they are trade-offs. That may not always be in one country’s favour today – overall it will be but not all the time; so it’s a give-and-take situation which is a more complex picture that we eventually bring to the citizen. This is not the way a French or Danish Minister would want to present things so there is a tension in that area. But there is also a smaller tension between the Commission and the Parliament because the parliamentarians also want to preserve their integrity and avoid being hijacked by a rather forceful institution of communication. Then we have the more sociological and cultural side of things. It is clear that you cannot communicate using the same words, in the same way in Andalusia and in Nicosia. Take energy as an example. If you want to explain the energy pact in Seville it is very much about climate change because Andalusia runs the risk of becoming a Sahara. But if you go to Finland it’s about being cold in the winter – all this has to be differentiated.
 
If you have to put the emphasis on local aspects to get the EU message across, how does that fit in the scope of EU Communication in this cliché of keeping this ‘central vision of Europe, whilst using local knowledge or subjects’?
I think it’s a challenge but I think it’s doable. I’m sure you can describe the growth and jobs strategy – which is both about macroeconomic stability but also about reforms on the labour market – by putting the issue in a local context. For example, by explaining to the Danes that they have done well in one domain and encouraging them to do more and continue along the same path – or for example in the German context explaining that a lot of things have happened and that optimism is back but there are still some reforms that have to be done. You have to have a common vision, which requires a lot of joint up discussions in Brussels involving the representations, which is what we want. It’s very difficult but they’re doing an excellent job feeding in knowledge. Then when the message has to be communicated or discussed, you have to put it into a local context, but it is huge work. Mind you, it’s not so different from the work of some of the worldwide industrial companies. Think about Coca-Cola who have different teams working worldwide which falls mainly under advertising – but the same is not done in Saudi Arabia as is done in the USA. What I think Wallstrom is trying to do is to give this local colour to the content we have, while keeping the overall vision, of course.
 
As recently as 2006 - the Commission endorsed a set of plans which envisages equipping all EU civil servants with a set of communication skills in the framework of Wallstrom’s new Communication Strategy and Plan ‘D’. How is this organised across the institutional network of the EU?
When I came to this job just over a year ago, I found a sleeping committee sort of left on the side of the road which is called the ‘communications network’. This network sort of brings together all the communications people and units of different departments and directorate-generals, which are similar to ministries, and they each have their communication departments. Some are very big and active, some are more narrow and not very well equipped but at least there is this network and we have a very, very heavy agenda with regular meetings bringing them together - looking after best practices, training, use of the internet and improvement of the ‘corporate image’. I have to say in all honesty, if you go to the Europa website – the biggest website in the world with more than 6 million accessible pages – you don’t really see a corporate image and that is because people have not joined up in order to make it appealing to the citizen. We also talk to our spokespeople who are part of the DG Communication but who also very much depend on the Commissioners that want to give themselves a very nice profile, which is fine with me, but they have to learn to write press releases and to speak to the press: basic skills, which have not raised a great deal of concern in the past. In the past, the basis of these persons’ selections was that some years ago one of the previous heads of the spokesperson’s service did manage to make a very good selection of spokespeople based on press and journalistic experience. But it was not possible to continue because Commissioners came in with their own people and some of them were press/communication-oriented and some were not. What happened is that only half of them had any real press experience. We do invest in training. We launched a master-class (communication training at a pretty high level) – which in my view is almost at a metaphysical level. Learning about public sphere theory and perception theory – we do that as well as running some practical courses on the use of new media technologies, etc. So the intention is there, the challenge is in the execution. I think we know where we want to go but it will take some time. Another idea we have which also reflects this idea of going local, is that we want to send out people to the representations to stay there for two to three months and to be confronted with the task of communicating with people.
 
Reorganising staff is a central part of the Commission. With reference to media, press and communications personnel - how much of a challenge is this really?
It’s a huge challenge because it hasn’t really been dealt with professionally. For the first time, Barroso has actually created a post for a Commissioner for Communication. It’s because there was a problem. It is a very progressive and new idea and it takes time for that particular decision to produce its effects. So that’s where we are. But allow me to give just another example. We are opening now a competition for new people who are coming into the Commission who want to be communications professionals. This has never happened before. And this competition will materialise six months from now. The competition I refer to is the Commission’s complex recruitment system which takes place in the form of preliminary testing and interviews – and comes under the name of a competition. Until now we have recruited economists, political scientists, legal people and occasionally finance staff. Now, for the first time we will attempt to get some media people. People who have experience in TV, communications-based work, and new technologies, who actually know something about this sphere of practice. Those people will be tested on the basis of both their practical handling of press and communications experience as well as their level of theoretical knowhow. 
 
How frequently do Heads of Communications of the 27 member countries meet to discuss organisational and strategic issues?
They come together about 6 times a year. They have two meetings in Brussels during every Presidency, possibly even three. Then we have a different group which takes the top communication managers – who do not always come to Brussels because they tend to send junior people – who have formed a club called the ‘Club of Venice’. It was created by a group of Italians around 15 years ago. All public communicators come together and exchange best practices. The reason why this takes place in the ‘Club of Venice’ is that there is no mention of communication in the treaty of the European Union. But this ultimately means that when we want to speak communication, we are in fact outside of the treaty. Which leads me back to the beginning where there is this jealousy or fear that if we do more communication from the EU institution then it would become political in a way that would be difficult for the national governments to control. In the context of these meetings at the ‘Club of Venice’, we have realised that we must find a way to discuss – because it is compulsory. You cannot run a democratic process without a communication approach and it is perfectly idiotic for one communication to be handled in France and another in the UK without any kind of link-up. We need a contradictory discussion, we need a lively debate.
 
