How to get government communication right

This op-ed was first published in the New Vision. It is republished here with permission. 

By Jim Mugunga

Shortly before the election campaigns fever heightened, there was communication to the effect that President Yoweri Museveni had directed every ministry to hire a public relations firm in order to effectively communicate Government programme implementation.

In the days that followed, there was an escalation in the churning out of hastily done articles that accounted for schools, health centres and other infrastructure. It was an attempt to both impress the Executive and deal with potential questions from voters.

However, since the articles raised more questions on credibility than offer insight, they backfired. One politician countered the barrage of articles with visits to health centres in the east, west and north of Uganda, accompanied by television cameras. The result: a well-documented negative PR, security and political debacle.

Fast forward after the elections and the Executive must have noted gaping holes. The New Vision of June 27 ran another story in which it is stated that the President had directed the Prime Minister, Dr Ruhakana Rugunda, to ensure his directive on PR and communications officers is implemented. The directive also requires the Government agencies and departments that handle media to be moved to the new Ministry of Information, Communication and ICT. The Minister, Frank Tuwebaze, is now mandated to review the agencies’ work; ensure no duplicity and where need arises, cause mergers.

The New Vision of Saturday, July 2, 2016 quoted Tumwebaze’s justification for the above measures as: “To streamline government media/PR practices as intended to ensure responsible and disciplined media reporting that is not injurious to the image of Uganda”. Other reasons include timely, factual and effective communication using all available platforms and the need to ensure co-ordination of all the Government communications players.

The above effort is long overdue. As a practitioner, I am aware that the various ministries of Government have clear mandates under which to undertake their obligations and hence communicate with stakeholders. The stakeholders range from those in-house; within and outside Government and indeed beyond the nation. Therefore, the drivers for such communication to be effectively undertaken are equally wide ranging. They go beyond mere recruitment of communications officers, creation of PR agencies or merging them; to law and trust, excellent communication, measuring communication impact, understanding the environment, the communications policies of Government, the will to communicate, resources and appropriate personnel.

Other factors are more technical and include mode, style of communication and choice of most suitable platform to deploy, a discussion for another day.

Today, however, we focus on the basics and nothing will change until reconciliation is made with the current state of affairs that places the role of the “official communications officer” of the ministry with the Permanent Secretary; with the CEO in agencies and with the CAO in local governments.

Few communication officers have the liberty to exercise judgment and speak out freely. Of course this liberty is earned but most accounting officers prefer to hold on to the portfolio and for “safety’ sake”, communicate nothing.

Others have chosen “to buy positive coverage” after all everything, they say, has a price. They believe, as did fallen American giant Enron, that PR is “white washing” so they dedicate huge budgets to positive press in an attempt to seem clean, accountable and productive. As is well documented, the Enron style never stands the test of time. Enron fell on its sword and in Uganda, two banks and a rotary business that had mastered this kind of PR collapsed as soon as the facts were published by uncompromising investigative journalists who chose the facts and truth ahead of the cash handouts.

Hence, Government accountability can easily be enhanced by proactive PR and related accountability. If a PR initiative thrives off buying positive coverage, then the indication is that the organisation it represents is rotten to the core.

The challenge for government now, before the Ministry of ICT and Information rolls out potentially ineffective and encumbered PROs, is to ensure that their placement within the Government will empower them participate in the strategic management of the organisations they represent. They should be able to timely carry out environmental scanning, lead the process of issues management, provide counsel in crisis situations, identify activist groups and engage them in dialogue, construct scenarios of how publics might behave, if certain decisions are made, and plan, organise and evaluate communications programmes to formally reach out to members of strategic publics.

In the current Government set up, the communications function is isolated from strategic decision makers and cannot counsel them about the public relations implications of potential, organisational decisions. Communications officers in the majority of Government departments wait for orders on how to support decisions in which communicators played no role.

In some organisations, the public relations function is placed in an entirely reactive role. They must wait for senior management to issue edicts to be communicated to others or simply gird themselves for the next media inquiry. They are either not respected enough or not trusted enough to be given a seat at the table with other leaders within the organization where they can use communications skills to manage issues before they become a problem.

So, if the Government PR machinery is going to function effectively and timely; they should pick lessons from the way leading private sector organisations and some progressive or advanced governments recognise the value of strategic communications counsel. Instead of paying multi-national media agencies to manage fall-outs, structures should be put in place to have the public relations function report directly to the Permanent Secretary or ministers. In governments in neighbouring Kigali and Nairobi, they adopted the corporate model and approach to communications and indeed the benefits are there for all of us to see.

There is also need to reconcile the laws that have become bottlenecks to effective communication. For example, for timeliness to be achieved; the spirit under which the Freedom of Information Act, 2005 was enacted must be emphasised. As it is, the time it takes to go through the elaborate filing, application process and research is all it takes to defeat any applicant seeking information and so the Act is largely deployed to stop timely communication that would otherwise promote efficiency and transparency. It is not un-common for Government officers to respond to press inquiries with, “submit a request under the Freedom of Information Act.” This approach only serves to confound news reporters accustomed to having routine questions answered promptly over the phone.

Further, it is wise for Government agencies to base their relationship with the media on a foundation of openness. Ministries and agencies are stewards of the public trust and funds. So, with the dramatically changing media landscape, it is not enough simply to meet the legal obligations of the state or rolling out PR and communications officers, but putting in place all the fundamentals as enumerated above.

The above aside, Tumwebaze may have to seriously attempt reversing the common trend of sloppiness that has eaten deep in government communications effort. The minister may wish to imply his colleagues to agree to subject to professional PR counsel. Some have gotten so comfortable dealing with the media that they let their guard down and in turn exposes the entities they represent to injurious or irresponsible media coverage. Whereas it is good for one to be available and not shy away from the camera; it is not a mandatory that one has often to say something into the microphone even when they actually have nothing to say!

In the recent past, there have been very distinct situations where more PR damage than good has been caused just because some people opted to speak where in fact they had nothing useful to comment. The trendy approach to use twitter or adopt other forms of social media is in itself effective in communicating as it is in bringing the house down. The recent near PR disasters relating to the untimely death of General Aronda Nyakairima and the mishandling of the Mulago Hospital Cancer issue, among others, are such examples of misemployed zeal to adopt social media platform to deal with serious government communications issues.

Today’s risk is that we have tended to dance to the tunes of social media sellers who are as quick to package their products just as was the case in the days of the now expiring un-solicited advertorials and inserts of the print media era. A social media account or so many followers does not necessarily interpret into reach, influence and or, impact. It is time we deploy modern tools to measure spread, impact and ensure value for money. As implementers we need not shy away from demanding for this proof. That way, we account for our work and also account for the huge tax payer’s money we spend on public relations.

Finally, Tumwebaze, I would urge caution in as far as dealing with The New Vision which is a publicly listed company. Any sensitive pronouncements that touch operations; governance and future plans ought to be managed carefully. The stock exchange is quite sensitive. That New Vision is publicly owned yet a government parastatal is such a blessing that we need to harness and not erode the benefits so far accrued.

The writer is the spokesperson of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development

Grace Natabaalo

Grace Natabaalo is a programme assistant at the African Centre for Media Excellence.

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