segunda-feira, 7 de novembro de 2016
Matteo Renzi’s king of spin
Matteo Renzi’s king of spin
Filippo Sensi is called the Alistair Campbell to Italy’s Tony Blair.
By PATRICK BROWNE 11/7/16, 5:30 AM CET Updated 11/7/16, 7:16 AM CET
ROME — Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi affectionately calls the man behind his communications strategy “Nomfup” — a nickname taken from the phrase “not my f—ing problem.”
Nomfup — a 48-year old Roman named Filippo Sensi — coined his own moniker, using the catchphrase of fictional spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker from the BBC comedy “The Thick of It.” Foul-mouthed and aggressive, Tucker is a thinly-veiled caricature of Tony Blair’s communications chief Alastair Campbell.
Sensi denies being the Campbell to Renzi’s Blair, describing himself via email as a “humble press aide” who is “too shy to do an interview.”
But to those who know him, Sensi is one of Renzi’s closest confidants and an expert media manipulator.
Zipping between ministries in Rome on his scooter, Sensi spends his days desperately trying to ensure everybody stays on message. Nothing is left to chance. He carefully controls which journalists have access to Renzi and blacklists those who are overly critical of the prime minister, just like Campbell did.
“Alastair was an idol to me and Filippo,” said Stefano Menichini, head of communications at the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament. “The way he and Blair were able to communicate a new message which appealed to traditional non-Labour voters was very exciting.”
In the mid 1990s, Menichini and Sensi worked in the press office of former Rome mayor Francesco Rutelli. Working as a political staffer in Rome over the next decade, Sensi’s interest in Blairism quickly gave way to a fascination with political spin.
After leaving Rutelli’s office, Sensi and Menichini worked at a small national newspaper called Europa, which was heavily funded by the center-left Democratic Party (PD).
“Spin is a dirty word. Certainly, by the time he finishes the job [Sensi] will have fewer friends than when he started” — Stefano Menichini
As the paper’s assistant editor, Sensi began a blog called Nomfup which focused on political communications in the U.K. and U.S. Within a year the blog made global headlines for its role in revelations that forced Liam Fox — then U.K. defense minister, now international trade secretary — to resign.
Fox was brought down by a video that Sensi unearthed and passed to Britain’s Observer newspaper that proved that the Tory MP had broken ministerial rules by allowing a close friend, businessman Adam Werritty, to sit in on government meetings.
In the wake of the scoop, Sensi was self-effacing, telling the press it was all merely about “joining the dots” and “doing a few searches on YouTube.”
Sensi’s ability to join the dots is hard to beat. Fueled by what one former colleague called “industrial quantities of Coca-Cola and fast food,” Sensi can reportedly find “almost anything” online.
He is renowned for his ability to mine the internet, spot the latest political trends and make sense of big data, and he gets paid handsomely for doing so, earning €170,000 a year — €50,000 more than his boss.
“It was inevitable he would land a big story,” said Jeff Israely, former Rome bureau chief of Time Magazine and a close friend of Sensi.
“He is so well connected both personally and electronically. He always knew what was going on in foreign journalists’ countries before we did. Months before [Barack] Obama burst onto the U.S. political scene in 2004, he was telling me ‘you gotta see this guy’.”
The Renzi years
Obama wasn’t the only up-and-coming politician Sensi earmarked for success back in 2004.
In Italy, the 29-year-old Matteo Renzi had just been elected president of the region of Florence and was presenting himself as a radical alternative to Italy’s political establishment.
After being introduced by mutual contacts in the PD, the pair soon formed a close friendship. Sensi was quick to offer advice and expertise for free in order to help the youthful and ambitious Renzi reach his political potential.
In the following years, Sensi was influential in shaping Renzi’s image as the rising star of Italian politics, using his contacts to get him featured in the international press while he was still a political greenhorn.
The hard work eventually paid off. By mid-2013, when Renzi became the Democratic Party’s youngest ever leader, it was clear who would be in charge of his media strategy.
