Věra Dušková & Vadim Petrov:
politics of public relations
Written by: Klára Smolová, Petr Vykoukal
Photo by: David Holas
How do politicians communicate with the public, and through
whom? Is it right for them to use public relations to improve
their image and messages? We discussed this issue with government
spokeswoman Věra Dušková and PR expert Vadim Petrov.
What role do you think public relations play in politics, and
has their influence changed over the years?
Vadim Petrov: Public relations (PR) can be described as influencing
the public through the media to benefit the client. State administration
should be independent of these influential processes, and if it
isn't it should neither admit nor announce it. I'm not sure I could
easily admit that yes, state administration does engage in PR.
Tell me, is it now common for people around the government to speak
about public relations?
Věra Dušková: They do, but it still has the taint of something
that shouldn't be discussed at the Governmental Office. It's like
lobbying, which in this country carries a negative connotation,
even though there's no reason it should always be a bad thing.
A politician should say, yes, I have these concerns for thus and
so reasons, and these people help me, as they have the same interests.
That's transparent, so the voters can make up their own minds.
Why are politicians afraid to speak so openly?
Dušková: I trace the cause of all our problems to the election
system. No matter whom we vote for, KDU-ČSL is always in charge;
they provide the critical balance regardless of the majority's
opinion. How can you talk about transparency when such mish-mash
coalitions are formed? This is what causes what we're discussing
- if PR isn't transparent, with the goals it serves clearly stated
and explained, it gives an impression of something tainted.
To what extent is this specific, current governmental crisis a
question of PR, and how would you rate how the prime minister and
the government communicate with the people?
Petrov: We all see the second stage of the process, the media's
presentation, what we read. But I'd be more interested in the opinions
of those who didn't have the entire event under control but rather
within reach, or tried to somehow stop, influence, or redirect
Dušková: The basic error was that there was too much advisory input
and too much media output - in this case, in the involvement of
prime minister Gross, too. He could not leave the parliament without
being surrounded by journalists. He said to me, "When I don't
answer their questions, they film me 'fleeing from journalists'." But
that's a lesser evil than talking about something you don't know
anything about or haven't thought through.
How can it be that the prime minister became so entangled that
he gave several different explanations?
Dušková: He was trying to be accomodating. He felt that he had
to answer every journalist he met in the halls. Understandably,
he had a lot on his mind, so it was hard for him to concentrate
solely on how and where his wife is engaged in business, where
Mrs. Barková does business, what happened five or seven years ago,
which mortgage or contract he signed.
Petrov: It's sometimes a mistake for a politician to try to accomodate
journalists, to try to ingratiate themselves to them. In America
or Britain only a select number of journalists who are serious,
even if they're aggressive and sharp, get such information. Secondly,
everything's prepared in advance. The American president's spokesman
is able to estimate and analyze in advance what the journalists
will ask, so the president won't be caught unawares. Here, journalists
have politicians' mobile phone numbers. Here communications are
quantitative, to the detriment of quality. And it's the politicians,
not the journalists, who suffer when problems arise.
But according to some PR experts, in this case there was no respect
for such PR principles. Various explanations were given, and in
the end the prime minister started apologizing on the one hand,
and on the other hand he threatened to sue. How would you rate
this communication method?
Petrov: The standard rules don't apply at such moments and in such
explosive environments. When a scandal arises like this, many various
interests and much manipulation are involved. The substance and
the person in question soon cease to matter. Everyone says his
own piece and takes it as an opportunity to push through his policies.
Prime minister Gross should have said: "I won't answer this
question now. If you're interested, contact my spokesperson. Write
your questions down and I'll respond in writing."
When the French finance minister was caught in a scandal involving
his official apartment and his properties, a few days after it
was made public he stepped down. Do you think that the fact that
Gross resisted stepping down for two months says something about
Czech political culture?
Dušková: It depends on whether we're talking about PR or the crux
of the matter. With respect to PR - i.e., the problem with the
apartment - he should step down. Some of Gross's advisers suggest
that he sell the apartment, and because of the superficial way
the media and PR see the matter, the problem would disappear. With
respect to the crux of the matter, it's an entirely different story.
The French finance minister misused taxpayer's money, while our
prime minister borrowed from relatives to pay for his apartment
Petrov: In my opinion, even if he sold the apartment the problem
wouldn't disappear. Since the scandal is already so big, the media
are speculating as to what to write, the public is speculating,
as are politicians, the opposition...
Dušková: Absolutely. Note that the apartment faded into the background
and the focus shifted to Grossová and Barková. If it hadn't been
the apartment, it would have been something else - you can always
find a flaw in anyone.
Dušková - A
life in numbers
||born on September
for Mladá fronta Dnes, specializing in ecological subjects
||editor for Lidové
to work for TV Nova, eventually prepared news program "Na
||script editor for "Sedmička" at
||from April 1, spokeswoman of
the Ministry of Interior, since August 9 press spokeswoman
of the Czech government
Petrov - A life in numbers
||born on June 20
spokesman in the governments of Václav Klaus
||head of communication
for Chemapol Group
independent PR consultant, founding member and chairman
of PR Club
||began to teach in the
MBA program, Prague International Business School
||teaches economic journalism at the
University of Economics
But our prime minister's behavior gave cause for suspicions of
corruption. And the same applies to his wife. We can see a similarity
in the crux of the matter, don't you think?
Dušková: Of course, but the principal issue was the loan - one
It might involve the discovered million for the apartment, but
millions elsewhere could be involved, too.
Dušková: If a million played a role in this affair at the beginning,
and we're talking about suspicions of corruption, then he'd be
Petrov: And what is the crux of the matter? Where the million came
from, or the causes for the onset of similar campaigns, and perhaps
some sort of timing? Political and economic powers are intertwined,
and affected by many conflicting interests. Politicians, heads
of large firms, and economic powers abroad are all active in this
environment, and they all hire lobbyists and PR managers. It's
like a tsunami - somewhere a tectonic plate moves and a little
wave is created and then grows and grows, and then it strikes somewhere
and someone pays the price.
The citizens of this country pay the politicians to administer
our country for us. We're like shareholders in Czech Republic,
Inc., and the general director, i.e., the prime minister, reports
to us. Do you think it's proper for politicians to hire PR advisers
to help them communicate with the public?
Petrov: I think the reason the government and state administration
offer and provide information is that they're elected representatives
of the people and administrators of the state. Manipulative techniques,
which people perceive PR to be, don't belong in the terminology
of all that's tied to the state. But in the case of a campaign
- when there is a clear informative intention that educates and
is temporary - it makes sense, and I wouldn't reject it.
Dušková: Let's return to your comparison - what do I, as a shareholder,
want from the general director? Professionalism in managing the
company or professionalism in media presentation? If I want a good
manager, I won't insist on his being a role model. On the contrary,
he has to be a good manager and also realize he needs pros to sell
his firm to the media.