Thursday, June 12, 2014

Commitment and professionalism will drive you everywhere

a special guest post by Vincenzo Le Voci, Secretary-General of the European Union's Club of Venice

On the special occasion of the kickstart of its 2014 Communication School, I wish the best of luck to all friends and colleagues of the National Association of US Government Communicators! This is not only an important step in your professional development, but a crucial opportunity to share and experience how you will be increasingly required to cope with the growing challenges in todays information and communication world.

As Secretary-General of the Club of Venice, the informal network of the communications directors of EU Member States, EU institutions, and EU candidate countries and bodies, I want first to reflect on the immensity of the task facing civil servants in this role.

Let us first consider the profession, with its twin-track duty of loyalty towards the institutions and towards citizens.  Across the ocean, the European Union is experiencing a very delicate phase in its history with decreasing support from its population; disappearance of the former generation of visionary politicians; a struggle to foster recovery from a devastating financial and economic crisis, and a rise of in nationalist resentment and demands for protectionism.  In this atmosphere, investing in public communication is unlikely to be painless. The golden age of expectations fuelled by great hopes and flourishing economic trends has faded away.  Communicators must now have the capability of explaining to citizens that times have changed and recovery can only be achieved through the efforts of everyone together.

Communication is at a crossroads.  In the midst of this challenging environment, it is essential to dispel any vestige of the taint of propaganda. The European elections a couple of weeks ago again identified a deficit in the engagement of citizens, even though there were a few genuinely interactive public events. And yet again, many analysts have pointed out that communication was embedded in the political debate too late.

In Europe, public service communication more than ever needs standards, both regulatory (public communication legislation, ethical framework) and professional (professional status, training, recruitment policy, profiles structure).  Only a sustainable, comprehensive framework can guarantee the public communicator's role of critical interface between the authorities and citizens. Communication professionals cannot be expected to deliver without structured involvement, the opportunity for effective analysis and evaluation, and the space to build concrete development plans.

Therefore, when focusing on government communication, we need to adopt a multi-faceted approach.  We should look forward in several directions:
  • increasing the effectiveness of services for citizens;
  • optimising resources in public communication;
  • accepting the challenges of modern technology while not forgetting the needs of audiences unable to cope with the new media landscape;
  • seeking the improvement of a two-way communication;
  • and ensuring public authorities' engagement in the social media.

Nor must we forget the education dimension in communication; several Member States are ready to re-invest in the integration of educational services about the EU and cross-border cooperation.

The Club of Venice stays closely engaged in this exercise. We were founded in November 1986 when communication directors from twelve EU Member States decided to reinforce their ties with greater exchanges of best practice, to build trans-national synergies for more effective communication strategies.

Venice, where it all started, is a metaphor for this work, a crossroads of history, culture, and arts, always inclined to broaden horizons, share experiences, instill and export new cultural models; and all with a view to improving the living standards of its citizens and investing in growth.

Throughout the years, as effective communication has become a crucial activity for many governments, the Club family has expanded in tandem with successive waves of European integration. Today, it includes heads of government communication from 28 Member States, five candidate countries, the European Council, the Council of the EU, the European Parliament and European Commission, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions and the European Central Bank.

The draft agenda of the two plenary sessions organised every year by the Club has two standing components: government and public communication projects and plans ontopics of trans-national interest; and communication on EU issues.

As the Club President Professor Stefano Rolando indicated, the Club does not meet to focus on constraints, uncertainties and diverging practices.  These are clearly understood, and we explore them within the network between plenary meetings.  We come but together to try to find a common approach to communicator’s profession, for the benefit of our governments and our citizens. This informal approach makes the difference, and facilitates constructive and inspiring dialogue.

The last plenary meeting of the Club took place in Riga, Latvia, on 5/6 June, immediately after the European Parliament elections which were marked by the clash of pro and anti European integration philosophies.  We have good reason to talk about issues with singular technical and political influence, the latter particularly influenced by current democratic trends. This is why it is crucial for the Club of Venice to seek and consolidate synergies with other international organisations.

In this context, during the last decade the Club has established relations with a number of international bodies and held joint meetings with the Information network of EU Member States from the Baltic Area, as well as international conferences such as EuroPCom (organised by the Committee of the Regions), university meetings (Milano IULM, Lille Science Po) and SEECOM, the Association of Southern-Eastern Government Communicators which has operated since its inception in 2012 in Montenegro.

The SEECOM Declaration, signed in Budva in September 2012, and strongly endorsed by John Verrico on behalf of NAGC, contains key orientations with regard to inclusiveness, transparency and participation.  These are also fully reflected in the Club's constitutional principles:
  • accountability, work for citizens, promotion of networking, dialogue and peer support for professional development of government communicators and advancement of government communication profession in general;
  • development of the top contemporary professional standards which are clearly possible through comprehensive training programmes to consolidate our profession (see for instance the respective, enormous investments planned by the UK and The Netherlands);
  • the search for new ways to strengthen communication between governments, including cross-border training opportunities;
  • and encouragement of citizen participation in government policy making, and public interest in government work.

The Club of Venice's twinning with SEECOM, which is continually strengthened, clearly indicates the right approach: sharing good values in outreach to citizens, and tabling new ideas to improve communication. The Club was invited to attend the 1st and 2nd SEECOM conferences held in Montenegro and we were proud to engage pro-actively within the respective programmes, by delivering speeches, making presentations and moderating panels. Collaboration has grown up with our great satisfaction and we are proud to have our Club Coordinator Mike Granatt as an Honorary Member of SEECOM. By the way, NAGC’s John Verrico is also an Honorary Member.

We look forward to continuing pooling forces in view of our two future important events: the 3rd SEECOM conference foreseen in Croatia in late September and the autumn meeting of the Club of Venice in Rome in mid-November.

Communication, dear Colleagues, remains a crucial component of every government’s duty.  Thinking about the economic crisis that has hit in particular South-East Europe, communication has become ever more important.  It is imperative for governments to be connected constantly with their citizens in order to explain what is being done to overcome the present difficulties and foster recovery.

We need to be as informative and transparent as possible towards the public - and only a two-way partnership can help build trust between government and citizens. Hence, the most important role of communication professionals is to foster interaction with citizens, inform them objectively and encourage their engagement in policy-making.  (This is, after all, the only way to ensure that policies fully reflect their needs and interests).

Lets continue to work hard, reinforce know-how and competencies, increase focus on core issues, stay connected, improve internal communication and coordination and seek together excellence.

Quoting from Christian Spahr, Konrad Adenauer Foundation representative and one of the Steering Group members of SEECOM.  He pointed out that for political communication, "good resources and structures are required. But even more important is the professional attitude of PR managers in politics". And this applies to all of us.

-- Vincenzo Le Voci, 12 June 2014

Vincenzo Le Voci has worked on information policy, communication strategies and transparency issues since 2001 and is currently coordinating the agenda of the EU Council’s Working Party on Information (Members States’ press and information officers). In 2011 he was appointed Secretary-General of the Club of Venice, the network of the communication directors from EU member states, candidate countries and institutions. Before joining the EU in 1992, he worked for NATO as Housing Manager for the United States Air Forces in Europe (1985-1991).
This guest blog post is part of NAGC's continuing partnership with our international counterparts. NAGC is dedicated to bringing together and learning from the best minds in government communications around the globe.

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