Communication battle in Hungary: The clear winner is Fidesz

On April 8, 2009, I wrote a blog entitled "An exchange of letters: Bajnai and Szijjártó" in which I translated word for word (with explanatory notes) two letters: Gordon Bajnai's to Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó's to Bajnai. Orbán refused to answer the soon-to-be prime minister himself and instructed his "communications director" to write a rather impertinent reply. The style of the two letters says a lot about the two personalities and their writing skills. Let's face it, Szijjártó's letter is somewhat primitive. His sentences are choppy, his vocabulary is rather poor. Yet this man seems to be the brains behind Fidesz's very successful communications program.

Szijjártó may not be a sophisticated man but he is quick on his feet and tireless. People who know him claim that he is hyperactive and is able to work twenty-four hours a day if necessary. He also has a puritanic streak. For example, as far as I know Szijjártó has never even tasted a drop of alcohol. He is a good organizer, or at least this seems to be the case from Ildikó Csuhaj's article in today's Népszabadság entitled "'We are polite boys'–Snapshot of the communication machinery of Fidesz."

I heard somewhere that while MSZP used to have only one man dealing with communications Fidesz has a staff of thirty. Perhaps by now the situation is slightly better at MSZP, maybe they hired a couple more people since, but surely three or four people are no match for thirty. Especially when the Fidesz communications team has a leader like Péter Szijjártó.

According to Csuhaj, Szijjártó's closest associate is Bertalan Havasi, the head of Fidesz's "press-department." The two men meet every morning at 9 o'clock and spend quite a bit of time reviewing the morning press, the television programs of the night before, and the material presented by the department's staff in charge of keeping an eye on reactions to Fidesz messages. They also pay attention to MTI's (Magyar Távirati Iroda = Hungarian News Agency) daily "mirror" on the basis of which Szijjártó decides who should react to what and in what way. Szijjártó is also present every Tuesday at the meeting of the party's "presidium" (elnökség), and every Friday morning he attends the meeting of the top men in the Fidesz parliamentary caucus.

Thus Szijjártó is completely conversant with the party's policy and he represents this policy on the operative level. He decides what kinds of statements should be released, what kinds of press conferences should be held, and he is the one who decides on their content. Bertalan Havas and his staff only execute Szijjártó's agenda.

In addition to Szijjártó there is András Cser-Palkovics (35) who is the associate spokesman for the party. Lately he is the one who is in charge of press conferences. These press conferences are numerous. Often two or three a day. Fidesz even has a press secretary in Brussels whose activities are controlled by József Szájer, the head of the Fidesz delegation in the European Parliament. There are three associates of the press department–Bence Lukács, Zoltán Mányai, and Tamás Csizmadia, who are jokingly called Cerberus, the three-headed dogCerberus who guards the gates of Hades to prevent those who have crossed the river Styx from escaping. These three are present at every Fidesz event. In addition they are often monitor the office building reserved for members of parliament where, especially after a highly confidential meeting, they warn Fidesz MPs what "they mustn't talk about."

Some members of parliament recalled that after Szijjártó became the head of communications all members of the parliamentary delegation had to agree that without the permission of the press department they could not answer any questions coming from members of the media. Tibor Navracsics denied this. However, Ildikó Csuhaj learned that Klubrádió, Magyar Narancs and 168 Óra are blacklisted at Fidesz. This is most likely correct because, for example, any invitation from Klubrádió for important Fidesz representatives to appear on one of its shows is ignored.

In my earlier blog I mentioned that people not necessarily friends of Fidesz call Fidesz communication "parrot commando." This is a fairly apt description of the communication tactic of Fidesz. It doesn't matter which Fidesz politician appears in public, the message, often even the wording, the adjectives are always the same. This uniformity is apparently achieved by sending out "daily summaries" to all Fidesz politicians every evening via e-mail. The press department provides short instructions in six or eight bullet points; the most important appear in bold face.

The members of the press department claim that these daily summaries are not really instructions, only requests, but it seems that even former ministers never questioned their "requests." They obey. Ildikó Csuhaj reminds her readers that in 1998 Tamás Deutsch managed to squeeze the same adjective "civic" (polgári) into one sentence four times!

Of course, behind Szijjártó there is Viktor Orbán himself, but the two obviously work well together. The chairman and the communications director "evaluate the day" every evening. Normally by telephone. If something extraordinary happens during the day, for example Ferenc Gyurcsány's resignation on March 21, Szijjártó has a hotline to Orbán. "Orbán is the spin doctor" in the final analysis.

And finally one more interesting tidbit from Ildikó's Csuhaj's article. After Orbán decided to boycott Nap-kelte (Sunrise), the party chairman remarked in one of his relaxed moments with his closer friends: "If we are not there, we cannot commit any mistakes. Thus, when they repeat Kereszttűz (Crossfire) one can lean back in one's armchair and watch all the mistakes the socialists make." This was the part of the program in which three journalists fired all sorts of questions to important politicians. One might add that Ildikó Csuhaj was a frequent presence on Kereszttűz. Now that Nap-kelte is gone and MTV has begun its own early morning program called Ma Reggel, Fidesz and Christian Democratic politicians again can be seen on the show. However, leading Fidesz politicians still refuse to participate in Szemközt (Face to Face) which is Ma Reggel's equivalent of Nap-kelte. Same format, same hard questions.

Obviously, programs like Kereszttűz or Szemközt are not Orbán's cup of tea. He likes to expound and he doesn't like to debate. His last attempt at a debate with Ferenc Gyurcsány was a disaster. I'm almost certain that there will be no televised debate this year between Attila Mesterházy and Viktor Orbán. On the other hand, Szijjártó will redouble his efforts at communications. Perhaps MSZP might learn a thing or two from Csuhaj's article.

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@ESBalogh: “I heard somewhere that while MSZP used to have only one man dealing with communications Fidesz has a staff of thirty. Perhaps by now the situation is slightly better at MSZP, maybe they hired a couple more people since, but surely three or four people are no match for thirty.” This is an absurd statement. For a number of reasons: 1. As the ruling government MSZP use state resources to gather communication updates and strategy notes from external ‘advisors’. 2. A staff of one person is simply unimaginable as a communications department/representative for a political party anywhere. A staff of four would still be ridiculous. 3. As I have noted elsewhere and you failed to respond to, MSZP started their campaign in earnest at the beginning of November. The range of their campaign already reaches billboards, email, automated telephone calls, TV, newspapers… both nationally and internationally. This is not and could not be the work of a mere 4 people. Examples of their campaigning work in terms of billboards alone has already been covered: The attempts to reform party funding finance have, of course, failed. No one wanted that to succeed. Perhaps you could help us all by… Read more »
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Nice post. I really liked it.. Don’t forget to update it regularly. I am looking for new updates dying to read more stuff from you.