Those tasked with communicating on behalf of the government would do well to engage in some introspection regarding the purpose of their job and work towards building relationships with journalists and other media practitioners
Last week the Mail & Guardian (September 13-19) ran a hard hitting-editorial (“State’s empty-headed PR” about the role of government communicators, many of whom are failing spectacularly as the face and voice of the government.
I have been teaching a week-long course on government communications and leadership at Rhodes University’s Sol Plaatje Media Leadership Institute for a decade. One of the exercises I conduct during the training is to ask spokespeople and journalists to develop a set of ethics for government communicators, as well as to list the qualities of a credible government communicator. The session helps them to engage in some introspection without being lectured to by others.
The M&G editorial offered government communicators a look into the mirror, however, as it is the norm, few honestly reflected on their critical and crucial role; others decided to smash the mirror and went into defensive mode because they don’t take kindly to criticism, even if it is constructive. Not surprising at all.
In 2011, the National Press Club commissioned a survey on the relationship between government spokespeople and journalists. The study found that many government communicators go underground when asked questions; some fail to acknowledge questions or switch off their phones. Yes, those phones that are tools of the trade and meant to make it easier to overcome communication challenges and hurdles.
Therefore, it came as no surprise when some government spokespeople resorted to defensive mode, instead of dealing with the issues raised. Perhaps it’s time for government communicators to re-examine their job descriptions and key performance areas. Over the years many journalists, editors, media trainers and lecturers have offered free lessons through their columns but it seems that the intended targets are either dismissive or have not read these columns.
Here is a free advice from a good place. The role of spokespeople is to communicate government plans, programmes and policies and —most importantly — to build relations with journalists. Their role is not to mimic or parrot their political principals but to portray a positive image of the government even during difficult times. But there is more to the job of communications than conveying only nice messages or good news.
Government communicators, especially those tasked to engage with the media, are the first and last line of defence. Theirs is a 24-7 job. They must display strategic thinking and then put this into practice operationally. It is important for government communicators to build and cultivate a better relationship with the media, including journalists, photographers and producers of radio and television shows.
Here are some of the burning questions that require honest answers rather than a cacophony of noise. Since the 2016 local government elections and the 2019 national elections, how many spokespeople have visited newsrooms as part of stakeholder relations? How many media statements have they churned out?
How many opinion pieces have they written? How many times have spokespeople hosted media networking sessions? Do they understand the important role they play as conduits between their political principals and other stakeholders and the people who work in the media?
Do government communicators understand the theory of agenda-setting? What is their understanding of strategic and political communication?
How often do communicators from national engage with those from provincial and local government spheres? Instead of building relations, those from national departments often parachute into both provincial and local government and completely disregard their colleagues. I have witnessed this trend, as have many communicators in local government.
National spokespeople even have the temerity to disregard community media although it is part of the government’s strategic agenda to promote this vital sector through the Media and Development Agency.
There are a few government communicators who understand their important role, and they should share their best practices with their colleagues who think the job of people a spokesperson is about being a celebrity.
Instead of moaning, whining and groaning, it would be better for spokespeople to engage in an honest introspection and stop the sheepish attempts to defend the indefensible. It would also help to put emotions aside. We all want to see a credible and competent cadre of government communicators.
Themba Sepotokele is a journalist, communication strategist and media trainer. He writes in his person capacity.