Věra Dušková & Vadim Petrov: The politics of public relations

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 it.
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 himself.
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.

Věra Dušková – A life in numbers
1961 born on September 12
1987-90 editor for Mladá fronta Dnes, specializing in ecological subjects
1990-91 editor for Lidové noviny
1993-95 began to work for TV Nova, eventually prepared news program “Na vlastní oči”
1995-2004 script editor for “Sedmička” at TV Nova
2004 from April 1, spokeswoman of the Ministry of Interior, since August 9 press spokeswoman of the Czech government
Vadim Petrov – A life in numbers
1957 born on June 20
1992-96 press spokesman in the governments of Václav Klaus
1996-97 head of communication for Chemapol Group
1997 became independent PR consultant, founding member and chairman of PR Club
1997 began to teach in the MBA program, Prague International Business School
2003 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 lousy million.

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 really cheap.
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.






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