May 8, 2018, 12 min read
Interview by Sarah Wagner
For this week’s interview, Sarah got together with Oana Lungescu, who provides strategic advice to the NATO Secretary General. Read about fearing the secret police, the importance of wearing bright colors and why you should 'stick it out'.
Good afternoon Oana. It is great to have you here. You are the principal Spokesperson for NATO, the North Atlantic Alliance. Could you start by outlining in more detail what responsibilities and tasks your job entails?
Thank you, Sarah, for having me. Indeed, I am the spokesperson for NATO. In a nutshell, it is my job to provide strategic advice to the NATO Secretary General (SG) Jens Stoltenberg, the North Atlantic Council, and NATO offices on the press, media, and social media. That means I engage with media, and plan and prepare all the media engagements of the SG and the Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller. They actually have hundreds every year. Moreover, I am also in charge of speeches for the SG and the deputy SG. That is perhaps less usual for my role, but we realized the importance of having a continuum of messaging across all our public engagement regardless of the time and platform they are on. And, of course, I brief the SG and his team on developments in the media and I advise both the SG and the SG deputy as well as the North Atlantic Council i.e. the ambassadors representing the 29 NATO members states. I also coordinate messaging and media operations for NATO summits, ministerials, and other events. And importantly, I coordinate our messaging on a daily basis with our military colleagues, for instance in Afghanistan, as well as with the 29 NATO member states.
You have just outlined many different tasks and responsibilities. What is your strategy to manage all these responsibilities simultaneously, to maintain an overview and set priorities?
The secret to everything we do is teamwork. I have a small team that I work with, about 30 people including press officers, social media officers, assistants, speech writers and a small team of media monitors and analysts. The NATO press office is part of a bigger team which is the public diplomacy division in charge of NATO’s public diplomacy outreach and also includes important digital platforms such as the NATO channel TV and social media.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
The most challenging part is to find time to stop and think because the work that we do is quite relentless. It's quite easy to fall into the trap of just focusing on whatever is next. It is rather important to take a step back and to think about what and how you need to react to all the unpredictable things that often happen, during crises in particular. It also means thinking in the long term, for instance, we plan the communications strategy for the SG and the deputy SG to make sure that they reach the right audiences on the right issues at the right time. We are dealing with a lot of very different audiences because we have 29 member states, 29 majority shareholders, if you will. There are also other partners around the world that we reach out to, from Australia to Ukraine.
“It's quite easy to fall into the trap of just focusing on whatever is next. It is rather important to take a step back and to think about what and how you need to react.”
After so many years as a journalist, do you still need time to prepare? Do you still actually need to sit down and prepare notes or do you just play things by ear? Do you still feel nervous when you enter the scene?
While you may have a lot of experience, every time you speak to people there will be new questions and new challenges. So, sometimes a little bit of nervousness is normal, actually. I do think it is important to be as well-prepared as possible. However, what I think is most important, is to listen to the question and what your interlocutor says. That is also one of the secrets of a successful interview. It's not about you necessarily speaking all the time. It's about listening to what the other person is saying and what the person is asking. I’m sure you know that very well by now!
“That is also one of the secrets of a successful interview. It's not about you necessarily speaking all the time. It's about listening to what the other person is saying and what the person is asking.”
You were the first journalist to hold your current position. Why do you think you were chosen, as former BBC journalist?
I was appointed in 2010, so it goes back a few years now. I think my background was important because of course every action we take and every policy we adopt has a communication dimension. As journalists, we are trained to ask the simple, fundamental questions, and to translate complex or technical language into clear English.
Why did you want to become a journalist in the first place? What was your source of energy or motivation that encouraged you to take this job, particularly when we think about the time when you became a journalist in London, when your home country Romania was under Communist leadership?
I became a journalist by accident. I grew up in Romania, which at that time was one of the most closed societies in the communist bloc, where it was very hard to do any sort of meaningful journalism. So that never crossed my mind. I studied English and Spanish. However, I was very interested in current affairs. My window on the rest of the world were books and radio. I used to read in various languages as much as I could and whatever I could. Sometimes it would be xeroxed books, the so-called Samizdat, which used to be handed over from person to person with great references. And also radio to listen to Deutsche Welle, to the BBC, to Radio Free Europe. This literally happened under the bed covers because obviously if the neighbors heard that I was listening to foreign radio stations I could be reported to the secret police, the feared Securitate.
