Round table, straight talk

Top communications experts debate the stand out features of communication and public relations

From left to right: David Lawsky, Reuters EU Competition Policy Correspondent; Dennis Landsbert-Noon, Publisher, European Voice; Mikolaj Dowgielewicz  Spokesman, Institutional Relations and Communications Strategy for EU vice president Margot Wallström; Florence Ranson, Public Relations and Communications Officer, European Banking Federation; Herbert Heitmann, Senior Vice President of Global Communications, SAP; Marc-Oliver Voigt, Communication Director

Herbert, you head global communication at SAP. When you go on business trips to the US, do you change the way you normally communicate with journalists and your staff?

Herbert Heitmann: I ought to because sometimes you forget that in the States a much higher degree of political correctness is required in order to be successful with your communication than in many places in Europe, but that’s more of a side effect. Talking about the media, I always find it interesting that sometimes I’m the one who has to speak and I often have to consult or advise my boss in his communication. For example, the US media ask you a question and don’t really expect you to answer the question - it’s more kind of an invitation to tell your story. While in Germany or in the UK or in France you can really embarrass a journalist if he asks you a question and you don’t answer it and you start to tell a story.

David Lawsky: I’m not quite sure I understand what you’re saying.

Herbert Heitmann: Well it is maybe most extreme with American broadcast where the anchor has already asked you a question and the easiest way you find to combine this with the story you want to tell is fully accepted, while in a German or in a British interview they ask you a question and expect you to answer it. If you don’t there is a follow-up question. So you need to be much more responsive to the questions.

David Lawsky: You said television. Is it also true with pen and pencil press?

Herbert Heitmann: I think it’s more extreme and I think you’re looking for extreme differences here. I think the Wall Street Journal in the US doesn’t ask different questions than it does in Paris or here in Brussels – so there you’re right but that’s a very global media in itself.

David Lawsky: I think I got what you’re saying and yes, that’s true. I always thought there was a television versus pen and pencil difference – more so than a European to US difference.

Herbert Heitmann: Yes, but I see how German broadcast media operate. And I’ve never seen this with all different types of American media. Maybe sometimes it really has to do with the format.

As a political communicator, how difficult is it to communicate ‘Europe’? Some don’t seem to get the message.

Mikolaj Dowgielewicz: Well if you want me to give you a short answer, then I would say it’s not the institutions only who need to communicate as much as the member states. It should be actually a joint-exercise that we should be looking at – with particular roles to the parliaments and governments and various bodies across the member states. It’s not for the Commission to replace the government and Bundestag in communicating Europe to citizens in Germany. I can try to give you a short-long version with the following two points. First of all, you have to communicate to this ‘golden cage’ of Brussels, of MEPs, civil servants, lobbyists etc. And this is a relatively easy task. It’s much trickier however to go beyond Brussels and this is my second point, because the European Union is not just a project for civil servants and diplomats in Brussels – but is a project which actually touches the lives of European citizens in a very significant way from topics like energy, security and climate change. This is much trickier and this is where you need partnership with member states. 

Florence Ranson: You could make exactly the same parallel that trade associations making information trickle down to the actual companies that you represent is difficult. We rely on national trade associations, for instance, to inform their member companies. Ok this is the case in banking but also the case for any association I’ve been in contact with: when I go to the actual companies, they ask me what I do and I reply that I work for their European Federation – they ask what that is. We do live in a bubble and we do our best to have close cooperation with national associations and we give them the necessary information but they have their own bubble and their own filters and the people who eventually are the beneficiaries of our lobbying work do not necessarily realise the role that was played by their representatives at a national or European level.

Herbert Heitmann: I’d like to add a personal experience from the company’s side. When the French were asked about the EU Constitution and they said ‘no’, the European Round Table, which is a group of about 50 major European companies’ CEOs, came together in Budapest. They were shocked about the ‘no’ vote. In a long discussion they realised that they had obviously not done a good job. Had they asked their own employees, they would have given a similar answer due to the way we communicate about topics such as the Lisbon Agenda. It sounds like something nobody understands. Hence, they decided to set-up a communications task-force allowing them and their communicators to look at the ways they communicate about Europe to their employees, partners in public, national media and to their national governments. I think that’s an important lesson and it’s really something everybody has to take care of. 

