Emese Danks has been involved in the work of the advisory board of the BFO’s managing director, Orsolya Erdődy, for several years. She is someone known to have contacts all around the world whom she can look to for help when people need help. We hope you enjoy reading this interview, part of a series introducing members of the BFO’s supporting bodies.
Júlia Váradi: How did you build such a network of contacts, and where does your constant desire to help people stem from? Is this something you were simply born for?
Emese Danks: I have never thought about this. But perhaps it goes back to how I originally planned to be a dancer. I attended the Ballet Institute from the age of nine, and in fact graduated from there. Because my godmother, Jacqueline Menyhárt, was a prominent ballet dancer and instructor, I had the chance as a little girl to admire her, and this compelled me to want to become a ballet dancer myself. I was drawn to the world of tutus, false eyelashes and pointe shoes. When I turned fourteen, my parents sent me to France for the summer to learn French and I was hit by a car one day while out on my bicycle. The French doctors concluded they would need to amputate my leg below the knee; thankfully, however, I was transported back home and Hungarian doctors saved me from the amputation. I went back to dancing, I repeated one year of school, but ultimately, because of my injury, I had to give up dancing for good. So at a very early age I had to realize that my one chance was to start over. Although my parents were very supportive, I still had to make the decision myself, and I had to learn how to move on, retaining my faith in the future.
J.V.: What was your first independent decision?
E D.: It was thanks to my parents that by that time, I spoke German and French very well; in the year of my high school leaving exam, I also learned English well, so I had a direct path to continuing to deal with languages. There was no question that I would apply to the College of Foreign Trade.
J.V.: So you graduated from there, and during your studies, you came to like this profession?
E D.: Well, I would not say that. I actually never went into foreign trade, and the reason is that after graduation, I met my English husband, and we immediately moved, first to England and then to Germany. Shortly thereafter it was there that I got my first job, as a member of the ground staff of Pan American Airways. This was in the late eighties, when Frankfurt Airport was one of the most important destinations for U.S. carriers. It was from there that you could fly, for instance, to what was then West Berlin; at the time, only three airlines were permitted to fly to that destination. Pan Am was also the airline officially designated for the U.S. government, which meant that we frequently ended up in situations where for diplomatic or other reasons we needed Hungarian staff who spoke foreign languages at an advanced level. This is how I quickly ended up at Pan Am’s VIP club at the airport.
J.V.: What year was this?
E D.: This was the late eighties: the time of the system change, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the political realignment of the continent. As a result, I found myself close to the political elite of the world at that time. I had the chance to speak directly with leading world politicians, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former National Security Advisor to the president of the United States, and Mark Palmer, the U.S. ambassador accredited to Hungary at the time, as well as a number of other interesting and prominent politicians and international public figures.
J.V.: Was this when you realized that you have a special skill which allowed you to forge contacts incredibly well?
E D.: This was not something I did consciously. But I did have a number of outstanding role models to learn from, including my husband, Jeremy. At the time, he was vice president for marketing of American Express, and also its marketing guru; when we moved to the United States a little later, he became vice president of Visa. He taught me the meaning of networking in the Anglo-Saxon business world, how to establish contacts and the protocol and most important steps of this process. I continue to live by what he taught me then, and this is something I try to pass on to those I mentor today. For instance, I tell them that a reception for us is not a place to enjoy munching on deviled eggs or foie gras sandwiches by ourselves: it’s a place to work. At the beginning of a reception, we would look at each other and say, “let’s do the room,” which meant we would start at opposite ends of the room, and then hours later, a glass of orange juice in hand, we would tell each other whom we had met, what we had talked about and how successful we had been in achieving our goals.
J.V.: Would you be able to share what it takes to create the relationship you were seeking? Does it take just a pretty smile, some kindness and paying attention to the other person, or is there a special trick which makes you able to achieve what you wanted?
E D.: First and foremost, you have to show respect and a genuine interest in the other person. Without these, you cannot establish any kind of relationship. When someone tries to aggressively force their goal on someone else, that is bound to fail. If you have no empathy and humility towards the other person, don’t even try doing this. It is also important to become attuned to the rhythm of the other person. If they are slower to react, don’t try to hurry them. If they’re faster or are in a hurry, you have to match their speed. In other words, you have to test and get a feel for the other person’s energy field, which everyone is surrounded by.
J.V.: How long did you live in the United States?
E D.: We lived in San Francisco for two years, but I did not really feel at home there. So I returned to Frankfurt, where I joined the communications company Grey Communications, learning a great deal about the fundamentals of PR work.
J.V.: In the mid-nineties, you returned to Hungary. Why did you move back?
E D.: Because they were looking for someone to work alongside the boss at Tele Magazin, one of the Hungarian businesses of the Bertelsmann company, and I was interested in the job. But they sold the company soon after, and I eventually found myself joining the team at Írisz TV, which was just launching, working as a communications manager with György Baló.
J.V.: This is the station that would come to be known as TV3; unfortunately, it was not very long-lived. But you are not someone who gives up: you immediately found somewhere to move on to. Is that right?
E D.: It was then that I experienced the most beautiful event of my life, the birth of my son, András. As a baby, I would take him to work with me. I had to do my job, because the establishment of private television stations was a major learning process for us, and it was also incredibly exciting. So András had to do all of this with me. Following the shutdown of TV3, I joined the state television, MTV, as head of the press department. I was fortunate to have been able to work for the public service broadcaster during one of the most exciting times. For instance, I got to witness the Sydney Olympics as a member of the Hungarian team broadcasting the games. In early 2001, I was approached by Malév to serve as the airline’s communications director. Of course, I could not resist the familiar “smell of kerosene” which I had first experienced a long time before. Naturally, in March, I had no way of knowing what would happen on September 11 of the same year, which resulted in an entirely new situation for aviation and the airlines, including Malév. So much else also changed in the world.
