EU Commission to re-brand communication strategy centered on Commission President Barroso

09/08/2010 20:08

From EurActive

The European Commission's communication strategy is undergoing structural change in a re-branding centred on President José Manuel Barroso, increased centralisation of public communications, a new organisational chart and a key reshuffle of top officials, a person close to the matter told EurActiv.


Communicating Europe has long been a primary concern of the EU executive. The need to boost popular trust in the European project became more important following the rejection of the EU constitution by French and Dutch voters and the initial rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by the Irish.

The EU tried to modernise the institution's communication practices by giving the mandate to a dedicated full-time commissioner, Margot Wallström.

However, this experience did not prove successful, and Commission President José Manuel Barroso decided for his second mandate to regroup communication with other unrelated portfolios, assigning the package (which also includes justice, fundamental rights and citizenship) to former Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding.

The new commissioner in charge of communication, Viviane Reding, wants to bring about a "culture shock" and genuine "revolution" of existing Brussels communication methods, replicating her experience as information society commissioner, when she often sided against national telecommunications champions in breach of previous practices, EurActiv has learned.

Reding is already informing her colleagues within the College of the main changes she intends to bring forward, and will use the traditional informal seminar of commissioners after the summer break, scheduled for 1-2 September, to give further details of her plans.

In a letter addressed to Barroso, leaked to EurActiv in June she outlined some of the changes she has in mind, but her reform efforts are expected to go much further than what has so far been circulating in the press.

'Personalisation' of EU politics

The credibility and the success of the EU project "can work only if the Commission is perceived as the EU's government". "We can achieve this by centreing our communication on the figure of the president," the person close to the matter told EurActiv, adding that the new strategy will be geared towards greater "personalisation".

"If the German government announces a project, it is Merkel's project. In France, it would be Sarkozy's plan. We have to do the same in Brussels," the source continued.

In the past, this has not always been the case. President Barroso has often been sidelined by his commissioners, at the risk of making the Commission's message less coherent and less understandable to the average citizen.

"For example, Reding was considered to be the commissioner who introduced roaming. When she held a conference together with Barroso on the roaming regulation, the president appeared in just 2% of the press coverage of the event. This has to change," Commission sources told EurActiv.

Most prime ministers and presidents have direct control over their press services. Some European institutions do the same. Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, makes sure that the ECB's communications department is under his wing.

The Commission president does not do so. Barroso handed the management of the EU executive's communications department to Margot Wallström in his previous mandate, and in the present Commission it is held by Viviane Reding.

Nevertheless, given the experience of recent years, Barroso may have come to realise that having a dedicated commissioner in charge of communication is unnecessary and potentially counter-productive. Therefore he put communications in the hands of one of his most trusted allies, Reding, who manages it among other issues as part of a broad portfolio including justice, citizenship and fundamental rights.

More centralisation to leave behind 'a past of leaks'

According to sources, a renewed structure in charge of communication will work in close contact with the political centre of the Commission in order to allow each official to properly convey the agreed political message. "There will be flexibility in the forms, but we will aim for stronger centralisation in the delivery of messages," the source explained.

Other sources in the EU executive's communications department confirm that they are expected to work more as a form of support for the other Commission departments. Each DG will nevertheless have to improve its own internal communications unit, which will report directly to the commissioner rather than to director-generals.

The objective is to leave behind a past during which time it was relatively easy to leak confidential documents to the press, said the source, who could not resist directing a few negative comments towards Margot Wallström, the former commissioner in charge of communication.

The new strategy will be based on more specialised use of DG communications staff, who will share a number of new tasks as already perceivable from a more detailed organisational chart.

Changing faces

A wide-ranging strategy shift cannot be conducted without personnel changes. Reding has already brought into the communications department a few close officials who served with her in the previous mandate, including a French national, Sixtine Bouygues, a former head of communication at DG Information Society who was recently appointed acting director for communication strategy.

'Fresh blood' is also expected at even higher levels, as the current director-general of the communications department, Claus Sørensen, is expected to move on when his mandate ends at the end of 2010.

With Sørensen's deputy Panayotis Carvounis already on his way to Athens after being appointed the new head of the Commission's Representation to Greece, Reding has the opportunity to "complete the revolution by filling herself the top two positions at the DG," the person close to the matter told EurActiv.

Moreover, the transfer of Carvounis to the representation in Greece is not an isolated move. It was part of the 'first wave' of a wider reshuffle which will involve placing Commission offices in EU capitals with a  direct link to the communications department.

These people will become "the real eyes and ears" of the EU executive, the source said, complaining that so far, representations have been places for officials on the road to retirement. "Now we are putting first-class people there instead," the source added.

Other sources claim that on the contrary, the heads of representations in new member states are typically middle-aged communications professionals, but that is also true for some of the older members of the bloc.

The 'revolution' demanded by Reding may be completed by the end of the year, but many within the Commission think that the new system is more likely to be up and running by 2012.



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