Pushing the Public Sector

“A better life for all.” “South Africa deserves better.” Ah yes, nothing brings the government closer to its people than an election year. All of a sudden, we’re assured of our ministers’ sterling performance in all spheres – or their not-so-sterling performance, if you’re lending the opposition an ear. But where will we find the politicians’ beaming faces and warm handshakes once the votes have been tallied? How good is government at keeping in touch when there isn’t a ballot on the line? And what are the implications for our communications industry, particularly PR practitioners?

There are three topics certain South Africans love moaning about – crime, unemployment and the HIV crisis. Ask any of the whingers what government is doing to remedy the situation, and you’re unlikely to get a satisfactory response – but is that because they’re intrinsically negative, or because government hasn’t taken the care to alert the public to their actions?

Evidence points to the latter. We now know that government has recently embarked on an antiretroviral rollout. But think back to pre-December days – was there any inkling of the government initiatives in place to combat the virus? I may be flaunting my ignorance, but I was of the opinion that other than debate the issue at length, very little was being done – until I was tasked with an assignment that led to my discovery of an extremely comprehensive strategy, including a number of partnerships and the like. Why had I not known about these before then?

Maybe, suggests Peter Mann of Meropa Communications, because government has to target two audiences through its communications: the media-savvy city dwellers, and the sector of South African society not reached by conventional media – accounting for as many as 65%, according to a study conducted by the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS). Government has to use alternative means, such as community media centres, to reach the latter – and just because its not happening before the eyes of the city dwellers doesn’t mean it’s not successful.

Mann is one of many who believe government is right on target in keeping the public informed, but there are just as many who don’t.

“It’s tricky to comment on government communications in general, because most departments do their own PR,” comments Magna Carta managing director Michele Anderson. “From a global perspective, however, there appears to be a lack of coordination between those departments and the president’s office, as well as between central, local and provincial government levels. PR needs to maximise every possible opportunity, and in the absence of good systems and coordination, these opportunities are lost. Look at the budget speech, for example – just before its release, some ministers passed comments on matters that, although not related, impacted on how it would be received. Coordination is a massive job, and I don’t think government has the right systems in place.”

Anderson adds that government doesn’t maximise exposure for the positive things that are happening. The departments granted the most column space are generally those involved in controversial issues – health, for example – and in most cases, those centimetres have a distinctly negative slant.

This, of course, points to the fact that bad news sells. But then isn’t it PR’s job to try cushion the blow? Bridget von Holdt of Communications Consultants reveals that her consultancy does receive calls from government departments requesting assistance on major projects – but often, she says, these calls come a little too late, showing lack of professionalism, foresight and awareness of how PR should be used.

“Clearly, [government] understand the importance and value of PR, but they don’t exploit opportunities. Government could wield a bigger stick and command more attention simply because of the nature of its activities.”

Wendy Van Schalkwyk of Citigate South Africa gives her own opinion of this failing: “Government inherited a culture of secrecy and non-disclosure. This in itself presents a challenge that needs to be overcome, because of the negative perception that when one engages with the media, one is vulnerable and open to public scrutiny. PR within the government has therefore always been seen as ‘spin-doctoring’ which lacks credibility, integrity and ethics.”

On the other side of the fence sits Ruth Golembo, managing director of Lange PR. “Government communication has improved dramatically in recent years,” she says. “Look at how much excitement has been generated around our ten years of democracy.” Golembo admits, though, that key spokespeople have an unfortunate habit of making some pretty cringe-worthy statements off-the-cuff – and, of course, it’s these unwitting remarks that the press swoops on.

Which points to the fact that government communication is – or should be viewed as – more than a handy contact at an influential newspaper. “All governments tend to see PR as one-dimensional, using it only when they want to influence the electorate. But it’s so much more than that – good PR encourages dialogue and ensures accountability. It’s reputation management, creating networks to foster advocacy and word of mouth – which is the most credible form of communication,” says Lucien Vallun of Fleishman Hillard. Think of the US candidates’ campaign trails and compulsive “pressing of the flesh”, and you get the picture.

