Greece’s new left-wing government proved that they had the right message when it came to national voters after they won the January election. But when they used that same message to try and renegotiate the terms of their bailout, it quickly became a lesson in how to lose friends and alienate people for Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis.
Tspiras and Varoufakis entered bailout negotiations with all guns blazing, determined to end Greece’s “fiscal waterboarding”. As soon as they took office in January, they went out of their way to offend Germany, Greece’s biggest lender. Alex Tsipras’ first move after being sworn in as Prime Minister was to lay a wreath at a WWII memorial for Greeks killed by Nazis, in Greece, and Varoufakis brought up Nazism at a press conference during his first visit to Berlin. Apparently the saying, “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” gets lost when translated into Greek.
But Greek politicians did not just ruffle German feathers – they have even managed to alienate potential allies.
Tspiras lashed out at Spain and Portugal, countries which have also been forced to implement austerity in return for bail-outs, publicly accusing the governments of forming an ‘anti-Athens axis’. Business Insider reports that this outburst led to German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble bluntly pointing out that, "Greece has made its position worse with a rhetoric that is difficult for someone on the outside to understand."
This was certainly true for Slovakia. Prime Minister Robert Fico, also an opponent of austerity, came out strongly against Greek demands to ease the terms of its bailout. Fico told the Financial Times, “It would be impossible to explain to the public that ‘poor’ Slovakia…should compensate Greece…for their salaries and pensions…” Greek politicians were demanding a minimum wage increase to about €750 per month as part of the renegotiations. The minimum wage in Slovakia is €380 per month.
The new Greek government has been good at one thing: proving the relevance of the communications industry. They managed to offend almost everyone and they never actually presented a clear strategy, which did not go unnoticed. This was perhaps best summed up by Schaeuble’s remark to reporters during the February bail-out negotiations, “None of my colleagues have understood so far what Greece really wants in the end. Whether Greece itself knows is also the question.”
Without clearly demonstrating how they could prevent history from repeating itself, the demand to get rid of austerity was doomed from the start. This message may have worked for the Greek voters but it certainly wasn’t the message that should have been conveyed to the people who have for the past five years been footing the bill for Greece’s previous welfare state spending binges.
The lesson here: know your audience and cater your messages accordingly. Whether that audience is voters and lenders or investors and the media, an effective communications strategy is incredibly valuable, while the absence of one can result in complete disaster.