Head of Communications for the Estonian courts
The position of Head of Communications for the courts was instituted in 2019. I started work on 1 October 2019 and immediately found myself in the middle of Judicial System Information Week. The position is formally part of the Supreme Court, but its functions, as the title indicates, concerns communications from all courts.
The Head of Communications has the job of coming up with and carrying out projects across the judicial branch, shaping a uniform strategy and also assisting the courts’ press spokespersons. Right from the beginning, I knew that I would not have my own staff, so my only tool is good cooperation.
I took part in my first court administration advisory council session and the court administrators information day before I officially started work. I drew up a work plan for 2020 that included everything I felt had to be done. When I briefed the court administrators on the plan toward the end of the year, then Pärnu County Court chairman Rubo Kikerpill said something I will never forget: “Ambitious, that plan of yours.” I thought about it, looked around and was amazed – having only worked in the private sector, I wondered what he had meant by this, since everything seemed so easily done. But later I understood this court chairman was speaking from his extensive experience.
You can make big plans, tinker on a brochure or write a video script, but if a scandal breaks out in the media that affects the court’s reputation, my job is to come to the rescue, not to sit in my office fulfilling plans. Exchanges of ideas, unexpected questions, inquiries and discussions come up every day, but that makes the job interesting and beneficial for the court system as well.
In the following, I provide an overview of what has been done and is still being done over the three years. I will also do my best to find (nearly) all court employees who wish to contribute to the courts’ messaging but have thus far stayed modestly on the sidelines. Of course, productivity is welcomed – if it seems that some substantive topic crosses one’s desk all too often and if the public should be told about it, let us know! If it looks like a decision is taking shape that may subsequently reduce the need to go to court, we will write and talk about it.
Only courts themselves can convey their message
These seem to be very good years to be a head of communications: we are dealing with a generational shift. The long-enshrined attitude that a judge’s thoughts are contained in the judge’s ruling itself and do not have to be reformulated is fading. The new generation, and, gratifyingly, quite a number of veteran judges are adapting to the needs and conventions of the new era, the main one is as simple as can be – if we don’t do the talking, others will. If we don’t find time, others will. No story is left unpublished just because a court does not provide its side of the story or only manages to chime in a week later. A good way to illustrate this is a judge’s observation that the evening news programme “Aktuaalne Kaamera” starts at 9pm every night, whether or not we have a high workload, or aren’t ready to get involved or speak up. So it is.
Fortunately, as the result of diligent work by the court spokespersons as well as by the chairmen and judges, every building in the system is staffed with judicial practitioners who have a keen enough social conscience and perception of what the public expects that they come to help out even if the judge who issued the ruling is unable or unprepared to explain the decision. Of course, a judge who did not take part in the specific matter will not know all the details, but just talking about the possibilities or restrictions arising from law and pointing out tangents to analogous matters in case law can be helpful.
I remember a segment on the investigative journalism programme “Pealtnägija” from three years ago concerning a court decision, but we weren’t contacted with any questions. Later, when I asked the show’s anchor about this, he said, “But you always say ‘read the court decision’, and that’s what we did, assuming that that applied in this case as well.” I responded saying, “never assume, but always ask”. Of course I felt a little trepidation about whether we’d be able to make good on our promises but I would say that, in general, we have. There are always exceptions, often there is a good reason, sometimes not, but I think the court system overall has understood that explaining things is the only way to make sure we get across.
I would dare to confirm from my own experience that if the court does communicate explanations, the media and the public will not get personal or lob insults. People need not like a decision – which is totally normal in a democracy – but it is the decision and its reasoning and comprehensibility that can be criticised, or maybe even the law, but not the judge as the individual behind the decision. I sincerely hope that we will continue along our chosen path with robust steps.
The annual award for clear communication puts value on judges’ work
In 2021, we began handing out the court system’s annual prize for communication. The idea was to recognise judges who have publicly explained decisions and talked of administration of justice in eloquent and clear Estonian.
Quite soon we will hand out the third award at the judges’ plenary. The previous winners were Supreme Court justice Ivo Pilving and Tallinn Circuit Court judge Sten Lind. Both years, the decision was made by a distinguished jury whose feedback was a joy to read – many entries draw praise. Over two years, 21 judges have been sent before the jury, and none of them went away without garnering points.
Three nominees for the annual award for clear communication
Systematic training has undoubtedly contributed to the fact that there are more and more judges who speak and write in the media. This was a strategic decision – in cooperation with the chairmen, we found spokespersons from every court who were prepared to explain issues related to administration of justice and to take part in training events. There is no more need to find interested parties, the communication training held biannually are very popular.
