Relations between Protocol & Politics

by Thomas Sladko*

Politics is a tough, challenging and demanding field, that is quickly changing. Not only the politics themselves but also the people who are working in their political cabinets. As state Protocol works closely with politics and their cabinet assistants, our working field is sometimes quite stressful as well. You rarely find a profession which is working so close to power. Without getting too much into the philosophical analysis, one would agree that this can be fascinating but the political situation for the people who are in power could change quickly. If you take the time and check how many – only – European politicians and governments were deselected, had to resign, etc. during the past 5 years you will be surprised how many names you would find. “Sic transit gloria mundi” is the Latin saying that conveys this sentiment. If you work in Protocol you are probably more sensitive when receiving the news, that a head of government – for whom you recently organised an official visit – had to resign due to domestic change of power. These headlines are frequently on the news and somehow we are already used to them. That is the way democratic systems work and it´s good like it is.

The main functions of Protocol are to represent, maintain stability, create identification (to the citizens) and to visualise the abstract idea of a nation/state. Nation/state – and this is the point we have to understand – is in Protocol not to be meant as politics. Protocol fulfils the “representation function” mainly with symbols which have a strong communicative message like flags, anthems, decoration of honours, etc. and with the professional working experience of Protocol officers. In Protocol we refer to the history as a reference (historical customs, cultural habits and developments) and think how we handled similar situations. Nevertheless we have to adapt to the demands of modern time like visualisation of images in e.g. social media networks. Good Protocol work always tries to maintain a certain red line/path through even changing political situations.

In Protocol we would fail if we only see the present and do not refer to the historical, cultural and diplomatic perspectives. That is one reason why Protocol professionals should not be directly linked to one politician, because politics change quickly. A political orientated Protocol officer would have to resign with his/her boss and a “new” Protocol professional would take over. The consequence is, that the “newly installed Protocol officer” always has to start from the beginning only referring to the demands of his/her actual boss. Protocol would in this case fail because the continuity in the appearance and perception of a state would get lost. The consequence could be as well, that diplomatic Protocol would be reduced to simple event organisation without taking e.g. courtesy or reciprocity into consideration. Never underestimate that throughout the years as a Protocol officer that is not affiliated to any political party, one develops good reputation and professional network with diplomatic representations which a politically assigned Protocol officer could never have.

To illustrate these thoughts I would like to exaggerate now very much: Imagine a country in which the political leaders change every year. Each leader installs a new Protocol officer and requests a new flag, a new anthem, new decoration of honour, etc. Protocol would in this case only demonstrate how fragile the state system is. Unfortunately we can observe some societies that Protocol is quite often abused to establish and maintain political power. People who have this understanding of Protocol lack a deeper understanding of the complexity and sensitivity of our working field.

To end this blog entry, I would like to state that I professionally think that it is sometimes necessary to maintain a certain distance between daily politics and Protocol even if it is quite challenging, however, this is the only way to guarantee good quality Protocol work –  a result which is then highly appreciated by politics.

*About the author

Thomas Sladko is the Deputy Chief of  Protocol at the Federal Chancellery of Austria and ISPD lecturer.