The man who sold us the euro - The euro is finally here, and it is largely thanks to a massive PR effort by the European Commission that its launch has run so smoothly. Sophie Barker talks to the man behind the campaign

The European single currency at last became an economic reality when it started trading on Monday. More importantly, in three years time at the latest, euro bank notes and coins will hit the high streets of the 11 participating countries. The ongoing birth of the euro has required a massive PR effort on the part of the European Commission.

The European single currency at last became an economic reality

when it started trading on Monday. More importantly, in three years time

at the latest, euro bank notes and coins will hit the high streets of

the 11 participating countries. The ongoing birth of the euro has

required a massive PR effort on the part of the European Commission.



The man behind it is Frenchman Yves-Thibault de Silguy, the European

Commissioner responsible for economic, monetary and financial

affairs.



As he admits, his job involves PR more than anything else. ’We have made

the most of the possibilities offered by communication to bring the

(single currency) forward. The Commission is impotent apart from in its

power to propose and persuade,’ he says.



A former international affairs adviser to erstwhile Gaullist prime

minister Edouard Balladur and a career bureaucrat, de Silguy admits his

job as Commissioner in charge of the euro is the biggest PR challenge he

has yet faced in his career. He says: ’We in Europe haven’t created a

currency since the fall of the Roman Empire! Communication was

fundamental in launching the euro.’



In deciding how to appeal to European companies and the general public,

de Silguy sensibly waited until the currency had been given its formal

name in Madrid in 1995. He then invited 500 banking, communications and

political professionals from around the European Union to a two-day,

round-table discussion on how to sell the euro.



The PR battle plan that arose from this brainstorming session was

three-pronged: in the first two years, attack the financial and

multinational corporate sector; then work on small and medium-sized

firms; finally, in the years leading up to 2002, tackle the public.



Two years on, de Silguy is confident that the measures he initiated in

the corporate sector, such as sending newsletters to companies and

co-funding preparation checklists and brochures for multinationals, have

hit the target. ’It is history, because the 1 January 1999 deadline has

been met,’ he says. ’Banks are ready. Big companies are ready.’



Admittedly, according to the Commission’s latest opinion poll - its

six-monthly ’eurobarometer’ - last spring 60 per cent of managers across

the EU felt well informed about the currency. Still, big business was

always more likely to be the easiest target when it came to promoting

the economic benefits of a single currency spanning an area generating

almost 20 per cent of world GDP.



Some smaller businesses remain unconvinced, however, although de Silguy

believes the domino effect will hit them soon.



’If you run a bakery or a tea shop in Brussels, as from 1 January 1999

you are still paid in Belgian francs and you still pay for things in

Belgian francs, so you’re not directly concerned by the advent of the

euro,’ he argues.



’But you are gradually going to become concerned, because your flour or

pastry is going to be supplied to you by a bigger company which has

converted to the euro.’



More significant is the relatively paltry 25 per cent of Europe’s adult

population which describes itself as well informed about the single

currency.



It represents de Silguy’s biggest hurdle over the next three years. ’The

challenge is to ensure that the public is well prepared for 1 January

2002, so as not to create any panic, fear or hesitation once notes are

issued,’ he says with Gallic emphasis and concern on his face.



Wary of issuing what could be seen as a PR diktat from Brussels, de

Silguy treads carefully. His directorate has created PR tools to appeal

to the public - brochures, CD-ROMs, a web site, a mobile exhibition and

conference speakers - but has left it up to national governments to use

the materials.



’I don’t want to be accused of propaganda,’ he says. ’We are here to

help and support. If states want to work with us, then they do it within

the framework of a convention, that way it’s transparent.’



His argument is that national governments are best placed to tailor the

single currency message to their respective populations. So, while the

Italian government invited its population to vote on the design for the

euro coin on national TV, the German authorities sent euro buses up and

down the land to drive the message home.



De Silguy argues: ’Information has to be brought where people expect to

find it; banks, building society and post office counters, social

security organisations, community groups and trade associations - this

is especially important for the blind and the hard of hearing.’



The downside to this decentralised approach is that the 11 participating

countries may reach 2002 with divergent understandings of the single

currency.



Indeed, the Commission’s own eurobarometer points to disparities: while

64 per cent of the French population feels well informed about the euro,

a significantly lower portion - 43 per cent - does so in Germany.



De Silguy is less convincing on this: ’The debate that’s been going on

in the press, especially the English language press, has masked

preparation work which in some countries has been more considerable than

one might have imagined,’ he says, defensively.



Unsurprisingly, all the countries in the Euro-zone have brokered

partnership deals with the Commission to use its PR support and funds -

worth half the overall PR budget per country and typically up to five

million euros (pounds 3.5 million). These partnerships are also open to

the EU countries which remain outside the Euro-zone - the UK, Greece,

Denmark and Sweden - but none has chosen to make use of the Commission’s

resources.



In the UK’s case, de Silguy is clear: ’There is no communication deal

with the British. The Commission is neither financially nor legally

entitled to communicate there. For the British, passing a convention

with the Commission could be inconvenient on a political presentational

level.’ The Commission’s single currency PR drive in the UK has been

limited to co-financing a Treasury project to publish preparation

brochures for British businesses.



The British example shows how, by decentralising the process and making

countries positively opt into well-funded nationwide single currency

campaigns, de Silguy has arguably made his own PR job easier. He has

created a system whereby the national political will to adopt the single

currency is a prerequisite to the Commission embarking on a PR

campaign.



Still, his commitment to the single currency project is such that he

thinks the UK will eventually come around, even if it is simply out of

necessity rather than choice.



He says: ’Say the British have not signed up to the euro by 2002; 17

million Britons come to the Continent every year and they will be the

only ones who will be running to banks having to exchange their

notes.



And British companies working on the Continent are going to realise that

not having signed up to the euro means they have to pay conversion

costs, so they will be at a competitive disadvantage.’



By which time, de Silguy will no doubt be working his charms

elsewhere.



PAVING THE WAY: how it worked in the UK



Despite promises of a referendum on UK adoption of the single currency,

activity in promoting the euro in this country has so far concentrated

on an information campaign aimed at small and medium-size enterprises

(SMEs) co-ordinated through the Treasury’s Euro Preparations Unit

(EPU).



The Government set up the EPU in December 1997 to provide support for

business. Ten ’business preparations for the euro’ factsheets were

launched in June 1998 with a further ten published in September, and 12

regional forums, led by local business representatives were established

to bring together the resources of various organisations such as the

CBI, TECs, trade unions, local authorities and public sector bodies.



On 1 September, the TV advertising phase of the Government’s campaign

was launched with seven commercials featuring the character of Martin

Skinner, owner and manager of an SME. In a range of scenarios, he

robustly reminded staff and business contacts of the importance of the

impending single currency. These and parallel radio and print

advertisements alerted viewers to a mailshot which was sent to the 1.6

million SMEs most likely to be affected by the euro to show them where

to go for essential planning information.



Research conducted at the end of 1998 showed that more than 300,000

requests had been made for factsheets. Awareness of the single currency

among SMEs had risen by four per cent from 90 per cent in May 1998 and

awareness of its start date rose from 11 per cent to 23 per cent.



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