Mikolaj Dowgielewicz: I agree with you. There should also be, without sounding too naïve, some common understanding among the leaders in the EU. We should really try to show that Brussels is not just about consensus building but that there are also serious interests and various positions involved and that in the end we try to find a compromise. This is the kind of attitude that should be expected. And this should apply not only to prime ministers and ministers but it should also trickle down to some other levels.

Florence Ranson: They should to a certain extent, because here we all claim that Europe is good for business, so if this is the case it’s good for companies which give people jobs. If that dimension is introduced and companies communicate regularly, it will eventually sink in.

Dennis, your newspaper has been observing all that is ‘Brussels’ since 1995. How do you see these complex problems of communication?

Dennis Landsbert-Noon: I think just looking back to ’95, communication was much more difficult. Seriously it was more difficult to communicate with the institutions and the decision makers inside them were less accessible. In 11 years that has changed partly because Brussels has opened-up, become more important and more beholden to decision makers here to communicate that message. And with that has changed the whole communication culture.

Do you share this view, David?

David Lawsky: I would like to react to what’s been said. One of the problems I see, having mentioned the referenda in the Netherlands and France, is a feeble connective tissue coming back to Brussels and one of the things the bubble does is keeps communications out. I think the only way that you can communicate to Brussels in a meaningful way is via the exercise of power, so that Brussels feels the pain. A letter to somebody in Brussels won’t do much. Working through lobbying groups with people who are insiders and inhabit the Schuman area gets business done, but does not involve people around the EU. Look at the recent US midterm elections. What you have there today basically is a revolution and what has happened is that the people in power have just been thrown out. They are losing their power and until they convince people, they will hurt just as much as it hurt when the EU felt the pain of having France reject it. What we see in the Commission is not democracy and therefore people around the EU are passive.

Mikolaj Dowgielewicz: David, I won’t respond to the whole point you make but in fairness, MEPs have more power than they used to. If there are serious concerns resonating in public opinion then this is heard in Brussels. I won’t respond to you on the role of the Constitution either, as I see some merit to it, but as to the role of the parliament I don’t see as much of a ‘disconnect’ as you claim. I have seen so much ‘shift’ in the focus on how the Commission operates regarding political priorities over the last two years because we listen to public opinion. Just look at the political programme of the Commission. What’s on it is jobs, security, energy, an agenda by which you can win any elections in Europe, for Europe and on a pan-European platform.

David Lawsky:  We could call this a virtual democracy by which I mean it claims to have the virtues of democracy but lacks the structure. Taking a public opinion poll re leased yesterday by Viviane Reading, 70 per cent more people in the EU who were surveyed want lower roaming costs. This survey was not an attempt to make policy; it attempted to justify policy and to win broad appeal. I find it pretty bogus. Soundings taken are useful in understanding what’s going on but are not in any way a substitute for democracy, nor for the exercise of democratic power.

Mikolaj Dowgielewicz: This was not my point; that it’s a substitute but it’s a democratic tool for EU members and the US. I made the point about showing a bit of controversy. The decision of showing the Council’s meetings in public will maybe not create the excitement that existed when people used to watch Dynasty on television, but all stakeholders will watch the debates and see what the arguments presented by their own governments are, making Brussels more understandable in the end.

We’ve talked about political communication with the common belief that it has been largely opening-up in recent years. What kinds of changes has business communication been through in the last decade?

Herbert Heitmann: First of all, neither business communication nor political communication happens in a vacuum. There are lots of touch-points where our business is directly linked to ideas from the European Commission, such as in intellectual property rights. It’s difficult to separate this, but on the business side is the advent of real-time communication. When I started my job 10 years ago, we had the well established, often conservative high-quality newspapers and they worked for days if not weeks on a story and you were sure at this time that nothing could happen by the time it showed up in print. Today, when you invite a newspaper to a briefing they compete with Reuters because they are usually online and they already put something out even before you finish the conversation. So all of a sudden there is no longer this kind of split between print and wire. This is completely merging and requires that you have to think and act in real-time fashion making it more difficult to get more complex content across because the nature of these kinds of things, unfortunately with the business I’m in, is pretty complex. We sell software which is somehow the nervous system of almost 70 per centof all global corporations and is what globalisation enables. Once you are in this you reach a level of complexity which requires a little more time to have the ability to go into details for somebody who is not familiar with.

