Brussels Ukraïna ReviewOpinionOriginal

Earning Trust in Restless Times – Political PR in Eastern Europe

Christian Spahr

In young democracies, political communicators have even bigger tasks in communication than their equivalents in Western countries. Three decades ago, Eastern Europe broke free from the communist system. This has been a period of ongoing changes in the political systems, with progress towards open and stable political landscapes, but also drawbacks: old boy networks have delayed the real implementation of European values. At the same time, the global political situation has become increasingly complex: the replacement of the Cold War order by a multipolar one, and especially the effects of digitalisation and globalisation, have changed the world fundamentally. Major technological revolutions like the GSM mobile phone, email, user-generated internet content and social networks took place in this short lapse of time.

More information about fundamental decisions

In some of the Eastern European countries, citizens still need to agree on fundamental political decisions: More or less EU integration? Pro-Western or pro-Kremlin? Liberal democracy or a strong state? This concerns not only the EU’s neighbours but individual EU Member States. The EU’s crises and the migration challenge have stirred up this debate again. Yet, a consensus on how to see the communist past has not been achieved, and a number of societies are still deeply divided on this question. In other words, citizens in Eastern Europe rather need more than less information from political stakeholders as opposed to their peers in Western Europe. Politicians need to provide orientation in three fields: a narrative for the past, guidance in terms of EU integration, and a perspective for collective and individual development in an ever-changing global environment. Many in Eastern Europe still need to be convinced of the advantages of democracy and open societies.

Traumatic experiences with the communist state parties, political adventurers in the immediate aftermath of dictatorship and a highly polarised political discourse, in general, have weakened the reputation of decisionmakers. Corruption cases have impaired their images, too. But as much as inherently political reasons, the digital lifestyle is a challenge for the public relations of politicians. NGOs and informal movements claim more and more attention of citizens via the internet, presenting themselves as fresh and innocent players in the political field. Mass protests are being organised with the help of Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram – the latter having played a major role in recent events in Belarus. Not only the young generation uses the web to consume political information; many users create their own content, and the digital gap towards Western countries has been rapidly shrinking.

These parameters alone help to imagine how sophisticated the communications of political stakeholders need to be in the new EU Member States, the Western Balkans and the Eastern Neighbourhood. However, the challenges become even bigger when we look at the media situation. Formally, the press is independent, and freedom of speech is guaranteed by the constitutions. However, the reality is often different, at least concerning traditional media. Many of them, especially TV and newspapers, are in the hands of media moguls who own them as an instrument of power. These media owners are not publishers in the traditional sense; they are not interested in earning money with good journalism. Essentially, they are PR entrepreneurs and invest consciously in loss-making media on basis of a hidden agenda. Their interests lie in political and economic influence to be used for their own purposes. Tacit agreements with politicians are part of this concept. On top, many media outlets depend heavily on state advertising – both national and regional. It is still a common practice for government authorities in various countries to use public funds or parts of EU subsidies to support friendly media coverage.

The Ukrainian media landscape features a lot of contrasts – on the one hand, traditional media, dominated by business moguls. On the other hand, a dynamic alternative media scene with brilliant investigative reporters. In this field, Ukraine outplays some of the other post-communist countries.

A climate of interdependence between media and politics makes it difficult to enforce legal provisions or self-regulation in the media – for example when it comes to transparency of ownership and paid content, limiting monopolies in news production and distribution, and fostering ethical standards of reporting. Many South East and Eastern European countries are ranked as problematic in the media freedom rankings of the NGOs ‘Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) and Freedom House. Ukraine’s current position is 96th out of 180 countries with RSF, placing the country between Serbia (93rd) and Montenegro (105th).

