Our “Coffee break with” series gives the floor to influential and inspiring personalities from various sectors who enlighten us with their expertise about challenges, experiences and business trends or opportunities. Today, François Bailly, spokesperson and advisor to Prime Minister Alexander De Croo is sharing important insights of his career.
As former editor-in-chief of L'Echo, François Bailly now holds the position of French-speaking spokesperson and Advisor to Prime Minister Alexander De Croo since 8 March 2021. François Bailly started his career on the editorial staff of L'Echo in 2008 after graduating in journalism from the Université Libre de Bruxelles. This father of two, curious about everything and eager to learn, was also responsible for corporate and external communication at Base and economic columnist at RTL. François Bailly would never have imagined that destiny would lead him to join rue de la Loi 16. However, he takes up the challenge in the midst of a health crisis to “do things differently”.
What do you think are the biggest challenges you currently face as spokesperson and advisor to Prime Minister Alexander De Croo?
There are two. The first is to manage to keep looking at the broader picture cause the trap when you are in crisis management is to get stuck in the short term and in crisis management. The second: stay consistent and set the course. There is daily pressure, but by staying true to the course that we have set for ourselves, we manage to build. For example on Health, the course is macro: as much as possible avoid the spread of the virus until a sufficient percentage of the population is vaccinated. The measures taken aim to support this objective. As a whole.
Journalists and spokespeople need each other. How would you describe the relationship between them?
Like any normal relationship, it is built on trust and transparency. To establish this trust and transparency, the spokesperson must be able to demonstrate that he knows the subjects and that he has access to information. Honesty is important. Don't use empty words. Don’t beat about the bush. Don’t dodge. As for the journalist, the spokesperson expects him to be an expert in his subject. This is what allows him to be a credible and trusted contact. Two principles must still be complied with for this trust to be established: the off and the embargo.
The pandemic has severed the trust people have in politics. What role can you play in restoring public confidence?
When we analyse the studies that confirm a lack of trust in government, two things stand out. One, the decisions that are made are short-term. Two, they are taken firstly according to political interest. The challenge is therefore to be anchored in a long-term strategy and not in direct gain. There is an important educational function to explain how very small decisions enter into this overarching strategy. Two, it is necessary to succeed in depoliticising, objectifying in order to fight against a feeling of unique and subjective interest. For example, it was decided to allow festivals only after the 15th of August. There is no regional favouritism in this or the privilege of one lobby or another. This is explained quite simply by the fact that by the 31st of July, following the vaccination schedule, all Belgians over 18 years old will have had the chance to be vaccinated. The argument of discrimination between those who can because they are vaccinated and those who cannot evaporates. You take 31 July + two weeks which is the incubation time of the vaccine to achieve immunity: major events are possible from mid-August. Full stop.
How do you cope with the rise of social media where many political debates are taking place?
Instantness and social networks are of course a new norm in the way we communicate. But the rules are the same as for conventional media. Rule one, keep a cool head, don't overreact on the spot. Rule two, dictate the agenda. I decide what to communicate and when. When I don't control the timing, I don't control my communication. Rule three, content, content, content. It's good to innovate, but without content you are not credible. Rule four, never underestimate or overestimate the power of social networks. Does Twitter perfectly reflect the opinion of Belgian citizens? No. Does everyone follow Twitter? Is the mainstream media still the information highway? No. In 2021, information is multi-channel. It is taken as a whole.
What is interesting is that in an increasingly volatile media environment, some people are sometimes surprised that we haven’t changed our minds despite the shifts in public opinion. We are staying the course. That's logical, isn’t it?
In a government made up of Liberals, Christian Democrats, Socialists and Greens, how do you adapt your communication to political differences?
Even if certain subjects or decisions turn out to be contrary to basic ideologies, it is simply necessary to stick to the government agreement which aims at collective interest and which is our bible. It is therefore imperative to depoliticise all decisions and to base them on facts. We must strive for harmony, especially in the current context and with 2024 in sight. Indeed, we are at a key moment. This government must succeed in its mission so as not to end up with a government of extremes in 2024. We must also stop seeing politics as a struggle with its winners and losers which is based solely on a logic of trophies. It is by breaking this rather traditional framework and by rationalising things, by having strong and capable teams that we’ll get there. This is the narrative that the current government has put in place to reach the end of its mandate and consolidate the future of our country.
How would you define your mission today?
I wear many hats. First of all, I am the first contact with the French-speaking press to whom I must communicate our positions whether proactively or reactively. Then, my role is measure the temperature of the public opinion. Alexander De Croo’s entourage is historically predominantly Dutch-speaking, I bring my analysis of what happens on the French-speaking side of the country. We are also auditing communication channels with a view to switching to digital media, which we have started to do. Finally, I had a specific request to sometimes break the codes and reflexes in the Prime Minister's close circle, which is made up of people who have worked together for a long time. I like the challenge of challenging their points of view.
What advice would you give to any communicator who would like to get into the same type of career as yours?
One of the essential qualities for exercising the profession of spokesperson is to be curious and to always want to know too much. For me, this is the only way to maintain the balance between what can and cannot be said in order to deliver the best message to the media. And showing a journalist that we have mastered a subject from top to bottom guarantees that he will speak to us again and that he will take our point of view into account in his overall analysis.
Then, you have to choose your challenge by intuition. It is a job that you can only do if you stay true to your own convictions and principles. It is a job that you can only do if you are confident because it involves risk-taking. We must therefore choose carefully for whom and with whom we work.