“This literally happened under the bed covers because obviously if the neighbors heard that I was listening to foreign radio stations I could be reported to the secret police, the feared Securitate.”
How come you were not afraid? Where did your courage and conviction that this was right come from?
We lived in a sort of internal exile. I think a lot of people in the former communist bloc did that. We were looking for something that was open and free, which reflected much more who we were. It was the right thing to actually look beyond the very narrow world that we were living in.
In the end, the Securitate approached me and tried to get me to inform for them. I said no. And eventually, I was able to leave Romania and join my mother, who was in Germany. I then went on to the BBC, literally by accident. Somebody sent me a job ad, and I got the job because I knew so much about BBC programmes, having listened to them under the bed covers. So, it started from there.
“They listened in on my phone calls, transcribed everything, photocopied all the letters and postcards I had sent or received. It was some sort of bureaucracy of fear, with many people involved.”
You just said you had to deal with the secret police. You also created a documentary about the Romanian secret police and the files that they kept about you. That leads me to the question of whether, as a journalist, you should be fearless and put back yourself and your own privacy.
I decided to look for my secret police files in Romania. I didn't know what I would find but I knew the files existed because of my various encounters with the secret police, and because I was working for a foreign radio station. It was a very difficult experience - because you never know what you might find about your family, your friends, yourself. It still is a quite difficult experience to think about it now, but I felt it was important to shed light on this dark chapter, not just for myself but hopefully also for others.
It was shocking to find out hundreds of pages, some typewritten, some handwritten, clearly by many different people. They listened in on my phone calls, transcribed everything, photocopied all the letters and postcards I had sent or received. It was some sort of bureaucracy of fear, with many people involved. We knew it existed, but it was still a surprise to see the tens of kilometers of historic secret police files kept in the archives. They are now open to the victims of the Securitate, to researchers. That in itself is important, so people can find out what happened, and avoid this being repeated.
How do you decide what stories are worth and relevant to be shared with the public, particularly nowadays that we have such continuous access to information through social media?
I am in a different position today, of course. I don’t work as a journalist, but I try to act as a journalist inside the organization – looking at things with a fresh eye, and asking the “dumb” questions, which are usually the best. It’s also important that I know how journalists work, what is important to them, what deadlines they have to work to. Our aim is to communicate clearly and confidently. NATO’s core mission is to defend almost one billion people in Europe and North America, at a time when we face the biggest security challenges in a generation. At the same time, we need to show to any potential adversaries that we are strong and united. So we have many different audiences at the same time.
Next to being the first journalist to hold your position, you are also the first woman. Generally speaking, there are still very few women working in security, making it a very male-dominated area, while there are studies showing that women are extremely good peacemakers. What are the underlying reasons for the status quo?
Traditionally, security has of course been an area where men dominate. However, this isn't necessarily the case today. That being said, it's clearly important to diversify the participation on panels at conferences or workshops, to show that women actually do have an important role. Women represent at least 50 percent of the population. But you cannot be very effective if you just use 50 percent of your brain or just 1 rather than 2. It is obvious that we should be making greater progress, faster.
“We know that women and children are the main victims of conflict. We also know that women and the participation of women can make peace more sustainable so having women at the table is very important.”
What are measures that you are taking at NATO to facilitate gender equality?
NATO has long been working based on the United Nations resolutions 1325 about women, peace, and security. Some of the concrete things we do, for instance, is to always have the gender perspective in mind when training our troops before deployment so that they help detect and report any gender violence or anything that can affect women and children in conflict. We know that women and children are the main victims of conflict. We also know that women and the participation of women can make peace more sustainable so having women at the table is very important. We also have gender advisors in our operations for instance in Afghanistan or in Kosovo because we know that women will be able to speak more easily with other women and that is also important for security. If women one day decide not to go to the well because they heard something about an impending attack, they are much more likely to tell another woman than a male soldier. So these simple things can keep people safe – involving women is the right and smart thing to do.
Last but not least, we also have a special envoy for Women, Peace and Security. Right now it is a Canadian expert, Claire Hutchinson, who previously worked at the United Nations. She is very engaged with both women and men, in order to improve the gender balance in our policies and in what we do.