Do you believe journalists have the time to do that?

Herbert Heitmann: No they don’t because of this real-time pressure. At least in the past I could somehow rely that the journalist would have the time to translate to readers something that they could understand. In this real-time communications environment in which we operate I see here that we are all challenged and in the end the online recipient, due to flat-rate and always-on technologies, gets content that is not necessarily the same level of quality that existed ten years ago where people had the time to dig into the details, and could deliver this kind of transfer that is necessary to convey the message to final audiences and recipients.

Is this a kind of negative development that you describe?

Herbert Heitmann: Not necessarily negative, it just makes it more challenging for us to do our job. We need to recognise this, otherwise we miss our point and don’t reach our audience. Just to add to this, the first time I became aware of blogs was about two years ago when I didn’t really care that people were putting their diaries online. Then a year later I sat at a dinner table with a very senior Fortune editor and I asked him where he gets his story ideas from. He replied he was subscribed to a couple of blogs! All of a sudden we are seeing that a private person that puts out a blog becomes a reliable source for a highly reputable magazine and if it makes sense they go with it. All this has to be taken into account when structuring communications today. You cannot exclude anybody, it’s absolutely impossible. In the past we had very channelled communication, e.g. these are the investors and we talk to them and tell them a slightly different story because that’s what they need to know. And it was okay. Now you have legal requirements and for instance when it comes to financial profits you have to talk to everybody at the same time about the same thing. It is also for all of the mentioned technical reasons impossible to only talk to special segments of your audiences, therefore you always have to think about the same content, to the same audience at the same time which is changing the job dramatically.

Dennis Landsbert-Noon: I think picking up on what you were saying about blogs – a challenge for communicators as well as for the media is that anyone can now be an editor. And the threshold of something that’s reputable is very difficult to define now. Senior editors from Fortune are getting their stories from blogs and treating them as though they were potentially the truth. Well researched, thoroughly thought-out facts and figures - that’s something that as a reputable publication we are competing against in some senses. If the standard of journalism is sunk to its lowest common denominator, then you are judged by that denominator and this is when your level of reliability and authority get reduced to. But from a company’s perspective that’s also quite difficult because you can, as a corporate entity, speak to reliable sources whether it’s the Financial Times or Reuters and you’re likely to get a considered response or piece. It might not be the one that you want to see but you would hope that it is at least considered. It’s almost impossible for a company to control all the media and one blog can suddenly multiply like a virus and suddenly become the truth.

David Lawsky: How often do you see that?

Dennis Landsbert-Noon: I see that a lot in the UK press.

Mikolaj Dowgielewicz: Yes and I see that a lot too. Last week journalists published a story related to my Directorate General in the Commission. It was about the logo for the anniversary of the Treaty of Rome and then suddenly it became a very big story in France and it took us a good few days to explain that it was not entirely the truth.

David Lawsky: This was a blog?

Mikolaj Dowgielewicz: It’s a blog from one of the journalists who is a correspondent here for the French press and I actually have nothing against it; it’s an interesting blog - I read myself. It’s not for the Commission’s spokespersons to tell people how to do their own job. But it is clear I that there is no standard that you can apply to journalism on the blogs. You don’t have those rules that you apply in journalistic work.

Dennis Landsbert-Noon: One forwarded email can create a news story, it’s as simple as that, and it becomes as authoritative as reading the FT sometimes. By process of moving it away from its source, it gains its authority and that’s not an authority that, as it were, has passed any sort of editorial judgement.

Herbert Heitmann: And to your point that corporations like ours become more considered when mentioned in these established publications – from the moment the story is released online the interest in writing a refresh of this in print is significantly lower.

Dennis Landsbert-Noon: It’s usually because the story is duller than what is being put out there unofficially.

