The Press and Information Service in Washington
Martin Eichtinger (1992-1999)
In August 1992, the Austrian Press and Information Service relocated from New York to the newly constructed Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. The two publications, Austrian Information (monthly) and Economic News from Austria (quarterly) were continued from the new location. At times, the subscriber base reached about 20,000 people.
As Martin Eichtinger recalls, the big challenge for the Press and Information Service in his time was the introduction of new media. “In particular, the Internet proved to be of great importance for our work. After posting some articles in discussion groups, we established the first website of an Austrian Embassy worldwide at www.austria.org, which still remains the web address of the Austrian Press and Information Service and the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. The website developed extremely well over the next couple of years (in the first year of going online the website ranked among the top 7% websites in the U.S.). The number of visitors steadily increased and we put a lot of effort into the development of an Austrian portal.” The posting of our publications online as well as the offer of stream videos on Austria were revolutionary at the time.
In 1998, the Press and Information Service developed an additional website for the Austrian EU Presidency. Daily press releases were placed online during that time, which later on were published as well.
After the election of Dr. Thomas Klestil as Austrian Federal President, who succeeded Dr. Kurt Waldheim in 1992, diplomatic relations improved significantly. Dr. Klestil had been able to gain significant U.S. experience during the early years of his career as a diplomat in Washington, Consul General in Los Angeles, and Ambassador to the UN in New York and to the United States in Washington. Both Austrian President Dr. Klestil and Austrian Federal Chancellor Dr. Franz Vranitzky visited the White House during the presidency of Bill Clinton.
After the fall of the iron curtain in 1989, Austria was successfully promoted in the media as the gateway to Eastern Europe. Much of this success can be attributed to the efforts of Ambassador Friedrich Hoess. In the following years, Austrian representatives were often sought out by U.S. companies and U.S. trade agencies to assist with finding Austrian companies for joint ventures in Central- and Eastern Europe.
Austria also attracted a great deal of interest among foreign policy makers and the media in the U.S. due to the crisis in Yugoslavia, for which Austria was seen as an experienced insider. In the spring of 1992, the Bosnian foreign minister, Haris Silajdžić, traveled to Washington several times to plead for American intervention in Bosnia. Silajdžić and the Bosnian government had no base in Washington and Austrian Foreign Minister Dr. Alois Mock offered the use of the Austrian Embassy. As Eichtinger recalls, during Haris Silajdžić’s visits, he organized meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Baker, U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and members of Congress and arranged interviews with major TV stations and U.S. media.
The Press and Information Service was very much involved in the humanitarian aid initiative, “Nachbar in Not” (“Neighbor in Need”), a humanitarian fundraiser started by Kurt Bergmann and supported by Austria’s public television, Red Cross and Caritas for the victims of the crisis in former Yugoslavia. More than 3,700 trucks with humanitarian aid were eventually sent from Austria to the region. The Press and Information Service organized a major press conference at the National Press Club, a charity concert and sponsored a photo exhibition with historic pictures of the Balkans. President Clinton thanked the organizers of the initiative with a personal letter. Austria, however, was also criticized for not coming to terms with its past, particularly following the remarks made by the Carinthian Governor and leader of the Freedom Party Dr. Jörg Haider who praised the employment policy of the Third Reich and was subsequently forced to resign as governor.
Dr. Klestil and Dr. Vranitzky received very positive comments for their speeches before the Israeli Knesset and the Austrian Parliament. President Klestil spoke of deep sympathy for the victims of the National Socialist regime. According to him, Austria was portrayed too often as a victim, and “too little was said about some of the worst Nazis being Austrian.”
The U.S. media shifted its interest regarding Austria again after the EU accession in 1995 and the EU Presidency in 1998. The Press and Information Service organized a number of conferences, roundtables and lectures at the Austrian Embassy. The most memorable conference was held in the Fall of 1998 on the Austrian EU Presidency. It was organized in cooperation with the School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. and its findings were published.
As Eichtinger mentions, the main job of the Press and Information Service was dealing with the media as well as promoting public relations. “Over the years, the Press and Information Service had built a vast network of contacts with leading U.S. print and electronic media. Monthly visits to New York and other media centers in the U.S. as well as the constant issuing of press releases through our own distribution system assured a steady flow of information about Austria. The Press and Information Service also arranged appearances of Austrian politicians on some of the most popular shows of CNN, CBS and other networks.”
One of the biggest events during Eichtinger’s time was the broadcasting of ABC’s “Good Morning America” from Vienna, Salzburg and Graz with well known guests such as Wolfgang Puck and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Wolfgang Puck did a live cooking demonstration in Graz’s city center.
During his time at the Austrian Press and Information Service Martin Eichtinger and his deputy, Ulf Pacher, read weekly news in German at a radio station, which was broadcast to a number of German radio stations throughout the country. “The yearly visit at the NATPE (National Association of Television Producers and Executives) provided a good overview of important topics for cable networks. In addition, the contacts established on this occasion laid the foundation for a fruitful cooperation with the History and Discovery Channels.”
The Information Service also had strong relations with the Austrian clubs and organizations in the U.S., Mexico and Canada and supported the work of the Austrian American Councils. The highlight was the introduction of an Austrian Day in the U.S., supported by forty-nine out of fifty states with a proclamation by their governors.
Particularly helpful for the public image were the visits of Ambassador Dr. Helmut Türk in all fifty U.S. states. This fact was widely publicized in the U.S. media. Ambassador Türk even received an award at the National Governors’ Association which thus honored his achievement. The regular visits in the big media centers in the U.S. also provided a good opportunity to lecture at a number of universities throughout the country (Boston, Chicago, New York, Atlanta, St. Louis, San Francisco, Los Angeles and others).
Another public relations event worth mentioning was the Viennese Opera Ball in Washington, D.C., which was organized twice by Inga Kolodney and Martin Eichtinger. The total profits of 170,000 Euro for these events were donated to SOS Kinderdorf – SOS Children’s Village. Prior to the Opera Ball, the Press and Information Service offered Viennese waltz courses at the Austrian Embassy, attended by more than 800 people and broadcast live by National Public Radio (NPR), among others. Even the daughter of President Clinton, Chelsea Clinton received dancing classes in the White House and was a guest at the first Viennese Opera Ball in Washington. During his time, Martin Eichtinger put particular emphasis on the exchange of journalists between the U.S. and Austria. “The Press and Information Service organized a number of events and supported Austrian journalists by organizing their participation in party conventions. It was also important to keep good relations with journalism departments at a number of universities, such as Columbia University in New York, Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. I visited these schools regularly and maintained good relations with professors in the various journalism departments.”
Ambassador Dr. Martin Eichtinger was born in Graz in 1961. After graduating from the University of Graz Law School (1983) and postgraduate studies in Bologna (Diploma in International Affairs from the Bologna Center of SAIS/The Johns Hopkins University 1985) and Paris (Institut d’études politiques, Sorbonne), he joined the Foreign Service in 1986 and was assigned to the Austrian Embassy in Mexico City (1987). From 1988-1992 he served as personal secretary to Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock. In 1992, he was assigned to Washington, D.C. and served as Director of the Austrian Press and Information Service which had been newly established at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. After returning to Vienna in 1999, he headed the Federation of Austrian Industry’s International Department (1999-2002). In 2000 he served as Chief of Staff of the Special Representative of the Government for the settlement of issues related to forced labor during the Nazi regime. In 2003, he was appointed Chief-of-Staff of the Austrian Minister of Economics and Labor, and in 2006, was appointed Secretary General of this Ministry. Since 2007, he serves as Austrian Ambassador to Romania and Moldova.