WASHINGTON DC – The degree to which the Greek-American lobby can actually influence policymaking in the United States is debatable, but some things cannot be denied: A first is the close-knit ties between a number of Greek-American millionaires and big political players in Washington; a second is the persistent efforts of various organizations, institutes and committees to promote the motherland’s so-called “national issues;” and, thirdly, the growing challenges in pushing Greek interests in the US in the wake of the financial crisis – together with the new opportunities that social media have created in this area.
“Money is a problem,” said a Greek American who has in the past donated money to Democrat as well as Republican candidates. Asking to remain anonymous, he explained that the amount of money spent during US election campaigns has over the past few years gone through the roof.
Even the wealthiest members of the Greek-American community can only spend a certain amount of money, said Endy Zemenides, executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council, a national Greek-American advocacy organization based in Chicago.
For Zemenides, donations are important but what really makes a difference is regular, personal contact with politicians. “It is important that we build ties with candidates before they even move to Washington, while they are still in their states,” he said, adding that that has been the case with some of Greece’s closest friends, including Robert Menendez, the senior United States senator from New Jersey, and Vice President Joe Biden.
The Greek-American community may be generous, but it does have a serious handicap: It does a poor job of mobilizing its members. Zemenides believes that the reason for this is that the concept of civic society is still underdeveloped among Greeks for grassroots lobbying to flourish. He says that in order to strengthen this, they will have to engage more women. The reason is partly pure mathematics: Today it takes 100,000 signatures for the White House to respond to a letter. But it is also a matter of quality: On top of the diversity effect, statistics show women spend more money than men on the campaigns they are interested in.
The Hellenic American Leadership Council website invites visitors to sign petitions and send letters on Greece-related issues to representatives and local newspapers. One may, for example, find a template for a letter to the press asking for better coverage of Turkey issues. A similar process can be followed at the American Hellenic Institute, which sends out action alerts to its members so that they can sign petitions to the US Congress.
What organizations like Hellenic Leaders and the American Hellenic Institute share is the emphasis on “national issues” such as the Cyprus problem. In spite of the efforts of the Greek-American lobby, most of these issues remain deadlocked for years. At the same time, the crises in Greece and Cyprus are changing their governments’ priorities as there is less money for lobbying and the situation calls for greater emphasis on financial, technical even psychological aid from the diaspora.
Art Dimopoulos, a former executive at international law firm K&L Gates, insists on the need to hire specialized advisers. The firm, he said, has in the past come into contact with Greek leaders who thought they knew how things in Washington ran – but they were deeply misled. “An expert knows better how to approach a member of Congress or the head of a department and how to put forward a demand so as to achieve the desired outcome,” he said. This can be particularly useful for professional sectors like tourism, wine making and olive oil production.
Dimopoulos pointed out one more crucial factor: the need to reach an agreement on a set of key interests. As he says, “I’m for a strong, holistic lobbying campaign; not here, but in Greece. This is where we need to train, inform and win over public opinion. So everyone will be on the same wavelength on issues that are important to all Greeks and on which we should all be united.”
Despite the lack of resources and outside help, the understaffed Greek Embassy in Washington is putting a great deal of energy into social media and digital diplomacy as a member of Washington’s Digital Diplomacy Coalition and with a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube and Flickr. In fact, the @GreeceInUSA Twitter account was the eighth most influential diplomatic account in Washington. Greek Ambassador Christos Panagopoulos was one of the first diplomats to join the microblogging service.
The embassy does not always deal with high politics, but it is trying to mold a positive image for Greece. A recent social media campaign was aimed at promoting study programs in Greece for foreign students, while the next plan is the promotion of Greek entrepreneurship, innovation and research.
Meanwhile, Turkey is working with FleishmanHillard advertisers to strengthen its presence in social media. The same company is responsible for organizing jazz nights at the stunning residence of the Turkish ambassador, thus promoting not just the political but also the cultural dimension of the country. Turkey is spending millions of euros on the promotion of its objectives through a wide range of channels, including Turkish Airlines as well as the movement of Muhammed Fethullah Gulen.
According to ProPublica, Turkey spent 3.5 million dollars in 2008, the fourth-highest amount among foreign states, and approached members of Congress 2,268 times in its efforts to avert the recognition of the Armenian massacres as a genocide.