The Opinion Festival, where courts have been represented, has become a popular event as well. Sometimes I even ask myself whether several months of preliminary work has been worth the 90 minutes on Paide’s lovely Vallimägi Hill. And my answer is definitely! Our discussions have always gone well, even great. A large number of well-informed audience members have been in attendance, asking many questions; listeners have provided positive feedback. Over three years, we have discussed topics such as whether judges sometimes make decisions just out of defiance, how to hand down a court decision if the media has already passed judgment, whether freedom of speech is in danger. If a good colleague from the prosecutor’s office comes and says the court restored belief in the Opinion Festival as a platform for exciting discussion, that generates a warm feeling and it gives you the energy to start all over again.
Judicial System Information Week is an event that spans the entire court system
In talking about events, Judicial System Information Week deserves a separate chapter. I remember how I was told about this weeklong event before I started my job, everyone portrayed it as an event organised by the Supreme Court, but the very next sentence was that it was the most important public relations project of the year. For me, those two sentences didn’t go together at all, for how can the biggest event for the entire court system be organised only by the Supreme Court? Because of that, with a little brain and a little brawn, we decided to expand it so that all courts (read: media spokespersons) could have a say and also shoulder part of the organising.
Coordination of the week continues to take place from the Supreme Court, but in the past few years, the first-tier and second-tier courts have been involved throughout the entire spectrum, from brainstorming to execution. Without any doubt, it can be said that the most recent Judicial System Information Week went like clockwork – everyone knew what their segment of work was and so there was no panic or last-minute surprises about things left undone.
However, the week does need a refresher – there is nothing more boring than using the same template and just changing the year and the dates and treading the same familiar path. This October, we plan to go out of the courthouses as much as possible, invite guests, hold fascinating discussion evenings and talk directly to people. Stories in the media are great and necessary but there’s no substitute for face to face contact. The plan is still yet to be refined but it will undoubtedly be ripe in October.
Website update and videos increase attractiveness
One important part of my work is to create materials that support the courts’ activities, give explanations in visually simpler language and point to problem areas.
Upon starting work, it was first necessary to update the courts’ visual identity and public website. Neither was a simple task as there is nothing harder than changing entrenched habits. We held a competition to find a suitable solution. To ensure that as many of our personnel as possible agreed to the new colour scheme, we put four entries to a vote. The court personnel were already involved – there were suggestion boxes set up in the courthouses, tables online – showed that there was interest in a change. Of course, all of the solutions and colour schemes got votes, but in the end the blue, grey and golden-yellow with brown as an accent won easily.
Today we have grown used to the new colours, the job ads stand out, the presentation templates look contemporary. The solution is dignified, like Estonian courts are.
After the stylistic change, the courts’ website had to be refreshed – both the content and the look. This is an endless-seeming job. Today, after a small pause to catch our breath, we are planning the next substantive innovations. For example, we want to improve the Employer (Work for Us) heading. People need to be given simple information on what to do if they receive a payment order. We are still working on developing a FAQ section.
I can confirm that people looking for information online will find kohus.ee. Statistics show that most of all, visitors look for contact information for the courthouses. They also search for other practical information, such as how to pay a state fee or “what is a payment order”. But to an increasing extent, people also watch videos and they have started actively giving feedback, which comes into my inbox. The suggestions are often worth considering and the questions are business-like – I find that I have to forward many of them to court officials.
As for websites, hopefully the Supreme Court page will also get a new look by the end of this year. We will soon launch a website meant for schoolteachers, where we have posted worksheets, presentations and videos that could be given to civics teachers and a short inside look at the court system for 9th and 12th graders. We could also, on a rolling basis, improve and correct this website and make it more user-accessible. Intranets will also have to be revamped this year. They will move over to a new version of the platform, which will make it possible to make changes to them as well.
Besides the big tasks, we have also filmed various sorts of videos. for example, how a young person might wind up in court. Another video talks about what the main civil cases that go to court are like, and how to avoid them. Another topic has been the various opportunities that we can offer as an employer. Animations of civil and administrative court proceedings have been produced, explaining what these proceedings are like and educating people on how to take cases to court. Topics that frequently cross administrative court judges’ desks have also been turned into animation and graphic form. Many thanks to all judges and court personnel who have participated in videos and made a valuable contribution!
Youth work must be a priority
One extremely important task is thinking about how to involve young people. I already mentioned the two major pillars – Judicial Information Week and an educational website for younger people. Many videos, too, are aimed at younger audiences. A mock Supreme Court case competition organised by the Supreme Court continues to be popular, and the entries received make it clear that there is hope for today’s youth. In fact, various schools have some very talented supervisors and clever students who take an interest in adjudicating various matters.
