Interview by Dafydd Phillips
From coal researcher to director of information: your career has certainly been a varied one. Could you help us trace the thread of communications through it – when did communications management first play a role in your career?
Let me begin with my background. My first university degree was an engineering degree in fuel and energy. Coal at the time – and even now – is one of the most important fuels being used. I joined this coal research laboratory in Venezuela, which I left after two years to join Venezuela’s national oil and gas company, PDVSA. I think my beginning as a coal researcher taught me to be patient, and also that in many cases you get results by trial and error. After 10 years at PDVSA, I was seconded to the Ministry of Energy and Mines, where I was executive assistant to Minister Alirio Parra. I acted as chief of staff and had to deal with communications, including press releases, press conferences, interviews for the Minister, etc. I also had to work very closely with the information department at that institution. So that gave me a lot of background for my future career. When I returned to PDVSA two years later, I was appointed manager of international institutional relations. It was a new position and I had to introduce a publication, get more engaged in conferences, exhibitions. So many of the tools regarding communication started to appear in my professional development. Also very importantly, in the mid-2000s I was the general manager of Petroguia, a publication house in Venezuela, where the core business was the communication of products for the energy sector. From that position I had to deal with the whole process of printed and digital publications, which also became an asset for my future career.
As well as different disciplines, your career also covers several regions of the world – South America, the Middle East and now Europe. In your experience, are their certain approaches to business or to communications in one of these regions that doest not carry over to another?
I think more than regional, there are cultural differences that we have to take into account. But when we’re talking about communications, it’s not only about cultural elements but more importantly it’s about the target group to whom you would like to deliver the message. So while I was working in Venezuela, for instance, our target was national audiences, and also to convey our expansion plans - in the case of PDVSA, expansion in the region and in the United States. In the Middle East, I saw an excellent internal communication campaign in the company I was working for, which was a national oil company. Now, working at OFID – the OPEC Fund for International Development – our work is to reach all of our stakeholders. That’s much more diverse because we have to consider not only the sectors we’re working in but also the regions, the countries, our members’ countries. So regional issues can not be disregarded by any means, but the most important thing are the stakeholder and target groups that you are dealing with.
You mentioned becoming an executive assistant to the Venezuelan Minister of Energy and Mines between 1992 and 1994. Is communication at government level very different from communication work in the private sector?
Yes, of course. Working for a government, you somehow have to craft messages in a way that they are understood from all sectors in society, including some sectors which may oppose what you are doing and try to modify the messages to gain political advantage. Remember you’re talking to the country as a whole when you work for the government. In some cases, actions related to the message you have to deliver may even have some social cost for the population. So you have to be very aware of how to craft the messages so that people can assimilate and understand them. On the other hand, when you are working in the private sector, you are usually communicating with other objectives that in many cases do not have a broad impact, unless of course you’re dealing with crisis management issues that impact the whole society. Another important issue is that in government, the media follows you most of the time since what you do may have great impact in communities, your country, region or the world. In the case of the private sector or the international development sector where I am working today, the media is not always interested in your activities and you have to be much smarter and position your message. In our case, there is a saying, “Good news doesn’t make news”.
Are there any similarities?
I think one of the main things is working at the government level, you are often involved in political leadership, and that demands you develop skills for managing a group. When you are working in the private sector, you can adopt those skills in order to get better results. Also when you are in government you have to be a bit more balanced in what you say. So these two factors – the diplomatic dimension and the interaction with different people – are very useful to translate into the private sector.
You’ve also worked in the lobbying field. Did that in any way prepare you for your current role?
Our company had a lobbying group in the US so my responsibility was to coordinate the activities of the lobbyists, and in many cases that included meeting with high-level officials from the US, including Congress representatives, Senators and other governmental figures. In some cases not only did we have to deliver positive news like investment opportunities but in a couple of cases we had to deal with a crisis when we were being sued by foreign governments. Then we have to convey our position and explain why the actions that were being taken regarding our company were not appropriate. Again, these types of activities help you to develop diplomatic skills, not only regarding the people you are dealing with but also regarding the issues.
Why did you make the considerable move from Venezuela to Kuwait? Did you anticipate a culture shock?
