Commission plans to ‘embed’ journalists with Barroso

Journalists will be able to travel with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and other members of the college to important meetings abroad, Vice-President Viviane Reding writes in a letter obtained by EURACTIV.

The new system, expected to be operational in October, is one the 14 measures announced by the commissioner in charge of communications in a letter sent to President Barroso this week.

Although it is common for journalists to travel with presidents and prime ministers of EU member states, as well as the US president, they have only done so a few times with Barroso.

A few pilot initiatives have already been implemented by the Commission during international meetings – like the G8 or G20 – when chartered jets were ordered to take Barroso and his team to gatherings of world leaders.

Former Irish Times correspondent Jamie Smyth, who travelled with Barroso to the G8 meeting in L'Aquila last July, wrote on his blog at the time: "Travelling with the president's entourage means regular briefings from Barroso […] It also means I get a little bit of gossip on what the world's most powerful leaders are saying."

Reportedly, Smyth was selected by the Commission as one of five journalists travelling with the president to pull a few strings in Ireland ahead of the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty last October.

Such practices raise questions as to whether the EU executive will hand-pick reporters to satisfy its communication needs.

Reding intends to submit to the college before the summer a financing decision and operational guidelines to enable the Commission "to take in charge some of the costs of journalists travelling with you [Barroso] and fellow commissioners," she writes in the letter dated 21 June.

The president will also have two dedicated photographers on permanent call to ensure a 24-hour service and a TV crew that will travel with him, starting in spring 2011 at the latest.

Until the recruitment is finalised, says Reding in the letter, an internal producer can accompany Barroso on some missions.

The service will also be extended to commissioners on media-sensitive missions, like the planned visit of Olli Rehn to Athens in the coming weeks.

The new strategy could also be seen as a bid to boost the visibility of President Barroso in the post-Lisbon European Union, which also features a permanent president of the European Council and a foreign affairs chief.

But it is also part of the Commission's new strategic goals. In a recent speech, the president said that while he had focused the last five years on consolidating the enlarged European Union and the final ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, the Barroso II Commission was determined to frame an agenda for a global Europe (EURACTIV 29/03/10).

Vice-President Reding, who is the EU's commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, has substantially restructured the communication directorate-general, sources said.

After Barroso decided to regroup communications with citizenship, staffers felt increasingly nervous, even though Reding tried to reassure them that communication would remain a key strategic priority (EURACTIV 15/02/10).

In recent weeks, the restructuring of communication activities has seen the appointment of a team of four new speechwriters who will work with the president's own speechwriters and those in other services to draft key speeches on cross-cutting issues, such as the 'Europe 2020' strategy, the financial crisis and the Lisbon Treaty.

The delivery of such speeches by commissioners and civil servants will also change as tele-prompters have been installed in the Berlaymont press room.

"They should facilitate and professionalise the delivery of speeches and detailed press conferences," writes Reding to Barroso.

In addition, the Commission will also provide journalists with transcripts of press conferences, starting from early next year.

Monitor and react to social networking sites

Aware of new communication trends, Reding has also devised an internal European blog monitoring tool, with which Commission officials can subscribe to email alerts based on keywords.

"Fast and effective rebuttal is organised by the spokesperson's service with the help of the responsible service," writes the commissioner, adding that she had also asked the Commission's communications department to set up a network of 10-15 social media experts across the EU executive to oversee targeted use of social media tools like Facebook or Twitter.

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Communicating Europe has long been a primary concern of the EU executive, with the need to boost popular trust in the European project becoming more important following the rejection of the EU constitution by French and Dutch voters and the more recently rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by the Irish.

The EU tried to modernise the institution’s communication practices by giving the mandate to a full-time commissioner, Margot Wallström (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on EU communication policy).

After trying for five years to find the right approach to communicating Europe, Wallström came to the conclusion that the only way forward is to give the new commissioner control of citizenship legislation and the accompanying programmes and budget (EURACTIV 09/09/09).

Taking stock of this experience, Barroso decided for his second mandate to regroup communication and citizenship, while considering the greater institutional overhaul sparked by the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty (EURACTIV 13/01/10).

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