On Thursday 3 October an API-delegation (president Katalin Halmai, SG Hans de Bruijn and Bureau-members Lorenzo Consoli and Michael Stabenow) had a first exchange of views with the leaders of the communication team of the upcoming von der Leyen Commission (VDL's executive communication adviser Jens Flosdorff, chief Commission spokesperson-designate Eric Mamer, and his deputy Dana Spinant).
Purpose of the meeting was to get acquainted and to discuss the many expectations, wishes and suggestions raised by correspondents in API's extraordinary assembly on September 24. For a summary of those issues see the report of this assembly distributed to all correspondents, and available on the API website www.api-ipa.org.
Overall impression: the atmosphere of the talks was constructive. There seems to be an awareness of the importance of good communication to the press room, with fast, non-discriminatory and high-quality information. The transition team took good note of our wishes and suggestions. Not all were immediately embraced, and some even rejected, but there was a good understanding of what the correspondents want and need, and a willingness to listen to us and think about what can be done to make life easier, for both sides.
– there will be no return to the old system where each commssioner had his/her own dedicated spokesperson. This was the most pressing issue raised by correspondents on September 24th. The current cluster structure, introduced by the Juncker Commission, will remain in place. The portfolios, topics and issues currently overlap so much that it would not be practical to separate the responsibilities in communication. Things have become more complicated. The organisation of the Spokepersons Service (SPP) has to reflect this reality, the team said. Priority is the quality of information, but the organisation of the service is the responsibility of the Commission. The final structure has not yet been defined. But apparently there is no plan to increase the number of spokespersons. The chief spokesperson will have only one deputy. There was no commitment to allow journalists more direct contacts with directors-general, as requested at the assembly.
– the Midday briefing remains a priority for the new SPP, but it must be used 'intelligently'. The Midday is not for answering every detailed question. Factual information will have to be obtained more often from the press officers. Spokespersons deal with the political affairs. The objections by journalists to the current functioning of the Midday-briefing have been noted and will be taken into consideration. Example: the current practice of not answering 'if'-questions will be applied less strictly. If an 'if'-question is legitimate (for instance in cases concerning EU law) it will be answered, but not when it is manifestly 'provocative'. Our request to have more off-the-record briefings was noted, as was our plea to use the 'red button' more often. When journalists need factual and detailed information, they are advised to submit their question to the SPP in the morning, so that spokespersons can give a comprehensive answer during the Midday briefing.
– at our request, the new SPP will pay more attention to improving the quality of press releases, memos, etc. In our opinion, these should be written in a more 'journalistic' and usable style, contain more factual information and fewer quotes from commissioners about the importance of subject x or y, often pushing the real news to page 2 or 3.
– there seems to be a serious willingness to make President von Der Leyen more available to the press than her predecessor.
– API stressed the importance of equal treatment when inviting correspondents to off-the-record/background briefings by the president or commissioners. The new SPP is committed to using a rotation system, without giving up the possibility to invite specific groups of journalists. API raised the problem that freelancers often feel left out for these events. In particular, we requested that as many correspondents as possible be invited to regular off-the-record meetings that president-elect von der Leyen intends to hold during the monthly sessions of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. But there is reluctance about our proposal to invite as many as 40-50 colleagues at a time. We in turn rejected a suggestion by the team that API would select participants.
– ENG-FRA bilingualism will be the norm and questions asked in French will as much as possible an answer in French, although exceptions must remain possible. Not everybody is as fluent in French as in other languages, and sometimes it is better to answer in English for clarity and correctness and to avoid misunderstandings. But they promised to do their very best.
– API's proposal to allow correspondents in Brussels to follow online off-the-record technical briefings (protected by a password) will be studied. This could make life easier especially for journalists who are alone here. We must be careful that it can serve as an excuse for media to send no more correspondents to Brussels. Access to such a system should therefore be strictly limited to accredited correspondents.
– The new SPP-team will study how to provide correspondents with a more detailed, longer-term agenda of the president and the Commission (like the former Topnews). The Press Review, which correspondents miss a lot, will certainly not come back.