Throughout my career I have moved several times within my own country to several cities and also to other countries for both studying and to work. So rather than thinking about my expectations, I was also thinking about working on something challenging even in a different country. When I joined the Kuwait Oil Company, I worked as a consultant on strategy planning. This was an activity I had some experience from previously working in Venezuela’s national oil company, and after working in the industry sector, to go back to the oil industry in an area like strategic planning, was really very challenging and very important to me. Another important thing regarding this cultural issue is that the oil and gas business is very global by nature, so in most of the places – whether it’s the Kuwaiti oil industry or the Venezuelan oil industry – there is a business culture that helps a lot, because I was using the same jargon and I was talking to people who attended the same conferences and who knew the type of activity we were working on, so that helps a lot in trying to adapt to a new country and to work there effectively.
So is your opinion, do global energy markets necessitate global careers?
Yes, indeed. Energy is required everywhere, so with the production of energy in different countries you will find the same players who attend probably the same education institutions, and it’s a very global business. Most of the companies post their people throughout their career in different places in the world in order to help them develop their knowledge and assimilate cultures and to exchange expertise. Moreover, this business requires all disciplines and it is very important that people are trained in a global sense.
You seem to have cherished change and new challenges in your career?
Of course, yes. Linking it with our previous question, we have to realise that nowadays we are global citizens. We are no longer national citizens. So anyone who really wants to develop professionally and intellectually has to be exposed to other cultures and other countries around the world, whatever the sector you’re working in, in order to grow as a person and to grow professionally. And another thing is, at times in your career you become more equipped with skills and experiences that may be useful in new sectors where international or global experience may play an important role.
From Kuwait you joined OFID’s Austrian headquarters in September 2009 as director of the department of Information. What made you decide to make the change from a career in the energy sector to international development?
In this decision – which was a very significant one in my life – there were two aspects, one of them was a professional aspect and one was a family aspect. From the family point of view, at the time we found that our family of five were living in four different countries on different continents, so to meet each other was becoming more complicated, as you can imagine. And so for us Europe was a central point. So that was partially the decision. But more importantly, professionally it was not only about the responsibility of leading the information department but it was also the challenge of being part of the team responsible for highlighting the role of this institution, highlighting OFID’s achievements and also our noble mission, which is to say South-South cooperation. Also very important was that our current director general, Mr. Suleiman Al-Herbish has given a great priority to enhancing the visibility of the institution to create more awareness about one of our main objectives which is supporting our partner countries in their efforts for achieving poverty eradication. So from the beginning I have a very strong ally in our boss, which is very important when you want to develop a new strategy or move to another position.
Superficially, your current field – international development – seems to be a world away from the global energy sector. Are their any commonalities between the two jobs?
As a matter of fact, there are more commonalities than many people are aware of, and one of the most important challenges nowadays for both sectors is Sustainable Energy Access. You may recall in the year 2000, the United Nations, supported by the world leaders, adopted the UN Millennium Declaration, establishing eight millennium development goals with the specific target of the year 2015, mainly in order to advance the alleviation of poverty and to address other developmental issues, such as hunger, literacy, health and so on. Unfortunately, expectations regarding meeting these goals are not very optimistic. On the other hand, OFID and other institutions have been indicating that energy poverty alleviation was the missing millennium development goal. You may ask why. Well, the answer is that modern energy services are enablers for the achievement of the millennium development goals. So for example you can not effectively improve education, health, food production and supply without energy access. Imagine when you are trying to address the health issue, but people do not have electricity to keep even medicine in the right conditions. So the connection here is energy. You want to improve the literacy rate in many countries, but people can only stay in school for part of the day, because without modern energy services they can not attend for longer hours or even study at home. So there is a connection between the global energy industry and international development. The solution will require the participation of all players, not only international development players but also the private sector and the NGO sector. As a matter of fact, the United Nations has realised this situation, and the year 2012 has been designated the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All. On OFID’s side, energy poverty alleviation has been a priority for several years already and something we have been mandated to pursue by our Member Countries, who highlighted the link between energy access and poverty eradication at the third OPEC Summit in Riyadh in 2007. We are glad to be working with other partners on what has become a global priority.
Could you briefly outline OFID’s mission for those of our readers who may be unfamiliar with it, and also explain your communication strategy?
