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Czech Press Secretary Learns on the Job: Press Aide to President Havel Visits USIA to See How It's Done Here

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Czech Press Secretary Learns on the Job: Press Aide to President Havel Visits USIA to See How It's Done Here

Article excerpt

Czech press secretary learns on the job

Press aide to President Havel visits USIA to see how it's done here

There was no such job before Michael Zantovsky became Czechoslovakia's presidential press secretary, but events of the past year or so have forced him to learn on the job, and learn quickly.

After spending a week in Washington, D.C., in early January as a guest of the U.S. Information Agency, Zantovsky spoke with E&P about his impressions of press operations within the U.S. government, as well as the media situation in his country.

After comparing notes with his counterparts here, Zantovsky found he was pleasantly surprised that "many of the things we do are very similar to things that they're doing here.

" . . . The bad news is that they are much more professional and efficient at it than we are. They are much stronger on procedures and flow of information and this kind of thing," he noted. "I observed quite a few things and I think I got a few new ideas to take home to implement when I get back . . . . "

He said, "There seems to be a higher degree of coordination between the various government departments here, like between the State Department and the White House and the White House and the Pentagon, etc. etc. The internal flow of information, that's very important so that people don't say different things about the same questions."

Zantovsky added that briefings in Washington are more frequent.

"I brief twice a week now and I only briefed once a week a couple of months ago. And we don't have press centers in the various government departments, so our briefings are usually fixed in time and less flexible than here because, if you have permanent correspondents there all day it's much easier to organize briefings, on short notice."

He said that it is both an advantage and a disadvantage because "That way, it's possible to give out news at basically the moment's notice . . . We use the national state-run press agency if we have anything important to tell right away, but this is a better system because it enables reporters to ask questions, etc.

"On the other hand, in my country we still could not afford to have large numbers of reporters staying at one place the whole day and waiting for something to happen. That's not how it's run there."

To help get his message out to the people, President Vaclav Havel addresses the nation on the radio each week.

"One thing that we do, and that's sort of a spine cord of our public policy, is to try to keep a regular contact between the president and the nation through media," he explained. "The basis of that is sort of a fireside chat that he holds every Sunday right after lunch, on the radio rather than television. In that he rehashes the whole week's events and his plans for the next week, and what he thinks about this and what he thinks about that. People, I think, have grown accustomed to it very well and are actually eager to hear him speaking."

One of the reasons they chose radio over television was because Havel "does not feel very comfortable on television. He is a man of the word not of the picture, and that was one consideration.

"The other consideration was purely practical," Zantovsky explained. "It's a 30-45 minute talk. To do it on the tv every week would be very exhausting for him, would require a lot of preparation on our part and on his part as well, so that was another one.

"And a third one was something about the medium itself. In his view, and in mine actually, too, television is the cool medium, it's rather intrusive, it's too pushy for the kind of message that Havel usually delivers. I mean, he's more contemplative, he's very short on one-liners. So I had a feeling then that radio suits him just better and I think I was proven right."

Zantovsky's work as a Reuters correspondent helped provide a basic outline for what the job of presidential press officer would look like. …

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