The invisible spokesperson: a ‘disease’ rife in Poland

6 years ago

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Tracking down official spokespersons in Poland all too frequently requires supreme effort. This problem is symptomatic of a bigger picture in which access to information remains challenging. By Piotr Czarnowski.



My friend, an international correspondent and frequent guest to Warsaw, has several times turned my attention to what he calls the disease of the Polish spokesperson. He defined the phenomenon; let me try to explain it.
 
Twenty years ago there were few spokespersons in Poland, as the communication culture was not in place yet. They were considered aliens not just because the PR business was new, but also because they were available for contact 24/7. "They must be stupid" – as one journalist judged at that time. 
 
Now every Pole is a PR expert. Every company and institution has spokesperson.  But many of them are hidden as much as possible, and in many cases contact with them is not at all possible. 
 
Every year Press, the industry monthly, publishes a list of the worst spokespeople. Their no-contact-no-response approach seems invariably to be a main issue. 
 
Check the web pages of local institutions and large businesses: very few have full contact data, including the name and phone number of spokesperson. The vast majority gives no other access than general e-mail, if at all, and it is readable only for those who patiently dig into the site structure.  
 
An informal list 
 
So there is an informal list of mobile phone numbers that journalists and PR people pass one to another, if they need to get in touch with such spokespeople. However, even knowing a direct phone number is not a solution in most cases, because the person never picks it up.
 
One of the best known examples is a Government spokesman, who picks up calls only from carefully selected journalists and only if he is in a good mood. A few months ago for my friend, an international journalist in Poland, I needed data from the Fire Brigade HQ in Warsaw. I ended up calling for a few days all numbers given on their web page...with no response.
 
Does it make life difficult? No, if you know the environment, it is not a big deal; the phenomenon is so common that it is considered natural. There is even a positive part as well.  I have a colleague who was a spokesperson for a state-owned company, and he was known to disappear always when the company was about to have a crisis. Journalists simply took it as an early signal that something will go wrong soon, so it was a pretty good early warning system. And the day he picked up the phone again was a clear sign that the crisis was over.
 
The easiest way to deal with such spokespeople is to avoid them as much as they avoid contacts with the external world. It is not difficult, because with many managers’ tendency to be movie stars, one can find easy access to top management, bypassing useless PR departments. 
 
Restricted access
 
This works at least for business.  With politics it is more difficult, as Polish politics is generally not transparent and based on the restriction of public access to information. For instance, the highly political mayor of Warsaw refused to unveil how she spends public money for several city suppliers, to the extent that she ignored a court verdict ordering her to go public on it. Her spokesperson was put into a very uncomfortable situation, forced to block the information.
 
Sometimes government jobs make spokespeople lazy. On one occasion I called the spokesman of a government telecom regulatory office for urgent but simple information. Unfortunately it was Friday: the guy first expressed his surprise that I managed to find him and then explained that he had started his weekend already and will not work until Monday midday and I might send an official written petition to him; he will see the case next week. 
 
One may suppose that such a blockade might be the heritage of old communist days, when state institutions were for the select few, not for average people or for the country, but that is wrong. Exactly the same approach you will find in businesses, who immediately adopt a no-contact option. 
 
Recently one of the best known Polish companies dealing with public transportation named its new director of communications, a person carefully selected by headhunters and presumably skilled. He took his position with enthusiasm and energy. Within a week he switched off his phone and never returned calls. Just another week later he stopped answering e-mails. 
 
Foreign companies are not immune
 
The disease affects not just Polish businesses; foreign companies are not immune, particularly if they have local management.  I needed some data from a Polish rep office of a large and very well-known US company. Nothing secret, just regular information. It took me a few days to get through the communication firewalls and when I finally reached the spokesperson on her absolutely confidential mobile, her main interest was not to answer my questions but to understand how the hell I spotted her!
  
As you guess, such an approach is hated mostly by journalists. Now for an interesting fact – the majority of those no-contact spokespeople are former journalists.  A word of explanation: local media, mostly due to their low quality, are shrinking month by month, leaving crowds of journalists without a job.
 
Polish business believes that a former journalist – and it does not matter about his/her achievements and performance so far – is by definition a highly skilled professional PR person. So, many jobless journalists turn overnight into spokespeople and they quickly adopt the only skill of the spokespeople they were able to observe while still in their previous job.
 
I am not blaming those never-accessible PR people. It is rather a matter of communication policies of institutions and businesses, not people. Spokespeople just fit into these policies comfortably because this shields them from the real world and real work. But probably the true and deep reason for this phenomenon is the lack of the need for communication by both state institutions and businesses. And that is because democracy is still very new to Poland. We are already used to freedom of expression and we carelessly play with it. But we did not mature to freedom of access to information. No demand – no offer.
 
The previous paragraph also explains why I’ve chosen to write about this issue: I believe it is not about the PR environment, it is about changes in the fundamental approach towards information.
 
 
Thought Leader Profile
Piotr Czarnowski is the owner of the first Polish PR/PA agency, FIRST Public Relations. He is a communication consultant to several global corporations, a universities PR lecturer and co-founder of the Polish PR Association.  
 

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The Author

Piotr Czarnowski

Piotr Czarnowski is the owner of the first Polish PR/PA agency, FIRST Public Relations. He is a communication consultant to several global corporations, a universities PR lecturer and co-founder of the Polish PR Association.

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