Saturday, 16 January 2016

Communicating the government's point of view in English

Yesterday afternoon, the ratings agency Standard & Poor's downgraded Poland's long-term foreign currency credit rating by one notch to BBB+. And Poland has been put on 'negative watch', which means that further downgrades are possible. The repercussion for the zloty was immediate. In the space of a few minutes, it dropped by around 2% against the euro, dollar and the Swiss franc. Poles with CHF- or EUR-denominated mortgages fretted over their exposure to ever-higher repayments. 

S&P's note explaining the downgrade read as follows:
The downgrade reflects our view that Poland’s system of institutional checks and balances has been eroded significantly as the independence and effectiveness of key institutions, such as the constitutional court and public broadcasting, is being weakened by various legislative measures initiated since the October 2015 election. 
For example, the constitutional court’s ability to work efficiently and independently will likely be undermined, in our view, by changes to the court’s composition and decision-making process. 
The government’s new media law, as another example, gives the government extensive powers to appoint and control the directors and supervisory boards of public broadcasters. A third law terminates contracts of all current senior, career civil servants and removes a constraint regarding previous party membership, therefore enabling the new government to change the structure of the civil service. In our view, these measures erode the strength of Poland’s institutions and go beyond what we had anticipated regarding policy changes from the general election. 
The change in the rating outlook to negative reflects our view that there is potential for further erosion of the independence, credibility, and effectiveness of key institutions, especially the National Bank of Poland (NBP).
The Polish Ministry of Finance did not take the news lying down. At a minute to eight yesterday evening, it put out a brief press statement:
Relating to Standard & Poor's decision we inform that the comment of the Ministry of Finance will be released after reviewing other rating agencies decisions which are to be published tonight.
This has not passed the eyes of a native speaker. The verb 'to inform', for example, in this context is transitive and requires an object. "...We would like to inform you that..." Leaving it without an object reads badly. Then there's the clumsy sentence construction. "The comment will be released after reviewing other decisions"... Use of a gerund gets round the thorny question of who will do the reviewing. In other words, this press statement looks like a straight translation of a sentence from Polish into English with little regard as to how effective it will be when read by a native-speaking reader.

At 22:22, on the Ministry's website, the full statement appeared. Again, poorly written in English. The opening paragraph reads:
"The decision of the rating agency Standard and Poor's  about lowering credit rating of Poland is incomprehensible from economic and financial analysis point of view."
Is incomprehensible to whom? To the government of Poland? Why not say so! And look at the misuse of definite articles, a real giveaway as to the non-native status of the author/ translator/ editor. What's the word 'analysis' doing here? It adds no weight to the sentence - it's clearly been translated out of Polish into English and the translator has meekly translated a word which was there in the original, for fear of upsetting their boss. I also wonder who the authors think this text is for. I suspect it is rather for their bosses, so they can be seen to have been taking appropriate action. Full marks for prompt response and working after hours in the ministry - not so good on the execution though.

The sad thing is that, should any native English reader go to the trouble to work out what is being communicated here, the message is actually valid. Namely that the fundamentals underpinning the Polish economy are largely sound (actually the result of good macroeconomic stewardship on the part of the outgoing government). The press release goes to great pains to highlight the positives (stable banking sector, falling unemployment, rising exports, robust GDP growth). Drawing on those very statistics that Beata Szydło on the campaign trail said 'can't feed families'.

The press release said precisely zero about the reasons that S&P gave for the downgrade - the erosion of independent checks and balances. However, S&P has faced criticisms in the past for some of its politically (rather than economically) motivated downgrades. This is now tricky territory. When faced with a downgrade, a government should have a prepared communication strategy, not a knee-jerk reaction. Risk management. Reputation management. And that means communication in good English.

As I wrote here, we are living in an age of competing narratives and spin. Poland's new government needs to learn how to sell its narrative effectively via English-language journalists and their media outlets to a global readership of decision makers. These are the people who decide whether or not to invest in a given market, to create jobs here or there. The ebb and flow of global capital is determined by people who read the Financial Times, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal.

