For best experience please turn on javascript and use a modern browser!
You are using a browser that is no longer supported by Microsoft. Please upgrade your browser. The site may not present itself correctly if you continue browsing.
Ewoud Nysingh went to study law because it was a family tradition. His study of International Law proved to be a good basis for his career in journalism and communications. As a war correspondent, he experienced the war in former Yugoslavia. 'Srebrenica is a national trauma', he says. Now he works as a crisis and reputation manager: 'It helps that I have a legal background, also in my conversations with administrators and supervisors.'

Law alumnus Ewoud Nysingh (Zwolle, 1958) proves that a law degree can be used to pursue a non-legal career. He has worked in communications for over 15 years and calls it a wonderful, but very difficult profession. 'Everything is about communication. The more complex it is, the more I like it.' Ewoud believes that communication goes to the heart of what you do and who you want to be as a company or institution. 'You can come up with all sorts of complicated strategies, but ultimately your reputation is determined by others. You can't just send or hide, but you have to start a conversation with your environment.' Ewoud coins the oneliner: trust comes on foot and leaves by tweet. 'It can happen very quickly', he explains. 'One tweet from a dissatisfied employee or whistleblower can be enough to plunge your organisation into a deep crisis.'

Schulten and lawyers

In Ewoud's family, it was tradition to study law. 'My whole family were lawyers', he says. My forefathers were schulten (the predecessors of the mayors in Drenthe, ed.). They sent their sons to Groningen to study law.' Nysingh is still a well-known name in the legal profession: Nysingh Advocaten, which his grandfather and father headed, is one of the larger law firms in the Netherlands.

After his first year, Ewoud chose International Law. 'You learned subjects such as international law, international relations and European law. I also took the human rights optional subject.' As a youngster he enjoyed reading Vrij Nederland, HP/De Tijd and a large number of newspapers and decided during his student years that he did not want to become a lawyer, but a journalist. In his final year of university, Ewoud did an internship at the foreign editorial office of NRC Handelsblad. 'That was back in the days of typewriters, although in the mid-1980s the NRC was the last national newspaper to computerise.' For him, it was a logical step to want to work on an editorial office abroad. 'There is a lot of overlap with international relations and international law. Even now, with the war in Ukraine, it is about violations of international law and human rights, the International Criminal Court, the Security Council, the Council of Europe, the Geneva Conventions, the NATO Charter and Ukraine's accession to the EU. Translated in a journalistic way, legal questions, what is allowed in a war, what is not allowed, how to become a member of the EU, are daily in the newspaper.'

‘I really wanted to be in that war’

After his internship, Ewoud became a reporter in Delft for the Haagsche Courant. 'There I really learned the trade by getting my feet in the mud. I tackled everything. I went with the police on New Year's Eve to riots and fires.' At the Haagsche Courant, Ewoud also worked at the foreign affairs desk, at the time with an extensive network of correspondents, after which he switched to the Volkskrant in 1990. 'Whenever war broke out somewhere, the newspaper would bring back its reporters. The news about the fighting and its consequences was taken from the news agencies. That was the rule.' Together with Daniël Koning, an experienced photographer, Ewoud was the first Volkskrant reporter to travel to war zones, to Croatia, at the beginning of the war. 'The chief editors wanted the newspaper to be there. Just like Ukraine, this was a war close to the Netherlands, and moreover in a popular holiday country. The two of us drove straight into the Krajina. The Serbs had started what we later called "ethnic cleansing". We had stuck the letters "TV" on our hire car with tape. In hindsight, very dangerous. After that I started working with fixers, which was relatively safer.'

'I was a platoon commander in the infantry as a conscript. I really wanted to be in that war. I can't recommend it to anyone, but I wanted to experience what that's like. It grabs you by the throat, it never lets go.' Ewoud compares the war back then with the war in Ukraine today. 'It started as a kind of peace operation by the Yugoslav people's army to protect the Serbian minority in Croatia, but it soon became clear that the aim was to expel unarmed non-Serbian civilians. Later followed the horrors in Bosnia, as we all know.'

