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EU: the presidency’s steam-roller
DIRECTOR of the Press and Information Office (PIO) Eleonora Gavrielides has had a hectic schedule since the agency was put in charge of the Cypriot presidency's communication strategy.
On occasion she puts in 16-hour days.
"The other day, I started work at 8am and went home after midnight. So much for lethargic civil servants, eh?" she tells the Sunday Mail.
The PIO was given charge of communications strategy in October 2011, following a decision by Deputy Minister for European Affairs Andreas Mavroyiannis.
Initially, the (former) head of the secretariat of the Cypriot EU presidency Andreas Moleskis wanted the secretariat to take charge of the presidency's communications strategy, and did not want the PIO involved. But that all changed once Andreas Mavroyiannis was appointed Deputy Minister for European Affairs. He insisted that the PIO take charge of this aspect.
"I think that was a wise move," comments Gavrielides. "Having the secretariat involved would simply result in duplication of many activities, thereby wasting time and resources."
Once that decision was made, Gavrielides was at the helm of a media offensive - writing articles in the press, appearing on TV shows - trying to convince about the need for a communications policy.
On the PR level, Gavrielides says the aim is to educate people about EU-wide policies and debates:
"We're trying to show that a lot of issues are not confined to Cyprus. Take migration. Many people here think that Cyprus treats migrants and asylum seekers differently, and that only Cyprus is dealing with this phenomenon. We want to show that it's a challenge faced by all Europe, and that the treatment of migrants is governed by EU regulations, that is, Cyprus is not doing its own thing."
They have prepared a series of spot ads, 30 seconds in length, where usually young people pose a simple question. The question invariably leads to an answer showing how the EU impacts our everyday lives, thereby giving viewers some basic info on what the EU is and what it does.
Tough times means the PIO is operating on a shoestring budget. Initially it was allocated €1 million, later cut down to around €800,000. The total budget set aside for the presidency comes to some €61 million.
"It's a no-frills campaign. I guess you could sum it up with the motto: 'stick to the basics, be accurate'," says Gavrielides.
The design of the website reflects this. While the portal features all the fundamental technical gimmickry - video streaming, video-on-demand - it won't go overboard with bells and whistles.
Users can also subscribe and receive emails on what’s going on during the presidency as well as receiving newsletters.
"The website, but also the press centre at the Filoxenia hotel, will provide media people with enough tools and information for them to do their job," says Gavrielides.
The template for the website has been largely based on that used by the Danes during their presidency.
And Turkish has been included in the working languages on the presidency's website. The website features five languages: Greek, English, French, German and Turkish.
Posts on the website will first be published in English (and in Greek simultaneously, where possible), and then in the rest of the languages. Because speed is of the essence, only the titles of articles will be automatically translated into French, German and Turkish, and the actual content of articles will be available in these languages later.
"Actually, now that we are in the final countdown, I've started to calm down a bit," Gavrielides says, skipping to another subject. "I figure, we've prepared as best we could, now let's move into the implementation stage."
It is not just Gavrielides who is putting in extra hours at the office. The rest of the staff at the PIO are doing the same. So how do you get heavily unionised and entrenched civil servants to put in the extra mileage and to forego overtime pay?
"I was honest with them. We gathered our people around, and I told them flat-out: listen, there won't be any extra compensation. This is a great, once-in-a-lifetime project we are involved in. For those of you who want to work extra, great. For those who don't, that's fine too. It's up to you.
"And you know what? Gradually almost all the staff came on board. Of course, there was some grumbling. Some of them asked whether they would be getting time off next year, after the presidency, for the extra hours they would be putting in these six months. So I told them: 'I won't lie to you: do you realistically expect that you will be get leave for all those hours accrued? How would the roster work?'
"If you give people an incentive, make them excited about their work, they will go the extra mile. They won't be checking their watches waiting for the time to go home. Yes, yes, even civil servants," Gavrielides says teasingly, fully aware of the public's perception of government workers.
Yet even Gavrielides, who casually describes herself as a "steamroller", does not always get her way. Initially, she had asked to hire reporters to do the reporting on the presidency's activities. She wanted experienced journalists who would be able to type something up quickly and hammer out an accurate copy. That would save time, because getting a story out quickly is of the essence.
"I went to the MPs and asked for the extra funds for qualified reporters. I remember there were some intense arguments with deputies, especially with DISY's Averof Neofytou, who was adamantly against this. In the end, we were told to hire a group of civil servants and train them in the art of reporting."
The campaign team currently comprises about 60 people - five of whom have been temporarily reassigned to the PIO from other government departments.
The Cypriot presidency will have three spokespeople: two based in Brussels (Marianna Karagiorgi and Nikos Christodoulides) and one in Cyprus (Costas Yennaris). Only these three people will be quotable, except in cases where government ministers make direct statements to the media after a presidency function or meeting.
The three spokespeople will get their line from the government, that is to say, government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou, Mavroyiannis, Gavrielides, and from the ministers relevant to the subject.
Gavrielides believes - or hopes - that the experience from running the EU presidency will have long-term effects, not just on the PIO but the whole of the civil service.
"In Cyprus, we have no culture of teamwork, as a society and particularly when it comes to the civil service. We just don't know how to ask for help. But the needs of the presidency have forced us all to work as a team. Now, for example, whenever I need something from another ministry or department, I know who's in charge of what at the ministries because we deal with people from other departments all the time. I call that person up, and we get the job done between us. Previously, I would have to get my boss to call his ministry's permanent secretary and so forth. We work much faster now."
But Gavrielides has larger plans for the PIO that go beyond the confines of the six-month presidency. She wants to make the news agency a semi-autonomous department, much like the auditor-general's office- with its own budget, without having to go through the relevant ministry (interior) for everything.
She actually tried to push this through in the recent past, but some of the employees became concerned that making the PIO autonomous would result in them relinquishing some of their rights as civil servants. A union-sponsored vote was organised, and the idea was quashed.
But the energetic Gavrielides is not one to give up: "Perhaps there was not enough time to explain what this move entailed. We'll take another shot at it later."
She recalls that, from the outset, a decision was made to keep the Cyprus problem out of the PR campaign.
"I could just picture in my head all the newsmen in Europe waiting in the wings for us to start sermonising about the Cyprus issue. We understood that, given Cyprus' role as an honest broker, there was no room for propaganda. It would just have damaged our credibility, so the choice to keep away from the Cyprus problem was a no-brainer."
Similarly, no attempt would be made to discourage the foreign press from visiting the north. "Knowing journalists, that would have backfired," says Gavrielides. "If you try to stop someone from doing something, they get even more curious and will end up doing it anyway."
For her, the mark of success of the PR campaign will be measured first and foremost by the traffic on the website.
What about glitches?
"Inevitably, there are going to be problems. That's been the case for all EU presidencies so far. For example we expect attempts at hacking, be it from Anonymous or from Turkish hackers, and are taking steps to deal with this.
And the stakes?
"At the end of the day," says Gavrielides, "I hope Cyprus will show itself to be a modern state, overturning some of the stereotypes surrounding our country. There's a lot of hard work ahead, and July especially is going to be crazy."