Knowing how to get PiS's narrative across effectively in these media requires a seasoned strategist and writers whose first language is English. They must be familiar with the basics of house style (writing '€300,000', for example, not '300 thousand of euro', not using superscript 'th' after a date). Style shows you are familiar with the English-language media you are trying to influence. Style guides for many major media titles are available free online. And above all, mastery of definite and indefinite articles. Without them, I'm sorry - you'll never convince a native speaker that you're one yourself.

Finding a native speaker who can do all this, and has a strategic grasp of communication, and who is sympathetic to the current government, will not be easy. When Radek Sikorski as Poland's foreign minister drew on the services of former UK ambassador to Poland, Charles Crawford in the area of communication consultancy, there was oburzenie among PiS supporters. Ironically, Mr Crawford is currently one of the tiny handful of English-language commentators actually writing supportive articles about this government.

Without a strong voice in the English-language media (and indeed social media), this government will have a hard time abroad. It will be belittled and mocked, and the fallout for Poland will not be positive. Simply translating a message from Polish into English cuts no ice, especially if the translation is second-rate. The message needs to be tailored for the hearts and minds of English-speaking decision-makers in the UK, North America and Australasia. And for the many millions of non-native readers of 'global English' who draw on English-language sources of business and political insight. Time to start hiring.

This time two years ago:
Thinking big, American style. Can Poles do it?

This time three years ago:
Inequality in an age of economic slowdown

This time four years ago:
The Palace of Culture: Tear it down?

This time six years ago:
Conquering Warsaw's highest snow mounds

This time seven years ago:
Flashback on way to Zielona Góra

This time eight years ago:
Ursynów, winter, before sunrise


Charles Crawford said...

I stand ready to serve.

You're right. It looks sloppy and second-rate to put out statements in non-native English. It's just not enough to have a superb Polish linguist translating it - English is too subtle in all sorts of ways if you want 200% accuracy in both the explicit and implicit messages being conveyed...

The funny thing I've found in doing this international speechwriting work. Beginners make beginners' mistakes when they start learning a language. The very best linguists make the very best mistakes, such as using highly unusual and 'clever' words that aren't right. Classic Polish example here:

Paddy said...

Hi Michael, very interesting post and you're bang on the money (I'd also make a point that British English is very much different from EU speak and indeed American English for a global audience - each a quite distinct species of the language).

The other element that PiS should get a hold of is the supporting commentariat, there are very few active 'native speaker' English voices creating, linking, defending and building an alternative consensus, all of which matters when it comes to the number one test: the first page of google when you type in 'Poland.'

As an aside on the subject of Radosław Sikorski, I was once approached by his office to see whether I might become his speechwriter. A native English speaker, I was told, was the Minister's insistence but as a non Polish citizen I wasn't able to work at that level for security reasons - so much for that global international conspiracy!

I do hope someone listens but I suspect your appeal will fall on deaf ears.

Nicholas Richardson said...

You make very good point Michael. Assuming that these statements are translations from the Polish, I sometimes wonder at the clarity and coherence of the original. Whatever one may think of PiS's policies and approach to government, the lack of effective communication in English ill serves the government and Poland.

student SGH said...

A very decent, well-argued posting! Beaten it to me :(

One claryfying comment: the outrage of PiS supporters was not at the very drawing on Mr Crawford's services (though there were individuals who failed to understand the rationale for employing a renowned native speaker to improve communication), but at Mr Crawford's wages (PLN 19,000 per speech according to Wprost); to be more precise, not at how much Mr Crawford had earned but that the money had been paid from the public purse.

You have to bear mind there are market rates for specific services and in such professions they are sky-high, yet a "median" Pole has to work for more than half a year to earn PLN 19,000 before tax, so no wonder such remuneration for a single speech editing brings out outrage.