Global Practices

Navigating Dire Straits

Can Italy provide a template for communicating to the European public?



He enjoys Dire Straits. The pop group, not the difficult European fiscal austerity programs.

He rides a blue Vespa, often takes public transport and drives his own economy van to official events. His favorite actor is the intrepid Harrison Ford, who wriggles out of impossible situations. He plays subbuteo and cheers for the Milan soccer team (which belongs to the evergreen ex-Prime Minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, head of the rival party). He is married to a successful journalist, is media-savvy and enjoys the company of think tanks. He is financially literate, publishes his tax return on his website and is Euro-conscious, having attended school in Strasbourg and served as minister of European affairs.

He is Italy’s youngest Premier in 25 years.

And, for an Italian, he has an uncharacteristically understated demeanor.

Can Enrico Letta, Italy’s Premier-designate, provide a template for government and public figures to communicate with weary European citizens? He now operates with a population who have experienced heavy taxes, social program cuts and domestic scandals?

Italy is suffering. Youth unemployment is high, small and medium sized companies are shrinking and the population is aging. This is what confronts Letta.

I had an opportunity to see and engage with Letta at close quarters in New York last December at the closed meeting of the Council for the U.S. and Italy, a business council bringing together the American and Italian blue chip companies. He was equally at ease with fielding questions from both CEOs and journalists, but his answers were crafted to allow himself room for maneuver. He bore a studious moderation accompanied by a monotone delivery, which allowed him to broach prickly issues such as treasury bonds, labor law and the need to enhance student programs in the same breath.

At that time there was no inkling Letta would be in the place he is today, but he has continued to “talk the talk,” saying in an understated manner, at his designation ceremony that he would try to put together a “government of service to the country,” but not “at any cost.” This means another round of elections could be around the corner sooner rather than later.

Italy has always served as a laboratory for political and economic experiments. It surprised the large economies with its postwar recovery. It beat the urban terrorism despite political fractiousness. It pulled together after devastating earthquakes and allowed its bank accounts to be taxed as the price for entering the Euro. And finally, it won back the blessing of global markets and the financial community through the austerity measures of Premier Mario Monti’s technical government.

But Monti’s foray into election politics proved a disappointment at the polls with only 10 percent of the vote and the country deadlocked three ways: the shaky center-left, the gadfly and internet- savvy Beppe Grillo movement and the resurgent Berlusconi.

Some of the lessons in communication remain clear:

  • Authenticity and “talking the talk” remain essential in the Internet age. “I would like to be more trenchant, and more disruptive than my character but my DNA is what it is,” says Letta. Flashiness and gimmicks don’t do the trick. Showing the way by example proves the point more often than not.
  • A certain amount of lower profile and low-cost living can avoid trouble in the age of transparency. A published tax return on your own website sends a clear message.
  • Keeping in touch with the dwindling but influential generation Y and their media habits, as Letta has done through his yearly summer youth seminars in the Alps, provides grass root support and develops key relationships.
  • Using a mix of sparse media appearances, constant engagement with the private and public sector and showing a “normal” private life in the public eye tend to avert crises before they boil over.

The unpredictable winds of Italian politics are powered by the stage presence of a former prime minister and media tycoon, an effervescent stand-up comedian with a band of noisy followers and an imploding center left political party, which Letta has to contend with.

But Letta’s own hobby as a summer windsurfer, using only his weight and wits with very little else on the board, may show the way for a new, adaptable, transparent, European politician with the stripped down skills of a navigator who can handle Dire Straits in stormy seas.

Fiorella Passoni is general manager for Edelman Italy. Dennis Redmont contributed to this post.

Image by Enrico Letta.
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