Sean Kelly: “You cannot learn charisma”

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Sean Kelly, Pawel Rogalinski– You can learn the tricks of communicating, you can learn the tricks of saying what the people want you to say, but that is not necessarily being an honest or good politician – says Sean Kelly, Irish MEP in interview conducted by Pawel Rogalinski.

Pawel Rogalinski: – How do you, as an MEP, take care of your popularity among Irish voters?

Sean Kelly: – On a personal basis, whether you would be popular or not, wouldn’t be of major concern to you. But if you want to be re-elected, which I want to be, then if you are not known and if people do not like what you are doing, and the effort you are making to do it, then they won’t vote for you. So yes – I agree, popularity or public acceptance is a major factor especially at the European elections, because enough a lot of the candidates won’t have a personal relationships with the voters, so they will have just a general impression of them and if that is positive it’s a chance of getting a vote, but if it’s negative – you have no chance.

– Ok, but how do you do it? What ways of communication do you choose?

– In a broader sense it is difficult to communicate to what you are doing in Europe. It is somewhat remote, it’s legislative and it is often at the initial stages.  So there is actually nothing really to report other than saying: “I am Sean Kelly. I am working as a rapporteur on the data protection regulation”. 99% of people don’t know what is that about and they do not care. So it is when issues come up that are relevant to the people that you try to communicate those issues to them through press statements, which may not be picked up by the media, interviews which you will occasionally get, but more, more we have to rely on social media. If you have enough content either via e-mail or by linkedin, facebook – that is actually the best way to communicate.

– What do you think about maintaining popularity by the former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, or former presidents: Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese and Patrick Hillery?

– They were associated with good things happening either in the office they held or for the people. Three of those you mentioned were presidents of Ireland. The president of Ireland would want to be very bad altogether to become unpopular, because they have no unpopular things to do and are not responsible for the decisions that are made. So basically it’s role where you are presiding at different functions, inviting people to your residence which is called Áras an Uachtaráin, giving them a good time, you are going around, sympathising with them, if things go badly, being associated with success if Ireland, for instance, does well in the World Cup, or whatever; so presidents couldn’t be unpopular.

– And what about prime ministers?

– For a prime minister it is more difficult. Bertie Ahern was a prime minister, he was very popular, but he was popular, because he was a prime minister at a time when the economy was booming. And he gave hope to money, more or less increased wages for everybody, increased funding for all such of, supported people, worked very hard in particularly going to social functions and he was never offensive. And of course all four were prominent on television, which is the easiest way to communicate, 99% of the time he was associated with good things, so they were popular.

– Do you think a politician can learn charisma or is it an in-born trait?

– You can learn the tricks of communicating, you can learn the tricks of saying what the people want you to say, but that is not necessarily being an honest or good politician, but he can be very effective. Unfortunately a lot of politicians do that and they become popular as a result, but then the likeability factor, which you call “charisma” – some have it, some don’t. I don’t think you can really learn it, you can learn some of the traits, but many people you will find will be attracted to one particular person, because they have that likeability factor – “charisma. Then the other people who people will never like and will never be very popular, even though they are very good people. And you can see that in politics – some people are always elected, other people, even though they have the best marketers, that they are the most honest people in the world, they cannot communicate with people at the level where the people say: “I am going to vote for him”.

– Do you think other English-speaking politicians can use some different ways of maintaining popularity than the Irish ones? (e.g. British, American or Canadian politicians)

– Particularly in America, politicians can use TV advertising to maintain their profile and popularity.  This is prohibited under advertising law in Ireland, so that is one difference.  A second difference is the tailored campaigning to different ethnic groups – we are familiar with this in Ireland as many US, Australian and Canadian politicians actively seek to court the Irish vote in their countries, most recently with the visit of President Barack Obama to Ireland in 2011.  You would not see this type of campaigning being done by Irish politicians. Of course in America again they have a wonderful PR machine behind them which advises them the good things and the bad things and that of course they will preside at massive functions around  the world where they’ll say nice things that people are happy to hear.

– Thank you for the conversation.

Interview by Pawel Rogalinski
Brussels, European Parliament, 05.09.2013.

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