Then Renzi called to ask me if I would let him leave the paper to join his team, I warned him not to waste his talents by employing him as ‘just’ a press officer,” he added.
“Filippo and Renzi have a very close relationship, and Sensi is the only non-Florentine in Renzi’s inner circle — all the other aides have been with Renzi since his time as Florence mayor,” Israely said. “Sensi certainly seems to have the prime minister’s ear.”
How much influence Sensi has over policy decisions is unclear, but he is central to the positive coverage the prime minister has enjoyed in both domestic and foreign media since coming to power two-and-a-half years ago.
According to independent Italian media watchdog Agcom, in the first eight months after coming to power, 18 percent of total news time on Italy’s state broadcasters featured Renzi or a member of his cabinet. That’s 50 percent more coverage than Silvio Berlusconi enjoyed during the first eight months of his last cabinet — and he owned large chunks of the media.
“You can see Sensi’s influence in the ‘pop politics’ Renzi tends to employ,” said Massimiliano Panarari, an expert in political communication at Rome’s Luiss University.
Smiling and jovial, Renzi’s approach to press conferences can be unorthodox. He frequently presents the government’s progress and plans to journalists using Powerpoint slides, as if making a business pitch.
Spinning out of control?
Just like Campbell, the spin-loving Sensi has made plenty of enemies and faced criticism for his heavy-handed efforts to control Renzi’s message and image.
“I can’t remember a period like this,” said David Allegranti, the author of two critical Renzi biographies. “Even Berlusconi’s last government had a much more cordial relationship with the press, but the climate at the moment is very difficult for journalists.”
Sensi’s attempts to ensure the country’s media outlets express as many pro-Renzi views as possible begin with a Monday morning email to newspaper editors outlining the prime minister’s “theme for the week.”
An increasingly likely defeat in next month’s constitutional referendum looms large for Renzi and his communications guru.
Editors then receive further emails containing the PM’s daily message, while group SMS and What’sApp messages pass quotes and details from meetings at Palazzo Chigi directly to friendly journalists: those who are too critical of Renzi are quickly taken off the mailing list.
A similar scheme operates for TV news, with members of Sensi’s team reportedly emailing a steady stream of carefully chosen photos and video footage.
“He carefully selects which MPs can go on TV and which shows they can speak to,” Allegranti said. “He will try to create problems for any shows that are too critical.”
Sensi’s famous web wizardry also comes into play. From a “war room” in Palazzo Chigi, he and his staff analyze how the press and public are responding to the prime minister. The aim is to refine the message, blacklist hostile journalists and counter political opponents’ claims as quickly as possible.
“Spin is a dirty word.” Menichini said. “It’s really just the less savory aspect of being a political press aide. Certainly, by the time he finishes the job he will have fewer friends than when he started.”
That’s already happening, and there is evidence that his powers may be waning. Italy’s biggest selling daily, Corriere della Sera, is increasingly critical of Renzi and the PD is reeling from heavy defeats in local elections at which they lost control of Rome and Turin.
Things could be about to get a lot worse. Renzi promised to resign if he lost a referendum on controversial proposals to limit the power and influence of Italy’s upper house. That vote will take place on December 4.
In order to ensure the vote goes to plan, Renzi paid €400,000 to enlist the services of Obama’s former campaign chief Jim Messina. The latest polls predict his proposed reforms will be narrowly defeated. According to an October opinion poll by Euromedia research, as many as 53 percent of voters will block the changes at the ballot box.
With a less than a month to go until the referendum, the media can smell blood and Sensi’s efforts to stem the flow have earned him increasing column inches in the Italian press, where he is painted as the ruthless mastermind behind Renzi’s slick propaganda machine.
Such attention was ultimately the undoing of Sensi’s idol Campbell, whose attempts to manufacture an endlessly positive image of his master in the British press eroded voters’ faith in the government. Nomfup is trying to succeed where his role model failed.