Gorkana meets…Jean Comte and the Société Générale de Presse (SGP)
Tell us a bit about your role of EU Correspondent for the Société Générale de Presse (SGP).
My job is mainly to follow the progress of legislative issues between the European institutions (from presentation by the European Commission, to examination and adoption by the EU Council, then negotiations between the two institutions). Two aspects of my work are crucial.
Firstly, I must always make sure that it is clear to the readers, who may not otherwise be aware, how the European Institutions function. This means, for example, frequently reminding readers how the European legal system works, providing context for each article, and explaining official jargon.
Secondly, I always insist on highlighting the agenda: What is the status of the issue? What are the next steps? What is the next key date?
Can you present the Société Générale de Presse and its readership?
Founded in 1944, the SGP publishes four daily newspapers in French (le Bulletin quotidien, la Correspondance économique, la Correspondance de la Presse and la Correspondance de la Publicité). They are mainly aimed at French policy makers in the fields of politics, economy, media and advertising. We cover news in an extremely rigorous, and relatively ‘technical’, manner because our readers often already have a good command of the subjects and need in-depth information.
The four newspapers also have an ‘appointments’ aspect which is very important, as we follow the professional movements of executives who have a significant role in the areas covered by us. Simultaneously, the SGP edits a biographical database through its website. LesBiographies.com is updated daily and brings together the biographies of more than 90,000 decision-makers in politics, economy, media and advertising.
How do you use social media for your work? Is it generally a useful tool when it comes to covering EU news?
I use Twitter a lot, as a monitoring tool. It is very useful to see articles written by colleagues on Brussels, or information on how to follow a conference or a remote debate.
Are you in contact with PRs? How can they help you with content?
Yes, I am often in contact with public relations officers, mainly to be kept in the loop of press conferences, or press releases, and official statements from their organisations.
Do you participate in a lot of EU-related PR events in Brussels? Do you find them useful for your work?
I mostly participate in press conferences. Regarding their efficacy, it is difficult to judge because, overall, it really depends on each event.
The EU is often criticised by European citizens for its supposed lack of transparency. As a daily observer of the European institutions, is this fair? Do you personally have any difficulties in getting information when you are working in Brussels?
As a journalist, it is very easy to get in touch directly with spokespersons, or press officers, and obtain a minimum level of information, but it is sometimes difficult to surpass this minimum and obtain more concrete details. I am thinking, for example, of legislation still in preparation. In this case, we need to try to use other information channels, such as representations of EU member states, the Members of the European Parliament, or the multitude of lobbies and NGOs gravitating around the European bubble.
Regarding the EU’s level of transparency in general, it varies greatly from one institution to another. The European Parliament is clearly the institution that has the highest culture of transparency, whereas the Council of the EU (which brings together the Ministers of the Member States) tends to favour closed-door negotiations.
The European Commission has wanted to deepen its transparency since 2014, notably by publishing a list of its leaders’ rendezvous, but in practice, this requirement is not always respected.
In 2015, the Commission was also supposed to propose a mandatory register listing the lobbyists in 2015 – but the project was delayed, and it will only happen in 2016.
As a journalist, how would you rate media relation efforts made by EU institutions?
I would say the EU Council and the European Parliament’s press services are very effective. The European Commission is always very careful about its image; it’s always extremely cautious when it speaks publicly about thorny issue. On the Greek crisis, or the ‘Brexit’, its spokespersons’ public answers are sometimes very vague. It is possible to go a bit deeper when off the record, but the answers will still be limited.
In November 2014, the Commission reorganised its press office, adding ‘communications advisers’ in the cabinets of Commissioners, advisers in charge of talking with the press. This system has its advantages, mainly because it multiplies the points of contacts for journalists, but also some disadvantages. These are mainly due to the fact that each of these advisers has a different vision of his, or her, role: some tend to refer reporters to the press service, which is not very helpful.
It should also be noted that, in Brussels’ European circles, the culture of ‘off record’ (no identification of the source) or ‘background’ (no mention of the source) is very important. Each press office (Parliament, Council and Commission) has its own rules on the matter.
What’s the most memorable story you’ve worked on ?
Without hesitation, the Greek crisis, and particularly, the Euro Summit in July that resulted, after a whole night of negotiations, in an agreement in principle on a third aid programme for Athens. It was a pretty intense moment, an experience I will not forget any time soon.
Jean was interviewed by Gorkana’s Jeremy Martin.