Saturday, October 11, 2014

Newest European NAGC member describes challenge of Public vs. Political Communication

Posted by John Verrico, NAGC President

Meet one of NAGC’s newest members -- Eleonora Gavrielides, Director of the Press and Information Office for the Republic of Cyprus. I have had the pleasure of meeting this brilliant and extremely talented communication professional on several occasions. Below is an excerpt of an insightful article she wrote for the European Union’s professional government communication magazine, Convergences, about the unique and challenging relationships between civil servant public affairs professionals and the political staffs. You should note that her reference to “politicians” includes political appointees.

The entire article appears in Convergences 3. NAGC members may now access copies of all of the issues of Convergences under Resources in the Members-Only section of the NAGC website
Public communication vs. political communication: The relationship between public communicators and politicians

 by Eleonora Gavrielides

It is a fact that communicators in the public sphere have political bosses. In order to be useful to them and to that extent not become irrelevant, they need to cater to the politicians’ legitimate needs. If on the other hand, they cater only to the political needs and desires of their political masters, they run the risk of becoming irrelevant and possibly dangerous to the public, who are their real bosses and whom they are duty bound to serve.

Another obvious reality is that politicians are more interested in political rather than public communication. This centers around using the media to gain the public vote and to influence political decisions. This means there is a role for political communication in government operations. Some kind of civil service outfit is usually responsible for releasing information of various kinds to the media.

A good gauge for the success or failure of political communication in an environment with a great expansion of media and technology outlets is whether they deliver what they promise. Critics argue that if voters choose not to engage with the political process, this means that political communication has failed. 

Public communication, on the other hand, is a duty of an administration towards the citizens of the country and, if it can be perceived to be politically neutral, can have credibility among the public.

How do public and political communication interlink?

We cannot discount that politicians have an interest in serving the public. Let us see how bona fide public communication as carried out by public communicators can serve the world of politics and politicians.
  • If the public communication has a beneficial effect on the lives of citizens the current government naturally and legitimately benefits from this
  • Public servants are more credible- some would say with good reason -than politicians. Therefore the messages disseminated by civil service departments tend to be more trusted by the public and these messages are generally messages that the government wishes to disseminate and are part and parcel of the policies it wants to implement.
  • Politicians are generally not public communication experts, however charismatic or talented they may be. Therefore it is worth it for them to rely on professionals whose job is to get the best possible results
  • Sometimes it is better tactics for politicians to allow the communication on difficult or controversial issues, or just difficult or technical issues, or parts of issues to the civil servants. This makes a useful buffer zone available in the sense that it provides a little distance for the politician or prepares the ground for greater involvement when things are clearer or more urgent or when the sh*t hits the fan, as the case may be
  • A good relationship between politicians and public communicators has the best chance of working for the benefit of the public and that in its turn serves both the politicians and the public administration both of which need the consent and the good will of the people to continue to function without serious problems
[This relationship] is not easy and it needs apart from mutual respect, trust and goodwill, constant adjustment and clear boundaries. Also it needs a clear understanding of each other’s function and how the one can complement the other. Thus, when all these ingredients exist, there can be a very beneficial relationship for both parties in it and most of all for the country itself.

Generally, politicians do not know much anything about the ins and outs of the civil service. Their personalities, their background, (educational and social) and their demographic characteristics naturally vary widely, but in the end it is not so much the type of person that makes a difference to the level of cooperation. It is more about both parties being genuinely wishing and striving to achieve the synthesis between the political goals and the public communication goals, understanding that the two are complementary.

What it boils down is that if politicians help public communicators to do their own work well, this will have a very positive impact on the success of their own work. And it helps if they can inspire civil servants with their vision.

This is not something that can be taken for granted, given that -fortunately- at least in most countries, civil servants do not change every time there is a change of government. The fact that they remain enhances the professionalism, independence and credibility of the civil service. It is this experience and professionalism that does not make it necessary that public communicators agree one hundred percent with their political bosses about the essence of their policies. They can still help the politicians with their communications, and in so doing, serve the country and the public.

I do not mean to paint too rosy a picture or to be unrealistic. There are difficulties. Not least because the world of politics is very often a brutal place with parameters that can change drastically without a moment’s notice, and politicians themselves suffer from that as do their associates.

In conclusion, politicians and public communicators may make “strange bedfellows” but they can help each other do their job and they have every reason to try to cooperate to that end. It is a fact that public communicators can provide their professional knowhow and the credibility they enjoy among the public due to their political neutrality and that, equally, politicians are in a position to influence the world of professional communicators through promoting legislation and through putting in place those conditions on the part of government that facilitate the work of the civil servants in general and public communicators in particular.

Eleonora Gavrielides, PhD, has been serving as the Director of the Cyprus Government communication service for the past five years, heading an organization of around 140 people responsible for the internal and international communications strategies of all levels of government in the Republic of Cyprus. She has been part of this organization since 1983.Educated in England at Exeter University and King's College University of London, she holds multiple degrees including a PhD in Philosophy, and a Masters in Public Sector Management from the prestigious business school, Cyprus International Institute of Management. She served as the Communications Director for the Cyprus Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2012. She is a member of the steering committee for the Club of Venice, the informal organization Communication Directors across the EU, and of the steering committee of Media and information Society for the Council of Europe. She speaks Greek, English, French, German, Turkish, and some Italian, writes poetry in English and Greek, and paints. Eleonora was born and lived until the age of 17 at the Cypriot town of Famagusta, which has been occupied by military troops and inaccessible to civilians since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Like the majority of Cypriots of Greek or Turkish ethnic origin, she hopes for a solution of the long-standing political conflicts in Cyprus.


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