Ryan Heath defines himself as a writer on LinkedIn, but foremost he is quite a character. As POLITICO’s EU Correspondent he has the mission of “getting the EU sexy and make people feel attracted to it”. He sees the difficulties, but has accepted the challenge, and in a matter of seven months since he started this new venture he has become the most visible face of the new US kid on the EU’s media block.
Heath was born in Australia and graduated in Comms –politics and journalism in Sydney. As a first assignment right after college he worked on the political campaign of Australian singer-environmental activist-turned-politician, Peter Garrett. He then moved out to Oxford and faced the British entrenched elitism that made it hard for him to find a job easily. He ended up working for the British Labour politician, Peter Mandelson, who ultimately connected him with Neelie Kroes. For somebody who seems to enjoy confronting new challenges with short periodicity, sticking seven years (2008-2015) to the same post shows a strong commitment to the boss. He speaks highly of Ms. Kroes and shares anecdotes easily of the interesting time he had working on the controversial EU digital agenda. The experience ended up in his book, “Steelie Neelie: Neelie Kroes in Her Own Words”.
During this time, he says the most challenging issue he and his team faced was the banking crisis. Mainly because it was imbued with moral dilemmas: how come the ones who were doing things wrong were bailed out while the people who needed to be protected, the weakest, became the subsequent debtors? In spite of the historic fact of the EU public system rescuing the banks, Heath assures that the banking sector showed no leadership and, even worst, no vision of their responsible role when lobbying the EU Institutions.
And here comes the interesting side for modern Corporate Affairs professionals. For a political advisor and journalist like Heath, traditional lobbying (i.e., that trust amongst a few privileged gentlemen) is clearly no longer effective. There needs to be a specialized modernization of government affairs departments.
This trend at corporations consolidates against a backdrop of general political disaffection, both at a national and at a EU level. For Heath, trust in politics is going down and the way to sort it out is through scrutiny. Here it is where the media plays a crucial role, especially in the EU. “The additional problem with the EU is that everybody seems to be questioning its very existence on a daily basis.” For Heath the solution the media can offer to the EU’s various legitimacy problems is to move away from processes and put a face on it. “But it is hard to find EU stories that can start with a personal/human anecdote,” I pointed him out. And he responds that they are working on profiles of EU leaders that show this human dimension, like the one they wrote on Roberto Viola and his passion for the piano. He also sees the refugee crisis as the EU’s human story.
If the migration stuff is the story with the human angle, the power relationship between the EU institutions and the states is the story with the boring but crucial “process” side. For Heath, the narrative has changed and the immediate future is clear: the states are not going to yield more power to the EU. “The trend is to set limits of what the EU is doing”. In this context, for Heath the EU is an amalgam very confusing for anybody who is not inside the bubble. “You have to make an effort to understand.”
Precisely this difficulty of many understanding the EU ecosystem provoked the US editors at POLITICO to launch their outlet in Brussels, in addition to the obvious fact that Brussels has become the second center of power in the world, after Washington DC. “Beijing would be the third, but it is impenetrable,” Heath thinks aloud.
In September, the Directors of the International Executive Program on Government & Corporate Affairs at the IE Business School’s visited POLITICO’s new newsroom. This profile is the result of the visit.