Morne Ebersohn of Veracity agrees. “PR is an all-encompassing discipline including front-line service, publicity, communication projects and road shows which aim to create effective communication between an organisation and its stakeholders.” Ebersohn is of the opinion that, while national government has a firm grasp of this concept, the efforts of local government and metros are sadly lacking. “The Johannesburg Metropolitan City Council launched a media council a couple of years ago. I think the project has failed – consumers often have problems with basic services. Surely PR should be used as a tool to improve service or enhance perceptions surrounding it.” Unfortunately, national government often becomes guilty by association.

Ultimately, adds Ebersohn, it’s important to distinguish between how government uses PR as a communication tool, and how PR is used to communicate political views.

But what does government have to say about this? Mdu Lembede, chief director of government and media liaison at GCIS, feels it isn’t fair to slam government’s communication strategy without looking at the issues. “It’s human nature to internalise only what we’re interested in,” he says.

So then who’s at fault when we don’t read about the latest crime prevention campaign? It’s human nature to resist change once the mind’s made up. Again, crime is a good example – we read about frightening crime stats (given fabulous coverage, of course, because in the media bad news is great news) and, instead of questioning them, we trot them out at the next dinner party.

“This means we have to put out fires constantly,” says Lembede. “Not that we aren’t proactive – we communicate through a variety of channels, but success doesn’t make good copy. When was the last time you read about how many houses have been electrified?” Plus, he adds, with government-related stories appearing on every second page of the newspaper, it’s hardly true to say that government communicates ineffectively.

Lembede’s not denying that there are challenges, however. Chief among these is coordination of government’s three tiers – local, provincial and national – enabling communication with a single voice. Consider that each of the 28 government departments has its own communication component, itself consisting of several hierarchical layers. Moreover, each province is serviced by a media liaison officer, with a similar structure for municipalities. Nightmarish as it is to align respective strategies, doing so in a manner that provides guidance without being prescriptive is even more difficult.

“We have to put out fires constantly. Not that we aren’t proactive – we communicate through a variety of channels, but success doesn’t make good copy. When was the last time you read about how many houses have been electrified?” – Mdu Lembede, GCIS

But, says Lembede, communicating with the “outside world” is far more trying. South Africans have a baffling habit of self-sabotage by spreading pessimism about their country, particularly in the media. “Anyone stepping off a plane at Johannesburg International Airport and reading a newspaper would want to fly straight back to their country. Unfortunately, foreign correspondents rely heavily on local journalists for stories, and often the only way to get column space is by dramatising an issue – it’s not important unless it’s shocking,” he adds.

And government has indeed found creative means of fighting this. The International Marketing Council’s website (www.safrica.info), for example, is acknowledged for doing a great job of building local spirit, whilst international brand managers in strategic countries like the United States, United Kingdom and, soon, France, Germany and Japan, are helping to spread the good word.

South Africans have a baffling habit of self-sabotage by spreading pessimism about their country, particularly in the media.

So the jury’s out on whether government’s communication efforts are as effective as they could be – but does this impact on the use of communication in South African corporates, too? The jury’s out on this issue as well, it seems.

While some PR practitioners argue that public and private sector communications are unrelated – after all, companies are in competition with each other, not with government – others say that there is an unmistakeable relationship between the two.

Says Van Schalkwyk: “The impression that PR is little more than spin doctoring lacking strategy, sustainability and ethics means that PR practitioners don’t receive the credit and recognition they deserve. We’re currently striving to change this image – but this takes time.”

Ebersohn has his own views: “The Access to Information Act was passed a year ago, but it wasn’t effectively communicated. Only after Business Day published a story claiming that a large percentage of companies did not comply with the new legislation did government act.” The situation was remedied – but should it have happened in the first place?

The dance between government and the PR industry doesn’t end there – as Ebersohn points out, there are other factors to consider. “Government lobbying is not as large a priority in South Africa as it is in other countries. This is changing, and companies which are affected by legislation are starting to take it seriously.” This is positive and desirable in a democracy but, at the same time, places new pressures on practitioners to equip themselves with the correct skills.

Which is another point to ponder – some practitioners appear oblivious to the skills and knowledge required to do their job properly. Few realise, for example, that they can be called to testify in court if incorrect information is disseminated to the public. This should be common industry knowledge – but is it?