One strong trend affects the entire media sector: growing budgetary constraints. Due to the internet revolution, citizens use more sources of information, and most of them for free – an economic disaster for traditional media who, for a long time, ignored or underestimated the challenges that lied ahead. With dramatic consequences: staff had to be reduced in media outlets, and the pulse of news making and news consumption has accelerated. Today, much less journalists produce much more news. Weak newsrooms are more dependent on PR content. As a global trend, the balance between media and PR has been lost. In many countries, for instance, Germany and the United States, PR employees have outnumbered full-time journalists. According to one of the German media associations, 48,000 journalists were facing up to 50,000 PR staff in the country already in 2014. The US Department of Labour even counted 4.6 PR experts per journalist in the same year. It has become easier to influence media and to benefit from their weaknesses.

But is this truly positive news for PR managers? The economic crisis of the media comes together with a crisis of confidence – in journalism and political communication alike. For example, in South East Europe, the lack of professional and ethical standards in media and politics fires back. According to studies conducted by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS), the trust in both media and  political communication is extremely low. In a representative opinion poll published in 2018, only 10 percent of Bulgarians and 15 percent of Macedonians considered the media to be independent. Besides, earlier KAS surveys in Romania and Bulgaria, published in 2015 and 2016, showed that less than every tenth citizen felt well informed by politicians.

If trust in traditional media is this low, are they still appropriate channels for communicating PR messages? Will citizens believe in messages conveyed through compromised news channels? On top of the questionable quality of mainstream media in parts of Eastern Europe, social networks are challenging the credibility of professional journalism. Based on algorithms, Facebook and others display predominantly news that fit the presumed interests of their users. Despite the open nature of the internet, more and more users roam in an echo chamber of unanimous messages, depending on their own political preferences and personal environment. If all ‘my’ sources on Facebook tell the same, can they be wrong? Viewed together, many opinion polls suggest that an increasing number of citizens rather believe what their friends post on Facebook than what is offered by mainstream media.

This should encourage spokespersons to check the credibility of media platforms as well as alternate or combine them, if necessary. Media relations with full-time reporters and direct communication with citizens are complementary. Next to online platforms and physical events, politicians still need traditional media to participate in the political discourse, but they may want to focus on quality outlets.

Secondly, it has become more important for political communicators to adhere to ethical standards. In the digital era, information manipulations are likely to be unveiled sooner or later – if not by newspapers, then by freelancers or non-profit media organisations. A growing number of national and international PR associations have defined guidelines that can serve as reference. SEECOM, an organisation of public sector communicators with members from 15 countries, has its own charter of professional values, the ‘Budva Declaration’ of 2012. It emphasises on the need for transparency, inclusiveness, citizen participation, and integrity. SEECOM also promotes an enhanced level of internal communication between government departments, and greater exchange across borders. One example of such cooperation: in Montenegro, the government launched an application where residents can report pollution, traffic offences of officials, bad road conditions, and tax evasion. Through regional peer exchange in the framework of SEECOM, Bosnian officials examined this solution and developed ideas for similar apps. SEECOM, which has 80 members from national governments in the Balkans and international organisations, is open for associate members from the Eastern Partnership countries.

Rebuilding trust by pragmatism and openness

Building and rebuilding confidence is essential for political stakeholders. Increasingly, the young and middle-aged generations in Eastern Europe are requesting a new political style that can be described as open and pragmatic, without battles for prestige, solution- and dialogue-oriented, participatory, and directed towards public interest instead of serving the interests of a few. The rule of law and civic rights are key topics to this group of citizens.

Instead of propaganda-like communication, more citizens are asking for dialogue with politicians – especially the internet-savvy, well-travelled young and urban segments of the population. Less and less, politicians can score with ideology; increasingly, they need to address citizens’ concerns in their daily life, offering efficient political solutions. Hopes, anxieties and the trust of citizens are more important than party programmes. For instance, the economic situation, good education and transparency of the civil service are relevant topics for campaigns.

In this light, accepting modern standards in policy-making and public dialogue is a huge opportunity for public authorities and political parties. In order to be successful, both decision-making and communication need to meet high expectations and go hand-in-hand. A professional communications management is the key to ensuring that all major stakeholders within an organisation express themselves in line with official positions in order to be trustworthy for the audience.