OFID is an institution that was started 35 years ago this year. What makes OFID very particular regarding international development institutions is that our members are developing countries. This is what we call a “South-South cooperation institution” – we are developing countries assisting other developing countries. There are other South-South cooperation institutions, but we are one of the oldest. We aspire to a world where sustainable development is centred on human capacity building, so we believe that education is very important in international development to eradicate poverty, which is part of our mission. Apart from the operational activities that we carry out - like offering assistance to countries via financial mechanisms – my responsibility here is to communicate to the different stakeholders what we’re doing. Because it’s not just working in the countries; we need partners, not only those countries that we work with but other international institutions, like the World Bank, like the African Development Bank, and so on. We are in the process of implementing a new communication strategy to make our campaigns more effective. We are trying to get an adequate balance of the communications tools according to the different stakeholder interests and our objectives and resources. The tools that we have been using for many years are printed materials, audiovisual, information communication technologies. We have introduced new social media tools such as media networking events and stakeholder relations. Remember, we operate in 130 countries, so among our stakeholders are not only those partner countries – we call them partner countries rather than beneficiary countries – but also our member countries, those who established OFID: the media, academia, our own staff. So the essence of this strategy is to balance the communication tools in an adequate manner that considers the interest of those stakeholders, so that we can reach them in an effective manner.
Through its parent organisation, OPEC, OFID deals with high-finance, governments and industry leaders. Do you try and reach out to other, less high-level groups – the young, individuals, schools, etc? If so, how?
It’s embedded in our vision, which is – and I’m quoting directly here – “to aspire to a world where sustainable development centred on human capacity building is a reality for all.” So that “centred on human capacity building” entails to work mostly with young people to make sustainable development a reality. So OFID as an institution, apart from providing resources through projects, assisting and cooperating in building schools, universities and facilities for the educational system - we are also targeting nowadays young people. We support a lot of young people to attend important conferences in order for them to develop leadership skills. For instance, we are a partner of the Lindau Foundation, where young scholars are brought together at an annual meeting with Nobel Prize winners in different areas to interact. We are very proud that we have been supporting that institution for several years. By the same token, there is one initiative, One Young World – the last event was held in September and brought over 1,200 young people from 170 countries, we are very proud to be sponsoring them. We have a scholarship programme. But apart from those specific projects, now we are targeting them through social media. We started a campaign early this year, we have been successful in comparison with other international development institutions. We want to receive feedback on what we are doing. This is very important for us. Hence, we’re working on Facebook, on Twitter, on YouTube and that’s something that connects us with this specific group of stakeholders, young people.
The range and variety of projects supported by OFID through loans and grants is impressive. Do these very different projects demand different communication styles?
Well, the communication strategy is one, and we always keep in mind our ultimate mission, which is to help to eradicate poverty. In the variety of projects we deal with, we have to use different tactics and tools, and that’s why our new communication strategy is trying to encompass regional and sectoral media plans. So probably next year we will introduce another regional plan in Latin America or Asia. And also the different stakeholder groups have to be born in mind. And we’re talking about three different things altogether – stakeholders, region, demographic target groups – and all that demands different tactics and different tools to be more effective in those groups.
In your current role, you manage a multicultural group. Has your international career prepared you for managing such a group?
At the beginning of my career, I was working in a national environment. But later international exposure - though conferences, meetings, working in other countries - helped me to understand other cultures and other work values and attitudes that are really useful for managing the multicultural group I work with today. In my group I have nationals from 13 different countries from all the regions of the world. This experience and my exposure to work in different places and to interaction with different people, my skills in handling sensitive issues, they have added a lot of value to the way I manage this group. And one of the most important things regarding this multicultural issue is not only the management approach but is also the integration aspect. Because in some cases you come across different work and attitude values, and I am really glad to say at OFID we have managed to integrate a spirit of teamwork.
Where do you see yourself moving onto in the future?
I enjoy my current position and the team I am working with. However, I still feel there is a lot to be done to enhance the visibility of our institution. Because, by promoting OFID, hopefully we will also be promoting the need for more cooperation and solidarity in addressing the poverty issue. In this regard, I do not foresee a move in the near future, because I regard our status as work in progress. Hopefully with the support of OFID’s staff we will be able to continue our achievements. Finally, to live in Europe and having the privilege to have as a host country Austria and to live in Vienna has been a great benefit to me and my family.