Castles, Kafka, Controversy: My Days in Czechoslovakia

Jul 5, 2010 | 1613 Views | 0 Comments

I touched down in Prague in April 1991 to launch a public relations campaign for Westinghouse Electric Corporation – 16 months after the collapse of communism. And that’s when my real PR education began. Forging relationships with skeptical journalists is hard enough, but imagine the difficulty of communicating to audiences stifled by 50 years of communist propaganda. I wanted to communicate facts, but first I had to gain trust. Sometimes I felt a bit like a propagandist myself!

In the early 1990s ,the Czech government sought international nuclear suppliers to help complete a partially-built Soviet-designed nuclear plant called Temelin. Westinghouse, the sole American bidder for this half-billion dollar contract, had been virtually unknown in the Soviet Union during the Cold War years. I was charged with launching a major public relations program to inform the public of the company’s capabilities.

But where to begin? Public relations wasn’t exactly a social science in the Soviet Bloc. I sought out local experts to help me understand the Czech culture and mentality. I wanted to deliver messages that mattered, in a manner that wouldn’t offend the media or the company’s potential Czech customers and partners. I must have interviewed a dozen people as possible consultants, until I finally found a man who truly had his finger on the pulse of Czech society: Michal Donath, a virtual one-man-show in the Prague branch of the global Burson Marsteller PR firm. His contributions were invaluable.We conducted numerous one-on-one interviews with many journalists and – in the days leading up to the award of the contract – organized a large press conference to answer journalists’ questions en masse. Nearly 100 reporters were able to get answers directly from the head of our nuclear energy division, Nat Woodson.

We also arranged a media tour for fifteen Czech journalists in early 1993. Within a 7-day period I took the group – which included a TV crew – to England, Belgium, Switzerland, and Spain to visit nuclear plants designed by Westinghouse. This gave them a chance to witness the technology first-hand and speak directly with our utility customers. A number of the reporters were anti-nuclear, so this PR program proved to be quite a challenge. But the resulting press coverage was generally good and provided the Czech public with an in-depth look at our capabilities as the world’s leading nuclear supplier.

It also helps if you have a good Ambassador, and we had one in the form of Shirley Temple Black, the former child star turned diplomat (photo at left). She served the U.S. in Czechoslovakia from 1989 through 1992. Ambassador Black was an energetic public servant and worked hard to help Westinghouse in its efforts to win the contract. I was thrilled to have the chance to chat with her on numerous occasions.

Throughout this 5-year PR campaign I also had the wonderful opportunity to meet with former Czech President Alexander Dubcek (photo at right, below), who attempted to reform the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s. The Soviets quashed his popular movement by rolling their tanks into Prague’s Wenceslas Square in the summer of 1968, effectively ending the short-lived Prague Spring.

While we were slowly winning over the Czech public, bordering countries such as Austria had their own concerns about the necessity and safety of the Temelin reactor. They targeted Westinghouse with endless letters, all of which arrived in my office. Even Greenpeace knew my name. They once greeted me with anti-nuclear banners as I exited the customs area at the Zurich airport! Pretty scary stuff.

But In the end, our efforts paid off. Westinghouse won the contract and continues to have a presence in the country. I ended up making 10 trips to the Czech Republic in five years. The work was exciting and exhausting, fascinating and frustrating. And I wouldn’t trade one minute of those experiences – good or bad – for anything. Those years truly were my personal Prague Spring.

 

 

 

 

© Dana Spiardi

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