J.V.: For you personally, did September 11 result in a change of your role?
E D.: Yes, in that from then on, I had to face the public and comment on everything which had to do with aviation. It was a tremendous responsibility, because there were emergency landings and other extraordinary aviation events; I often had to calm passengers’ family members one by one. It was not a particularly peaceful time. But I also felt that this job allowed me to help many people personally, and this had always been a key part of me; for me, my priority was always to have a genuinely close relationship with my clients. Perhaps it was this which attracted me when I eventually moved from Malév to Tesco, a job which I enjoyed in part because retail had always been a world I found fascinating. At the time, Tesco was one of the largest Hungarian actors, and working for the company taught me and allowed me to understand up close how the whole chain works, from the retailer to the customer. What I also particularly enjoyed was being able to launch corporate social responsibility in Hungary, building on Anglo-Saxon traditions.
J.V.: How did you get involved in Hungarian politics? How did you end up serving as the government spokesperson of the second Gyurcsány government?
E D.: They were looking not for a politician, but a communications professional, to serve as government spokesperson. Perhaps this is why they chose me. National politics, however, was an entirely new world for me, coming from the business world. Seeing some of the “kitchen” of the most important branch of power, and even working in that kitchen, was a completely new task for me, and it also included taking some of the responsibility for the fate of the country. I took several days to think it over before I accepted the offer.
And then I quickly learned just how challenging this position can be. Soon after I assumed my position on August 1, 2006, a major storm hit the August 20 fireworks display, and then the following month, in September, the Őszöd speech came out. I served as government spokesperson during what may have been the most turbulent eight months of the country’s modern history. I am not, was not and never became a politician. During my work, I always strived to represent the government with dignity and to serve the people with humility. In other words, I considered it my primary task to serve in this position, just as I had learned at my earlier workplaces. How to speak in a way that makes the message intelligible to all. This is what I tried to achieve during my time there.
J.V.: How successful were these eight months for you? And what failures did you experience?
E D.: I saw tremendous responsibility and tremendous tasks before me, which I wanted to perform to the best of my ability. You arrive at mountain after mountain, and all must be climbed. Fortunately, I had a supportive family backing me up, so I did not feel alone. The political arena I found myself in is actually a battlefield. It was no walk in the park.
J.V.: Was there any conflict surrounding your departure? Was it an impulsive decision? Or was your contract simply up?
E D.: It was a spur of the moment decision for me, because one day I had to realize that they had identified someone else to take my place. And although the prime minister offered me another position, I found it better to return to the business sector, where I felt more at home anyway. But it was the most exciting and professionally most challenging period of my life, and something I am grateful to fate for.
J.V.: Was it not a disadvantage, subsequently, to be considered someone who was committed to the government in office at the time?
E D.: I did not experience that, but after serving as government spokesperson, I did consciously take a step back for a while, and joined a recruitment agency. This was a different world, but I tried to fit in quickly, and to serve clients to the best of my ability.
Soon after, I was offered a position as communications director of Erste Bank. When Erste became the main sponsor of MÜPA Budapest, this also gave me my first opportunity to support culture more actively.
I left the bank after six years and joined UNICEF, initially as a volunteer. I then applied for the position of managing director, which I ended up holding for four years. As a child, I always thought that an organization which had Audrey Hepburn - originally a ballet dancer before becoming a world-famous actress - as its figurehead must represent a top tier in the world. My dream to work for UNICEF had become a reality.
J.V.: Knowing you, this was probably the best fit for you, since it focused specifically on organizing help and directing it to the needy.
E D.: That is exactly right; and I was doing this work at the world’s largest children’s rights organization. Protecting the rights of children continued to occupy a key place in my life even after I left UNICEF. For years I have been serving as the children’s protection officer for the Hungarian Swimming Federation and more recently also for the Hungarian National Skating Federation.
In addition to these duties, I spend most of my time these days with communications advisory and mentoring work, which is also about helping. One of my favorite jobs, however, is the position of president at OMIKE, the National Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association; for this, I have Iván Fischer to thank. Just over a year ago he decided to reestablish OMIKE. Now, with Iván and our colleagues, I am able to work on organizing cultural events at the Rumbach synagogue.
J.V.: How did your relationship with the BFO start?
E D.: Some years ago they put out a call inviting applications for the position of managing director. I came in second, but the opportunity allowed me to get to know Iván Fischer. This was a defining experience for me, and led me to want to find a way to get involved with the Festival Orchestra – to experience its professionalism and learn more about its background from up close.
J.V.: Today, you serve as an advisor to Managing Director Orsolya Erdődy. What advice do you give? How are you able to help the orchestra?
E D.: It is primarily in building contacts that I am able to contribute to the orchestra’s ongoing success. But I am happy to help Orsolya and her team of professionals in any other question as well. I enjoy this so much: being able to feel the closeness of the Festival Orchestra each day, along with its environment and atmosphere. To be a member of this incredible family.
J.V.: And let’s not leave out another important activity: the organization you founded, and which is also based on organizing help.
E D.: Indeed, I created the Lotus Flower Association, which helps bring volunteers to Nepal and India. These are people who want to break free from their day to day lives for a little bit, and perform volunteer work outside their comfort zone and away from their own lives. I am in touch primarily with schools, where there is an opportunity to hold different activities for the local children, getting to know their culture and living conditions. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” I have had the chance to experience this several times, and I want to give others this opportunity, too.