Message with a price tag
The communication budget of the Prime Minister’s office for 2013 was increased by HUF 700 million by an amendment of the organization’s budget document published on November 22. The rise seems both surprising and slightly unfounded in the era of repeated austerities (there were three packages of austerity measures introduced by the government in the excess of some HUF 800 billion over the last two months), especially considering that the amount could go somewhat higher. Well, twice as much, actually.
Two new procurements will be put out by the Prime Minister’s Office next year, notes a one-page amendment to the institution’s budget published on November 22. The two tenders will consist of completing creative tasks related to the organization worth HUF 150 million, and acquiring media to the value of some HUF 550 million over the next year. Both sums are considered target numbers and a plus 90% discrepancy is tolerated in each case, the document says. The tenders will be put out briefly after the publication of the amendment, and the scope of the assignments will be the yearly communication tasks of the office from 2013 to the next general elections (the official end date is marked as May 31, 2014). Interestingly, the justification of the additional and unforeseen costs, simply notes it as the “appearance of new requirements”.
According to a brief government statement given to state news agency MTI, the new tenders are not a result of clearly defined, specific goals, but are of a more general nature. After reviewing the 2010 – 2012 time period, with a special focus on similar assignments, the office felt the need to increase the available budget for upcoming, future communication tasks.
The opposition fears that the newly approved budget will be spent on the governing party’s general election campaign. Socialist spokesman Zsolt Török said the sum will be spent on party propaganda, and demanded that Fidesz name the source of the money, and give an accurate account on its plans of spending it. He said it was unacceptable that the government was spending on self-praise in a time when “universities need to introduce winter holidays, because they can’t afford heating in their buildings, or when pensioners fear that their pensions will be taxed”.
Government communication becoming the subject of controversies and heated conversations is not, by any means, a new element in Hungarian politics. Lacking the appropriate regulations on campaign financing, it has been usual for the opposition over the last two decades to accuse the incumbent government of spending state money on self-advertising. What is more, these accusations were usually well founded, or at least not completely out of thin air. But now it seems that the freedom-fighter lingo of the second Orbán government requires communication experts to go yet another step further in the war of words.
For a government echoing the importance and the greatness of unorthodox economic policies, it is not peculiar to implement new, and previously unused strategies in other areas as well, such as the field of communication. Pushing through completely new messages costs, of course, a lot of money, and requires a new tone as well as new techniques.
Browsing through the “normal” communication costs of a non-election year, we might find the sums a little high, but there seems nothing extraordinary in the budget items themselves. According to a list of ongoing and renewable contracts, published by the Prime Minister’s Office in September 2012, the two biggest communication partners of the government were Inter Media Group (IMG) and the company led by Fidesz’s former cabinet secretary, Young & Partners. The first company won its procurement (without a competitor) worth HUF 630 million to acquire media for the government, while the latter won a tender to manage PR activities worth HUF 400 million. Both companies were assigned in March 2012. On top of these, the PM’s Office contracted Medúza Event and Waldorf Catering to organize protocol events at a cost of HUF 44 million, hired Mega Film Publishing House to manage PM Viktor Orbán’s presence on social media sites for HUF 2 million, and Vármegye Publishing House to run the premier’s website at Orbanviktor.hu for HUF 3.2 million. Photographer Barna Burger is paid HUF 9 million to cover Orbán’s everyday work, publisher Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó, and copywriter Gábor Kránicz are paid HUF 4.5 million and HUF 2.1 million respectively.
On top of these “normal” expenditures, set by the Prime Minister’s Office’s 2012 budget, another HUF 200 million was spent on the now-infamous anti-IMF campaign, which the government ran through various media outlets in October and November. While the campaign stirred a considerable diplomatic storm, and it is believed to have worsened Hungary’s position in its ongoing talks with IMF (the campaign was launched on the very same day that the Hungarian negotiator Mihály Varga, allegedly unaware of the domestic communication strategy, was set to meet IMF officials in Tokyo), according to a government document, the campaign was run “in order to inform the people of Hungary, due to an unforeseen reason, and with extreme urgency”. As a result of the ad-hoc nature of this campaign, the extra HUF 200 million assignment was handed to IMG without any tenders or procurements being put out beforehand.
Just between us
While billboards and full-page newspaper ads are very spectacular, the second Orbán government also frequently uses BTL communication tools to get its messages through (or as they like to call it, to discuss important matters with the citizens). These so-called “consultations” usually consist of mass mails sent out with or without forms and envelopes to answer certain questions, or to write down one’s view on the matters under discussion. These initiatives were always communicated as broad-based social conversations, however, in most cases the decisions were made well before the answers could have been received and processed by government officials.
The “Economic Consultation” in May 2012 was one of these famous mistimed actions: some 698,000 forms were filled out and collected on the subject of creating new jobs and improving the economic environment in Hungary, despite the fact that the decisions were already made by the time the questions were delivered. The action cost taxpayers some HUF 976 million. Similarly, the “Social Consultation” in July 2011 asked ten questions from some 3 million people and received more than 1.1 million answers. Too bad, that nine of the ten subjects were already decided by the Parliament by the time the government heard back from the citizens. The consultation’s price tag: HUF 800 million.
Other consultations included one with pensioners (HUF 222 million), one on the government’s position related to the private pension funds (HUF 236 million), and another on the rewritten constitution (HUF 500 million).
The governing Fidesz party, and particularly Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, have always had the reputation of being aficionados of bold and controversial communication tools. Such as the one now spreading the streets, showing former socialist prime ministers Gordon Bajnai and Ferenc Gyurcsány with the slogan: “They destroyed the country together”. While it is unclear who paid for this specific campaign, the URL on the posters (www.bekemenet.hu) suggests that whoever it was, he is closely tied to the governing Fidesz party. And although it is not known what the additional HUF 700 million will be spent on by the Prime Minister’s Office, now that an election year is approaching, and Orbán’s most likely main opponent, former premier Gordon Bajnai has reappeared in Hungarian political life, we can definitely predict that we will be hearing from it in the not too remote future.
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