Referring to the earlier point about sending people out to various locations how is the central strategy broken down in order for on-the-ground staff to digest and implement efficiently?
Well the systems are not completely linked up yet. But you have to separate two different structures. The one side is the individual heads of the 27 member states press corps. They are member state organisations and get together about six times per year, sometimes in the ‘Club of Venice’. Then there are the commissions and the EP’s representations in the member states. Our representations come to Brussels four times per year. Collaborators from the representations, press people, political reporters, also go to Brussels once in a while. I believe we’re caught between a rock and a hard place because in a way I think we need to see them more often in Brussels but I have a problem with travel budgets – it’s as primitive as that! I have the same problem with training – I want to bring people from representations for training. But I need money to do this.
 
After talking with these people do you feel there is a desire for them to be more involved in the strategic vision?
I think there is a desire – I think there is also a degree of healthy scepticism. Because the people based in the representations are completely overworked. They try to bring all the news from Brussels out to the citizens. They are understaffed, they run after all the events – sometimes they spend a lot of time picking up commissioners from airports or providing protocol. So there is a lot of tension and if they have to participate in vision discussions, there is a little bit of “well okay, what does this Mr. Sørensen  want now?” But I have the feeling that there is an understanding that we must have a unified vision on how we want to communicate that permeates the whole system. I have to see people so that we are assured of a common vision because I have to guarantee vis-à-vis the commissioners that when I say that they should be allowed to speak freely; that I can in all honesty say they will represent the line of the corporate vision. One voice expressed in many different ways but not undercutting the underlying vision. I feel there is more of an interest today.
 
Is Brussels interested in this feedback?
Yes and no. I mean intellectually most people in Brussels know that they should listen, but sometimes they get bad news and there is a very natural tendency that we don’t want to listen to bad news. Personally I welcome bad news, but I know other people in the system that don’t like to be told that the way they communicate in Brussels doesn’t fit with the local reality.
 
How is knowledge pooled and knowledge consequently shared at a communications level within the EU institutions?
First of all you need to ensure that your instruments, your communication channels are open; that you have very good structures for distributing information, that e-mail traffic is disciplined and that when people send in reports they go to the right people. You have to have a very good archiving system on your web. I’ve spoken about this for ages now – it’s not there yet because we are actually creating a completely new intranet (internal communication system) and we want to put that information on that system. But that is under construction. It’s very much about organisation and management and these are the challenges we are faced with. Regarding sharing; although the commissioners have a willingness to do something about this, they are not always aware of how to communicate better. They also need training at the level of the top politicians and they need to be aware that they have to adjust the way they speak to their audiences and that there are different ways that they can do that. They need to know more about the absolute need for ethical behaviour. In communication one of the critical elements is that the emitter is credible because there is such an overload of information that the citizen is faced with; all this bombardment from TV, press and advertising and all of this requires a filter. It’s about behaviour and body language. This is not about manipulation; it’s about being efficient communicators since no one has an interest in them not being able to bring forward their news and policies.
 
Already having mentioned internal communications, how important is it and how does one ensure it flows smoothly?
Frankly speaking, I was surprised when I arrived at DG Communication because I had expected that a DG with that title would have had a good internal communications system; but I felt a lot could be improved. So, I organised a director’s meeting every week, an agenda, minutes which trickle down the units and roll-out into weekly meetings – maybe twice. The same thing has to be emulated for the representations – and there has to be a feedback mechanism. If there is an issue they do not agree with – bring it up! Then we arbitrate and solve it. The worst thing that can happen is that nothing moves. The best thing is to bring it to the table and to have a healthy debate about it. Occasionally we have team-building exercises – we have a budget for that. People take a day off and go out to do what they do in all kinds of normal organisations to sort of discuss how we can make things better when working together.
 
Measurement and Evaluation: do these occur at regular intervals? Is all staff, central, decentralised, partners etc., involved in its inception?
There are ways to measure the impact of communication. For example, Eurobarometer. We have surveys and they are trustworthy. They are carried out independently so it is not us asking nice questions in reader to get nice answers. The numbers that come out of these measurement activities are important because they demonstrate that there is surprisingly more than enough acceptance of European institutions and very often more than the national political systems. It’s very interesting. And there have been surveys going on in various member states. You can measure to a certain extent. I do have reason to believe that these polling results can be traced back to a certain way of communicating. I worked before in agriculture where we had a very powerful campaign on sugar reform and what we got back was that the fact that we went out in an attempt to put things into context and speaking with farmers, raised the level of knowledge so that the inevitable ‘pain’ was better understood. This can be measured. EU-citizens don’t say that people are stupid in Brussels, they tell themselves that the reform must be made and accept a certain pain, but that they would have liked to see this in a different way. So you can get these kinds of signals back. On the other hand, I think one example where it went very wrong was the EU Services Directive, because there was no real ownership for the project at the level of the new Commission – which inevitably bore effects on the communication.
 
Does the European Commission’s Directorate General Communication work together with external communications experts, do you ask them for advice?
We subcontract various activities. For example, for our website we have a contract with some very talented people who carry this out. We also have framework contracts to organise conferences, to print materials. We do not have strategic consultants; however, we perhaps should have this. We need some kind of outside expertise at least to give advice. I do this on an informal, personal basis sometimes but none of this is done in a formal, organised manner on what the best practices in the communications sphere are. It will eventually come.
 
Interview: Marc-Oliver Voigt

Claus Haugaard Sørensen

Since 2006 Claus Haugaard Sørensen is the director general of the Directorate General Communication of the European Commission. Previously he was head of cabinet of Mariann Fischer Boel, commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development. Before joining the cabinet Sørensen worked as director of the Directorat General Environment and International Affairs. He has also been a lecturer in economics at Copenhagen University