It is a national trauma, because more than 8,000 men and boys were killed in the Netherlands. It is still an enormous wound

From diplomatic editor to research journalist

In 1995, Ewoud became diplomatic editor at the Volkskrant. He worked on foreign affairs, development cooperation and defence. 'These subjects had maximum overlap with my studies', says Ewoud. When the Srebrenica enclave fell, he and many other journalists started investigating what happened. 'For years I did research on the fall of Srebrenica. I was also heard by the NIOD, which investigated on behalf of the government.' When he now encounters journalists, civil servants or politicians from that time, it is soon about Srebrenica. 'It is a national trauma, because more than 8,000 men and boys were killed in the Netherlands. It is still an enormous wound, for all people involved at the time.

Because he wanted to learn the television trade, Ewoud switched to NOVA, as a research journalist. 'I did a lot of Srebrenica research there as well, especially with Carolien Brugsma.' Srebrenica still haunts him. That will remain. 'That is why I am now also following Ukraine closely again.' Ewoud thinks that nowadays you can follow the course of a war much better thanks to social media. 'Now you can search on social media for good, reliable reporters on the spot and for analysts. Then you are very well informed via your smartphone.'

'In the 1990s, when I was in Sarajevo or Mostar, for example, the desk editors in Amsterdam had a much better idea of what was going on on the battlefield than I did. Soon there was no telephone.' And all the war parties lied so much that Ewoud only wrote down what he could observe himself. 'Is there a mass grave here? Show me", I would say. I wasn't going to write anything down if I hadn't seen it myself, because I couldn't verify anything. In this day and age, reporters on the ground are much better informed. They also don't know many things for sure, but they have more context and can consult with their editors.'

Switch to communication

In 2003, Ewoud decided to exchange journalism for communication: 'I wanted to know what it is like on "the other side", also called "the dark side" by journalists.' After a few years as head of communications at a college of higher education, he started out on his own, working mainly as a spokesperson and crisis and reputation manager. From the start he worked a lot with lawyers, for example with the Healthcare market group of Nysingh Advocaten. 'It helps that I have a legal background, also in my conversations with managers and supervisors. Supervisors are increasingly under fire if something has gone wrong and they benefit greatly from good advice.'

When elder care was under heavy fire, Ewoud advised many managers. 'At that time, the care sector had little experience with media pressure and the accompanying fuss. As a crisis manager, you help managers of institutions to properly explain what is going on. If you're going to talk to journalists, you need to know how that works.' Ewoud does not think it is a bad thing that administrators, directors and supervisors are trained in the media. 'A journalist also benefits from someone being able to tell his or her story concisely. You learn what the pitfalls are. During such a training you practice the core messages. What do you want to say and how do you say it? What works and what doesn't? For me, the core is always: tell it honestly and then we'll see how and to whom.'

According to Ewoud, the most important thing during a crisis is communication within the institution. 'Good internal communication is crucial in a crisis, because you want to keep your club together. Every employee represents the company or the institution, everyone can be called. People have to know what the communications policy is and what a journalist wants from them when he calls or stands at the door with a rotating camera.' Often, lawyers are also involved. 'In a crisis, a lawyer sometimes advises: you can't apologise, because then you'll get claims for damages. There have been many court judgements. Generally speaking, sincere apologies do not lead to liability.'

Coachman's posture

Ewoud quotes the interview with John de Mol at BOOS, about the The Voice scandal. It seems that De Mol was afraid of damage claims by denying that he was aware of transgressive behaviour, with one exception. 'If he had had good advisers, he would have been different. He sat with a closed mind. Every communications specialist advises a so-called coachman's stance: a benevolent, slightly hunched posture when talking to a journalist. And advises to be empathetic towards the victims.'

More at the controls

Ewoud has good memories of his time as a journalist, but is glad he made the switch to communication. 'The nice thing about being a journalist is that with your notebook you are a kind of factor. The Prime Minister also speaks to you. I was there when Pim Fortuyn made his "At your service gesture" in Hilversum. A magical moment. I have spoken to many protagonists in Yugoslavia and also of Dutchbat.' But being a journalist also has a disadvantage, he feels: 'You are always asking questions, you are by definition on the sidelines.' As a communications advisor, he can be more at the controls. 'It has a lot in common with journalism. Because it is often exciting and it matters.'