Krešimir Macan is a PR and crisis communications expert who was asked to help during the most dramatic days in the Agrokor crisis. He gave an interview to tportal the day after Agrokor’s owner and the most wanted Croatian fugitive Ivica Todorić surrendered himself to the British authorities in London. Macan recalled the dramatic day in April when Todorić decided to hand over Agrokor to the government and revealed many details which hadn’t been known so far, reports tportal.hr on November 12, 2017.
He also spoke about his relationship with the first Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, who called him an idiot, explained why he is bothered by being referred to as a “spin doctor” and discussed how well politicians in Croatia communicate.
What was your role in Agrokor? Officially, you had a short role in the group when Antonio Alvarez was brought in.
The short engagement during the week when the peak of the crisis took place in April was my first and only contact with the company and Ivica Todorić. An unforgettable five days and a valuable experience. Our task was to help Antonio Alvarez with communications in his attempt to restructure the company with the banks, but since the time was too short and Ivica Todorić activated “Lex Agrokor” (law), my role immediately ended.
What was happening at Agrokor’s tower on the 7th of April, when Todorić signed “Lex Agrokor” and left his heavily-indebted business group in the hands of the Croatian state?
It was the most tense day ever. When it became apparent that there was no other solution, “Lex Agrokor” was activated, although Todorić tried to find some other option. Let us not forget that there was no money to pay for wages in the companies within the group next Friday. He simply had to sign it and this was the last moment. I witnessed the signing. He was calm as a real leader at a crucial moment, but the act itself was extremely emotional. I believe he was aware that at that moment, he would never return to Agrokor as the owner. He approved the statements issued that day, including the ones about “giving everything to the Croatian state” because he wanted to point out how much value he had made throughout the years. We didn’t know that he was [also] leaving all the debts, no one knew that at the time. He was the only one who knew the real situation and who always made the decisions. He was the “president” who was undefiable.
Is the crisis communication of the government and Ante Ramljak at the required level?
Ivica Todorić had completely closed and controlled communication, which I can somewhat understand, but it also led to a situation in which he was living in his own world. On the other hand, Ante Ramljak is exceptionally transparent in restructuring the entire company because, given the multitude of interests around the company, this is the only option. As far as the government’s reaction is concerned, the government has done a better job than it has communicated.
At the same time, the fugitive owner of the company Ivica Todorić decided to start sending messages via a blog. Would you have chosen such a way of communication?
Probably yes, in accordance with the legal defence strategy. I would write it somewhat differently because he has lost a lot of credibility by writing emotionally and inconsistently. It is interesting how the opposition uncritically uses content from his blog in attacks on the government, so they have turned into a kind of spokesperson for Todorić.
Does he or someone else write the blog? You are sometimes mentioned as the author.
Everyone would like to know who writes it. I’m not the one [who writes it], and I’ve said that many times.
Andrej Plenković’s government has recently passed the one-year mark. Which grade would you give them?
A strong four out of five, because he has brought a lot of real and potential quality to the political arena, but it still needs to be fully realised. The initial optimism has started to melt away, and now it is time to make concrete moves. We need political stability.
How is Plenković as a communicator?
He is a better politician and a diplomat than a communicator. He carefully selects words and formulations, although that sometimes turns out to be “attractive,” as was the case with the fires in Split. I believe that his communication will improve, you can see there are less nervous outbursts against journalists. “Lex Agrokor” is one of the strongest moves of any government in the last few terms, but you can see how much he is being criticised for it. He has bravely dealt with the economic situation and has made the right moves, but he is now under criticism because he apparently didn’t say everything that he should have said in the beginning.
According to the latest polls, Plenković and HDZ’s rating is falling, while SDP and Bernardić are becoming more popular. What influenced the change in the trends?
We should wait at least another month to see if this is a trend because all the changes have been within the margin of error so far. But, I think that the whole maelstrom of criticism regarding Agrokor has been damaging, and Todorić with his blog is also a cause. That was the principal topic last month, so we’ll see what will happen in November.
Has SDP president Davor Bernardić improved? He still loves metaphors with vegetables, but it seems he has accepted some of the criticism or someone is perhaps working with him.
He is better, and he is trying. He gives the impression that he is fighting for something and he has obviously recovered some voter support. He is working both on his messages and on himself. But, he still has to work a lot. Copying messages from Todorić’s blog is not a task for a party which wants to change things in the country. They must have their own heads and minds.
And President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović? She cannot reach her predecessor Ivo Josipović’s popularity. Can she win the second term?
Except for occasional breakdowns, such as her trip to America and the birthday celebrations which she was later embarrassed about, I think she’s doing a better job than most people think. She doesn’t try to be liked by everyone; she is staying faithful to her electorate, people love her. She likes the army and the role of commander in chief, and that suits her. She’s also the biggest Croatian celebrity on social networks. Very solid result, in line with her constitutional powers. In the campaign for the second term, much will depend on who the opponent is, but also on HDZ’s support. In recent weeks, there have been sparks in communication between the government and her.
Zoran Milanović continues to appear regularly in political polls. Should he return to politics at the next presidential elections, given that he is increasingly mentioned as a potential candidate?
He has a chance in the European election and the presidential one if he decides so. He is a strong personality on the Croatian political scene, whether you love him or not. There are less and less such politicians, and that is why people are talking about him. SDP is in crisis, and the help from a former leader would be good news for them.
Who is the best communicator in Croatian politics?
Undoubtedly, the best communicator so far in Croatian politics has been Ivo Sanader, regardless of everything. He has natural talent, and he used the best international advisers.