When we talk to the winners at award ceremonies, there are always a few who say they hadn’t previously considered a career in justice, but taking part in the competition gave them the idea. We are pretty sure that some of them will ultimately make their way to study law.
Working with students is also gaining momentum – last year we took part at the career fair held by University of Tartu Faculty of Law. We care about being visible at such events, offering entertainment as well as more serious talks and networking. The event was successful and those in the know have said that students gave us extremely high marks. Based on the contacts received from the fair, a number of courts have held evening events to meet young Estonians interested in internships.
On social media, we’re on Facebook and LinkedIn
One topic that never ends for us, since the world changes so fast, is the choice of social media channels. When I was hired, I conducted an analysis of what channels neighbouring countries use and how they see their effectiveness. I talked to Latvian, Lithuanian and Finnish colleagues. The Finns shared what they had heard in brainstorming sessions with Swedes on the same topic.
The scene that unfolded for me in 2019 was as follows: all four of the countries mentioned used, besides their website and YouTube, one social media channel. The Lithuanians put their energy into Instagram, the others on Twitter. The Finns 5500 followers on Twitter, the Swedes had 3800, and the Latvians, who had been developing the channel for about half a year, had 380. The Lithuanians’ Instagram account had 800 followers. Considering their respective populations, these figures are not that satisfactory.
The main arguments for using Twitter was the small number of users in Estonia. I quoted leading journalist Holger Roonemaa: “Twitter is used by us here in this room and by another couple people.“ Secondly, the question of content – what value-added we can provide to court decisions in 270 characters?
That was the origin of the decision to strengthen Facebook’s role as the channel for courts and change the name of the account. The last name – the “art of justice” in translation – seemed too general, and some co-workers thought it was esoteric. So we went the straightforward path, and the channel called Estonian Courts (Eesti Kohtud) now has over 4000 followers with the number growing constantly
More than a year ago, we also decided to set up a LinkedIn account, which had two goals. First, we wanted to convey short summaries of Supreme Court decisions, and secondly there was an increasing need to share job ads. Today we can say that the decision has paid off. We have over 1,000 followers and when we look at the profile, most of the people were trained as lawyers. So this channel is functioning for both distributing information and finding personnel. And – just as important – studies show that LinkedIn is not a dying medium but has strengthened its position over the last year.
The courts system’s Facebook page has
The LinkedIn page has
The courts’ public website gets an average
visits each week
We have instituted a court-system-wide tradition of giving gifts
One superficially trivial undertaking that is actually a very big project I have led is ordering keepsakes across the whole court system. Today quite a large number of items have been developed bearing the inscription ”Eesti Kohtud“. On one hand, we want every court to retain its own identity and mementoes. It would be comical if a foreign delegation goes to three courthouses and gets the same drinking water bottle. Undoubtedly there are also events where it would be wiser to give an item emblazoned with the central Eesti Kohtud logo. I will mention just a few keepsakes we have: laptop cases, chocolate wrappers, water bottles, phone sleeves, reflective devices, various ballpoints, puzzles, lollipops, snacks. We also have gift bags in three different sizes.
What else do we work on every day?
And now I come back to the beginning. Besides big projects, a head of communications for the courts also has daily work, which is discussing ground-breaking precedents or otherwise noteworthy court decisions with the press spokespersons. Sometimes we have to commission opinion pieces or set up interviews. I also take part in major undertakings in the Supreme Court, whether organising a plenary or making plans for a yearbook. There are thousands of little details that take up my time, but all this nevertheless gives a good overview and a big picture or what is going on in our court system, what the needs and expectations for communication are.
Cooperation is the basis of everything
All things considered, I would like to emphasise that no one is talented enough to be able to come up with things alone year in and year out and do things so that others don’t start yawning out of boredom. For a head of communications for the courts, networking is very important, which includes of course the external relations representatives but also chairmen of the courts, directors, many of the judges who contribute to the discussion and, more broadly, everyone working for the courts. Furthermore, good cooperation extends out the doors of the courthouse to the prosecutor’s office, Bar Association, Ministry of Justice. We have successfully carried out larger projects with all of the above, undoubtedly it will continue in future as well.
To sum up, the communication team each day carries out communication strategy goals. But in the second half of this year we will tackle a review of the big picture and reconsider our strategy – what has been done, what is ˇin progress, what direction we are going and what the new goals are. In any case, we won’t come to a standstill!