So you think gender equality is just a matter of time?
No, I don't think there's anything automatic about it. This is why we are working with a whole range of people. You may have seen that Angelina Jolie recently visited NATO headquarters. She spent almost a whole day talking with SG Jens Stoltenberg, with the 29 ambassadors, and also with some of our commanders and gender advisers in the field. They talked about what more we can do together to raise awareness about the important role of women in peace and security, and what more we can do together to fight gender-based violence in conflict, which has such an appalling impact on individuals, families, and on whole communities. For instance, NATO is working with partner countries, such as Afghanistan, to train their armed forces – and empowering women, as well as reporting any cases of gender violence, are part of that training.
You have been a spokesperson at NATO since 2010. Looking back, what are skills and expertise you acquired over time and you would have liked to know before starting?
I must admit I was surprised when I arrived here by how much internal and external coordination you have to do, between our 29 members, the European Union and partners around the world. So we spend a lot of time not just engaging with the outside world, but also coordinating amongst ourselves. It is important because everything that NATO does is by consensus, but it takes a lot of patience and some negotiating skills. So hopefully I've become more patient and a better negotiator.
What is a routine that has been essential to your success?
You need to be able to get up early. I am in the office usually between 7.15 and 7.30 AM and need to work very long hours, which I also used to do in journalism. You also need to be able to work with a whole range of people. You need to be able to work in a team. I think that is absolutely crucial because everything that you do has an impact on somebody else. And you cannot do this sort of work without others.
What makes you wake up every morning?
I think it is a privilege to be able to be a small part of history in the making – both as a journalist and as the NATO Spokesperson. It’s privilege, but it’s not always easy, especially since we are going through very challenging times. What we say matters, so we can make a difference.
“Things are possible, so just give it a go and stick with it”
Any professional or personal advice to other women to be happy and successful at work?
First of all: Go for it! Things that you may not even imagine may actually be possible. Who would have thought that someone who grew up in Romania under communism would be the first woman spokesperson at NATO? Things are possible, so just give it a go.
Second: You need to put in the hard work, and it can be very hard. You need to accept that there will be some choices to be made - and everybody makes their own choices. So go for it, stick with it, and enjoy the fact that it is not always necessarily about you - but about the team or the organization, and the values we share.
And for any woman, I would say - something which may seem trivial- it's important to wear bright colors. Because you must stand out in a sea of grey or dark-suited men, or people in uniform. And it also makes you feel happier, especially in grey Brussels!
“And for any woman, I would say - something which may seem trivial- it's important to wear bright colors. Because you must stand out in a sea of grey or dark-suited men, or people in uniform. And it also makes you feel happier, especially in grey Brussels!.”
Thank you for the interview, Oana!
Oana Lungescu is the principal spokesperson for the North Atlantic Alliance, providing strategic advice to the NATO Secretary General and the North Atlantic Council. She coordinates NATO’s 24/7 media operations, as well as plans and directs the media aspects of all major NATO events, including summits and ministerial meetings. She is also in charge of all speeches and publications by the NATO Secretary General and Deputy Secretary General. Oana is the first woman – and the first journalist – to hold this post. In 2016, Politico named Ms. Lungescu one of the most influential women in Brussels.
Oana joined NATO after a long journalistic career with the BBC World Service, where she covered EU and NATO affairs for radio, television and online in several languages. Born in Romania, she joined the BBC's Romanian Service in London in 1985 and subsequently became deputy head and then editor. In 1997, she was appointed European affairs correspondent in Brussels, where she covered practically every EU and NATO summit. Between 2009-2010 she reported on European affairs from Berlin.
In 1999, she traveled to Chile and Argentina to report on the aftermath of military dictatorships as the recipient of an Onassis Bursary for journalists. In 2002, she was the recipient of the European Woman of Achievement Award. In 2010, she received a Thompson Reuters Reporting Europe awards for her documentary series “State Secrets” about secret police archives and her own security file. She contributed to "Child of Europe: An Anthology of New East European Poetry" (Penguin International Poets, 1991) and to "More From Our Own Correspondent" (Barnes&Noble, 2009).
Oana Lungescu holds a Master’s Degree in English and Spanish Studies from the University of Bucharest.