Many politicians from both sides of the political spectrum have used your services, from Željko Kerum to Ivo Josipović. Who was the most interesting to work for?
Željko Kerum is unique. I could write an entire book about him. Believe me, my greatest pleasure is to work with local politicians with whom we regularly win elections. In general, the right is somewhat better organised and fanatical, but the left allows you a lot more creativity. But, both sides can get on my nerves.
Which was your most important PR crisis?
Agrokor was huge. The golf project in Dubrovnik is still ongoing. All projects with foreign investors stretch for years, before they are completed, if at all. The last major panic was the one with aflatoxins in milk, but that turned out to be an example of how systematic communication can quickly prevent a crisis.
Whom do you work for now?
We are helping foreign investors who have not abandoned Croatia yet; we work for some of the towns with whom we’ve been cooperating for years, and for many companies from different sectors. Fortunately, we do not live from (on) political projects, although many have such an impression. The company couldn’t survive for four years from one election. That is a passion, but we have hit a brake somewhat after we have gone through the whole region doing election campaigns.
How did a graduate of electrical engineering end up in this business?
I was first a tourist guide in four foreign languages, then in 1991 a war guide for journalists at the battlefields, and later I worked at the Ministry of Information. For years, the IT career was secondary, although it did help me a lot with the development of digital technologies.
Are you bothered by negative connotations which accompany “spin doctors”?
The first association is a con man, and I’m not that. I just tell my clients’ stories, which they first must sell to me and then I can easily pass them along.
For whom would you never work?
If I don’t agree with the actions of an individual, I can’t work for them just because they’re ready to pay me. I have already said, I have to believe in their story. If I don’t, I cannot do my job well. I think such people do not even contact me because they know they will not get any business here.
During the Homeland War, you worked with foreign journalists, and later you ended up at the Ministry of Information. How was the crisis communication during wartime?
It was maybe one of the better episodes about communications in Croatia. Why? We were young, so they didn’t manage to control us so much, and the war was an extraordinary circumstance. Even foreign journalists say today, 25 years later, that this was one of the elements of victory in the Homeland War. We were honest, for Croatia and all its victims. Without lies and manipulation.
To what extent was Franjo Tuđman involved in your work? How much did he influence the editorial policy of the media?
He understood the importance of the media and partly tried to influence the editorial policy, primarily at the Croatian Television and Vjesnik, and others. But again, on the other hand, I announced the fall of Vukovar without his consent and today I am where I am. Such were the circumstances. I worked personally with him for months, and he impressed me as a man and a statesman. I didn’t fear him, and even today, people ask me how I was able to talk to him like that. I respected him as a person, but my idea was to tell him the truth.
You announced that Vukovar had fallen?
Yes. That day there was a panic, we could not keep the information secret for much longer. In the afternoon, there was supposed to be an extraordinary session of the government, and it was not sure for how long they would wait for the announcement. I said to Reuters that we could no longer defend Vukovar’s military. Slovenian Television reported the news with the headline: “’Vukovar has fallen, Macan confirms”. Tuđman then summoned Vesna Škare Ožbolt and asked which idiot had announced the information.
For years, you were hiding behind pseudonyms of Bijesprvi and published videos in which you ridiculed politicians. Was that a result of private political activism or was it a specific type of campaign, given that Zinka Bardić, who later became a spokeswoman in Zoran Milanović’s government, was also involved?
Bijesprvi was born in response to the general control of the media at the time of Ivo Sanader, who could control everything but the internet. I was looking for a channel to break the media blockade about the privatisation of Pliva, which Actavis from Iceland wanted to buy, and the famous Verona affair. I started experimenting with YouTube and achieved a globally relevant result in 2006 – almost a million views in a short time. There was no political sponsor, that was my toy.
Is there something similar today and is there such guerrilla political marketing?
With social networks today you have this more than ever, just maybe not so systematically. The best Facebook pages are “Ćaća se vraća” and “Žele se vraća”, which returned Sanader and Kerum to political life as heroes, though it may not have been their initial intent. This is an example of a top crisis brand turnaround. Original, hilarious and very funny.
Manjgura, the name of your company, was also the title of a magazine of current Culture Minister Nina Obuljen Koržinek.
People in the Dubrovnik area, especially in Konavle, refer to a boy as “manjak” and a girl as “manjgura”. That was also the name of a high school magazine published by Nina Obuljen Koržinek, two of us are from the same generation. The girls published Manjgura, and boys did Manjak. A judge in Zagreb did not allow us 20 years ago to register a company named Manjak, so we opted for Manjgura.
To add to the political mix, Macan could be entering into the government as Andrej Plenković’s political consultant, although nothing has been officially confirmed as yet. Among other things, Macan was Racan’s adviser, has worked with Kerum and ran Josipović’s campaign. As previously mentioned, Krešimir Macan is a seasoned PR specialist whose speciality is crisis communication. As Jutarnji List writes, Macan may soon become a political consultant to Prime Minister Andrej Plenković.
At this point, nothing has been agreed, but an interlocutor told Jutarnji that talks are taking place. Although some in HDZ say that the Prime Minister’s decision to boost his PR team has been driven by his fall in ratings, increasingly frequent attacks on his abilities (especially in regard to the Agrokor situation) and poor communication with reporters and journalists, the sources referenced in the government say that this isn’t some sort of surprise decision.
The aforementioned attacks on Plenković have been increasing and are taking a lot of attention away from more important things. Some things don’t necessarily need to be dealt with by Plenković himself and that is where Macan and his company Manjgura come into the story. Macan has worked alongside numerous politicial figures and has run and been involved in various campaigns on all levels, from local to national to European.
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