“Government lobbying is not as large a priority in South Africa as it is in other countries. This is changing, and companies which are affected by legislation are starting to take it seriously.” – Morne Ebersohn, PRISA

This prickly issue of education is a cause of concern for many practitioners. Debby Reader, CEO of Tin Can, is particularly worried about what she calls “the lack of formal education”. She reports horror stories of people in possession of a PR diploma who are unable to write a press release or identify a news angle.

But the issue isn’t a simple one – it reaches beyond the industry, to universities where curricula fail to give a clear understanding of what the communications industry entails. Then there’s the lack of support from industry itself – although internships are a course component, many companies are reluctant to spend the resources on nurturing a student.

Reader suggests the implementation of a placement agency to help eager students find positions. “I receive about two internship requests daily,” she reveals. “Do these applicants ever find positions? We need to formalise the structure – but then, remuneration for the agency becomes an issue. Perhaps it could be government-funded.”

The lack of formal structure has other implications – for example, one consultancy’s account executive is another’s junior manager. Reader warns about handing titles to people who have not yet earned them.

There appears to be a lack of uniformity in the industry – something exacerbated by the fact that no regulation exists. While this undoubtedly has some drawbacks, there are practitioners who believe it does the industry no harm, insisting that the perspectives of individuals trained in other disciplines add to the industry’s vibrancy.

Indeed, whilst some practitioners bemoan the smear left upon the industry by incompetent fly-by-nighters, others insist on survival of the fittest. “I think low entry barriers are good in markets, so long as the buck stops at every player. It’s up to us to continue raising the bar – and eventually those not providing professional services will be forced out of the game,” says Vallun.

His confidence is shared by Ebersohn, who is also chairperson of the Public Relations Inistitute of South Africa’s (PRISA) PR Consultancy Chapter. Although many industry players have voiced the opinion that PRISA needs to be more active in enforcing registration and upping industry standards, he reports that the body is doing as much as it can. With an individual practitioner grading system already in place, plans for an accreditation system are also afoot, and the chapter is working on a consultancy grading system, too. But, he says, it’s as much up to industry and clients to ensure that standards are enforced. “If industry doesn’t become more professional, government may step in – and I don’t know how positive it will be for consultancies to have to apply for a license,” he warns.

Ultimately, it seems ironic that an industry aiming to promote effective communications is characterised by so many conflicting voices. But, then again, it’s also a sign of healthy debate – something we’ve learnt from the government? It seems, though, that all players agree on one thing: Although South Africa’s PR industry still has some road to travel, at least it’s on the right path.

How Empowered is PR?

Black Economic Empowerment is an area where most practitioners feel they can give themselves a pat on the back: whilst other sectors in the communications industry – such as advertising – have been scorched in the heated debate surrounding transformation, players are confident that theirs is a representative industry. Morne Ebersohn of Veracity and the Public Relations Insitute of South Africa (PRISA) reports proudly that the industry was one of the first to engage in significant transformation, adding that 70% of students at the PRISA Education and Training Centre are black, while 60% of candidates completing the management course are black.

Wendy Van Schalkwyk of Citigate South Africa February, however, is a dissenting voice. “The majority of South Africans – particularly scholars – grapple to understand what PR entails. Many people enter the industry by default since it does not require academic subjects like maths or science, or they’re attracted by the glitz and glamour it mistakenly represents. In my opinion, there is definitely a shortfall of HDI [Historically Disadvantaged Individuals] practitioners, especially those that can operate and deliver at a strategic level.”

Her concerns regarding lack of representation at the upper levels are echoed by Bridget Von Holdt of Communications Consultants and Debby Reader of Tin Can, who express distress at the thought that most empowerment deals appear to be little more than window dressing.

The solution, according to Van Schalkwyk, lies in the implementation of information and education programmes that will attract more HDIs, a chore which falls to PRISA and the International Association of Business Communications. Alternatively, she suggests the introduction of a Public Relations Charter, and more development, mentoring and training for those already in the field.

Interestingly, the PR industry seems particularly kind to that other previously disadvantaged group – women. A little too kind, perhaps, as Reader points out that there’s a paucity of male talent in the field. More of a social issue than an industry one, this, again, is something that needs to be addressed at university level – more must be done to attract males to the communications field.

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