Florence Ranson: And the harm has already been done.

Dennis Landsbert-Noon: It’s very hard to counter that sort of miscommunication. I would suggest it’s impossible.

So is the blogging phenomenon making the work harder for journalists and PR people? You don’t seem to be satisfied with what comes out of a blog.

Dennis Landsbert-Noon: It’s completely variable, in some blogs there’s at least a standard behind it and a sort of threshold of judgement behind it. Other blogs are simply someone’s opinions dumped online and it’s the strange power of the written word really. If someone’s reading it then it must be true, or at least you suspect it to be. 

Touching on this story, isn’t this an example of the declining standards of journalistic work when things tend to develop like this and stories develop unproven?

Dennis Landsbert-Noon: I mean as a publisher and someone who clearly has a lot of commercial pressure to keep costs as low as possible while keeping editorial standards high, I think it’s inevitably going to be an issue of branding. If you pick up a copy of The Sun you sort of know what you’re going to read. Even, dare I say, the dumbest Sun reader knows it’s not necessarily all the truth. And then if you contrast that, say, with The Economist, even the dumbest Economist reader knows that there is a lot of work gone into that, a lot of editorial standards and a great deal of journalism in it too. If you take some of the more reputable press there is a brand standard to be maintained and there is a basic level of retained investment. Looking back here in Brussels, I recall that one of the things that was sacrosanct was that you had to keep a good standard of journalism. Without it you would never get the revenue, unless you are trying to be something else. And perhaps the standard of journalism is diminishing because of tight costs, but I wouldn’t call it a trend; I would rather say that media organisations are choosing a certain business model and others are choosing to maintain editorial quality which actually then gives them a competitive advantage. The danger is in seeing good journalists as a cost as opposed to an asset.

Herbert Heitmann: Combined with this, if we put ourselves back into the shoes of the readers, many think that what is in the news is true. We all experience this in our own private environment. I think that’s, from my perspective, the biggest error; that from an educational point of view we don’t help people to better distinguish the sources of truth and the sources of entertainment. I don’t see it as a way to prevent misleading abuse of these kinds of things because we will never be able to go back to the old days where you always had the quality standards of an editorial board for any kind of newspaper. In Germany, Der Spiegel has a hell of a difference between the well researched weekly magazine and the online version where completely different people do it resulting in quality differences. But who recognises this, and who is aware of this?

We’ve been talking about the disciplines and present state of communications. Cross-culturally, what could be described as the main differences between European communication and its characteristics in the US? Could it be described as 25 differing styles of communication, for example?

Herbert Heitmann: Well I guess it’s 25 different styles plus one in Brussels!

Mikolaj Dowgielewicz: Yes definitely, I mean without recognising the cultural, linguistic diversity, that would be a wrong approach to communication in Europe. Two or three languages may suffice in Brussels but it’s not good enough if you want to reach out to a wider audience.

David Lawsky: What my organisation, Reuters, does, is in every country we put out stuff in a country’s own language if we want to communicate and we must have reporters in that country to allow for the culture and customs in order to report locally. I think any company and not just a communications company has to be able to do that.

Herbert Heitmann: It’s about the global message being broken down into its local parts.

And outside of the context of languages, and into the technical differences of this EU-US divide in communications or public relations?

Herbert Heitmann: I think the role of best practices strongly measures what is ethical and what is not. It is universally applicable and this shouldn’t really have anything to do with local flavours. This is where I do think Americans have the advantage because they have these kinds of things in their whole economic area and I personally hope that what, for example, we are just about to do here can be a small first step when it comes to communication in this direction.

David Lawsky: Except one thing. I mean I could easily live in Washington. But I’d much rather live here and one of the reasons is that Europe is not homogenised. If you want to communicate to everyone in the same way in Europe, this may mean that everything becomes too much of the same. One of the delights of Europe is that things are not the same. You can go to different places, see different things and run into cultures. I would hate to see that disappear, I would hate to see Europe become like the United States. 

Florence Ranson: I think we all would probably hate to see that happen. We would hate to see things become too harmonised in the way we communicate.