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From Heads of State to managing nightclubs, William Hanson and Jean Paul Wijersdiscuss adapting traditional rules of protocol for the modern day

Often seen as a dirty word, protocol has had a bad reputation of late.  Many world leaders and organisations wrongly see it as restrictive, outdated or only something for ‘the elite.’ But canny monarchs, presidents, organisations and commercial enterprises have successfully managed to use it to their favour. They understand that protocol changes and is contextual.

The current President of Portugal is arguably one of the more popular presidents in recent history. After the wildfires in 2017, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa was one of the first officials to reach out to the public. He was seen comforting those affected and was praised by many for being genuine. The President is known for spending a lot of time with the Portuguese people and accepts more invitations than his predecessors. He is attentive and reacts fast to events as they take place, and is known for building strong relationships, even outside Portugal.

President de Sousa is also known for breaking with protocol. At the day of his inauguration he decided not to take the car but to walk from his birthplace to the parliament.

This approach continued after his inauguration. Building diplomatic relations relies heavily on face-to-face interactions where true connections are made. The night before his state visit to Luxembourg in May 2017, Grand Duke Henri and the Portuguese President decided to break with convention and formality by going into the town for a beer. The President felt right at home: an estimated 120,000 of the 550,000 people in Luxembourg are either born in Portugal or are of Portuguese ancestry. De Sousa was welcomed with open arms and the unorthodox start to the state visit was the beginning of a good friendship between the two heads of state.

Back in Britain, Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cornwall walked from Clarence House to an official visit to the National Gallery in July 2020, rather than taking a car. Although this was largely down to COVID restrictions, these actions also reflected the attitude of the time. It was only a short walk, but it was significant gesture.  Officials need to know the rules in order to know which to break in order to create a new protocol.

This kind of spontaneity goes hand-in-hand with an authentic approach but can result in last-minute programme changes. Formerly protocol used to be more predictable, but in the case of the Portuguese President, the protocol department had to get used to anticipating the unexpected. Rebelo de Sousa does, however, seem to respect and understand this delicate balancing act; his approach is not about abolishing protocol but introducing small changes in the ceremonial process that make it possible to achieve a lot.

Another example of a well-balanced attitude to protocol is His Majesty King Willem-Alexander of The Netherlands, who during an interview shortly before his inauguration in 2013 quickly declared he would not be a ‘protocol fetishist.’ In the years since, he has turned out to be a king who has modernised royal protocol. An approach that has given his monarchy a contemporary look and feel.

During King Willem-Alexander’s 50th birthday celebrations on 27 April 2017, the King welcomed 150 civilians to his official birthday dinner in the Royal Palace in Amsterdam. These civilians had one commonality: they were all celebrating a special birthday that day. The dinner was, attended by a marine biologist, a car dealer, a soldier and a supermarket employee, among others.

That year, the Dutch monarch also held yet another dinner for royals, ambassadors and other dignitaries on the final day of the celebrations. But by organising the dinner with civilians first, the monarchy communicated what is considered to be one of the most important characteristics of Dutch culture – equality. The dinner gave the King the opportunity to demonstrate his ability to connect with the people of The Netherlands, and by doing so showing he is their representative.

But protocol is not just for monarchies and the offices of presidents. GQ magazine featured an article with the bouncer of a nightclub in Berlin called Berghain. Sven Marquardt discussed the challenges of bringing the ‘right’ people together. “You always want friction. That’s the theme in any good club: diversity – friction.” Marquardt has run security at the popular electronic dance music club since it first opened. He explained that the success of the club largely has to do with who gets in. “If we were just a club full of models and pretty people all dressed in black, it would be nice to look at for half an hour, but that would be boring.”

Those at the door understand what Berghain is all about, but every bouncer also has their own personality, which is reflected in the crowd. “The club evolved from the gay scene in Berlin in the 1990s. It’s important we preserve some of that heritage, that it still feels like a welcoming place for the original sort of club-goers.”

A few years ago, the World Press Photo Foundation changed the location for its annual awards show from a comfortable concert hall, to a far less luxurious former gas factory, now used as a cultural venue in Amsterdam. Founded in 1955, the non-profit organisation believes in the power of high-quality visual stories. The luxurious and comfortable image of the previous location might not have been a problem a few years ago, but currently it no longer supports the image of World Press Photo as a progressive organisation whose purpose it is to ‘connect the world to the stories that matter.’

Former managing director of the foundation, Lars Boering, explained in an interview with the authors of this book how he has seen protocol evolve over time. “It used to make sense to follow a stricter kind of protocol, but the old protocol needs to go along with our new world, where relationships have become more informal.” World Press Photo has been experimenting with its protocol for quite some time, trying to strike a balance between its image as the organiser of the world’s most prestigious award for photojournalism, on the one hand, and its identity as a progressive organisation, on the other. “When I became director, I changed much of the protocol,” Lars explains. “We do not have a problem with protocol; however, I will always try to minimise the restrictive elements as much as possible.”

The new approach meant bringing context and execution together. “Protocol is only valuable if it serves a purpose. It’s important we are able to explain why we are doing things.”

The new protocol is about change, and change means taking a different approach with the risk of making mistakes. It needs space and freedom to experiment, in order to become the protocol we need today. And there lies the true challenge – for protocol is not particularly well-known for its innovative strength: change and protocol do not go well together. The same application of protocol is all part of managing expectations and thus building trust and relationships.

Any new approach is not about drastic changes or a major break from how things were done before. It is about carefully thought-out minor alterations, that yield results with a big impact. Even though results may be big, the evolution of protocol is merely a slow-moving transformation. Protocol will always exist.

William Hanson and Jean Paul Wijers are co-authors of Protocol to Manage Relationships Today, published in November 2020 by Amsterdam University Press.  www.theenglishmanner.com/shop 


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