Behind these observations lies a bigger challenge – shaping the professional role model for PR managers in the region. In many cases, the work of spokespersons and communication advisers is seen as an extension of policy-making than a part of it. From this perspective, a ‘press’ or ‘media’ department has the main task of ‘broadcasting’ the messages of the leadership – in other words, making sure a top politician enjoys enough airtime in the dominating TV channels and has an attractive Facebook fan page. Despite the fact that social media are already an integral part of the PR mix, communication still happens largely ‘on demand’ of the leaders – as a publication of positions, too often in a unidirectional way. For instance, in some of the political parties, senior communication managers don’t always have access to meetings of the executive board and are not systematically used as advisers in the process of decision-making.

A true steering function for PR managers

A true steering function includes dissuasion to adopt certain problematic political positions, choosing key messages to focus on in accordance with public debates (agenda-setting), and making sure that prominent representatives speak with one voice. Other important elements of a modern PR management include precise communication objectives, audience insight (opinion polls) as well as a professional evaluation of channels and allocated resources. The implementation depends very much on the openness of the leadership for an anticipatory and methodical communications approach, in contrast to mainly depending on the intuition of the leaders.

This means a broad scope of responsibilities for PR experts in organisations. In a multi-channel and cross-media environment, even the most popular politicians need strong and competent communication teams. They cannot do PR relying on gut instinct alone. Therefore, strengthening the professional profiles of spokespersons and using their strategic advice in policy-making are important elements of the internal communication management.

Proactive measures are also essential with regard to the polarised media and political landscape in Eastern Europe. As a balanced, thorough reporting is often absent in mainstream media, political debates lack depth and tend to have a sensationalist, highly confrontational character. Negative campaigning is more widespread than in Western Europe. ‘My most important function is to reply to attacks’, said one of the PR managers who participated in a workshop that I hosted. ‘Communicating our own central arguments is only a secondary concern.’ In this situation, internal briefings and systematic agenda-setting help to stay focused and to shape an organisation’s public profile.

Dialogue and participation need further development

A modern understanding of political communication, in which citizens and journalists are not only target groups but also dialogue partners, still needs further development. This is true for political organisations around the globe, but perhaps especially in young democracies and in the decades after a political system change. Progressively, political leaders are expected to act transparently, be open to advice and agree to be subject to public scrutiny.

Although authoritarian political styles have lately yet again registered more support in both Western and Eastern societies, in most European countries, there is no way back to the role model of an omniscient strong leader whose power is without limits. Social networks, open borders, cheap flights and – last but not least – exchange programmes like Erasmus have allowed many people to compare political and societal concepts. Between 2014 and 2019, 7,300 Ukrainians have been granted to activities at European universities. Moreover, 9,000 young Ukrainians took part in volunteering, training and exchange projects with the EU. Ukraine ranks first among the EU partner countries in these events.

The generation of future leaders in the EU’s neighbourhood is already used to questioning established procedures and asking for participation. Both governments and political parties are well advised to consider this when reaching out to the citizens.

Reflecting recent democratic changes in the political systems, political stakeholders in Eastern Europe are about to fulfil a change of culture – from a top-down approach to a more collaborative environment, from the exclusiveness of power to open doors, from one-man-shows to the all-round competence of teams. The development of political systems and trends in political communication are two sides of the same coin. Ukraine has become a laboratory for bright, new ideas in civil society. The factual implementation of a democratic culture in a society effectuates changes in the ways of political interaction. The further development of political communication in this dynamic, aspiring part of Europe depends more on such a change of culture within public agencies and parties than on budget lines or organisational charts.

This contribution is mainly based on a chapter of the book “Reconnecting with citizens – from values to big data”, which the author published for the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.

Christian Spahr is a founder of the South East Europe Public Sector Communication Association (SEECOM), Europe’s first professional association for government communicators. The former business journalist from Germany worked as a European Commission spokesperson and director of a Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung branch, and hosted media workshops in Ukraine.

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