Government Communications in a Nutshell
Recent events in Zimbabwe have proven how fragile of a nation’s image and reputation can be. This is especially true regarding the consequences of its decisions. No amount of white washing can ever disguise ‘bad optics’ or negative perceptions formed thereof. The challenge is that governments and organisations have to deal with the negative effects of their actions head on.
How one deals with a crisis forms a compass. This is what the public will use to deal with the affected organisation in the future. Where trust is lost, it behoves the leaders of that organisation to work diligently to recover it. It is the foundation of the state of any future relationships.
Why Government Communications?
Let us put all this in its proper perspective. If the organisation adopts a devil-may-care attitude in dealing with the crisis and the issues around it, then, in the court of public opinion, it does not deserve a second chance.
On the other hand, when its leaders show remorse without necessarily losing their dignity, then those who are affected can allow it to pass, with not much as a slap on the wrist. It all hinges on how well the organisation communicates policies and actions. Some of these might be deemed unpopular, yet at the same time necessary.
Governments, like most organisations, should place a great deal of importance on how they communicate their decisions with their publics. It’s a basic principle that framing the messages in a way that is sensitive to its audiences should be part of its communication strategy.
It is instructive that even after a series of communication blunders. characterised by seemingly knee-jerk and uncoordinated responses, an organisation may realise the folly of its ways by taking corrective measures. It is an opportunity to repair the glaring chinks in its communication armour.
The absence of a coherent communication policy and a coherent and well-funded communications arm is not a healthy state of affairs for a government. It indicates a desperate need for a catharsis of sorts.
There is so much that is deficient with the manner which government organises its communications. A lack of appreciation of the power and importance of communication in the conduct of government business tops the list.
There is a lack of adequate budgetary support for the implementation of such a function. There is also a conspicuous shortage of qualified communication personnel in government ministries, its agencies and state enterprises.
Zimbabwe lacks a government-wide communication strategy. This embodies standards by which any entity can successfully deliver and implement communications policy. Setting up such a function essentially covers the breaches evident in its body politic.
The Role of Public Affairs
Governments implement public affairs policies that combine government relations, media communications, issue management, corporate and social responsibility, information dissemination and strategic communications advice. The above fall under the ambit of public relations, or corporate communications.
Public affairs allows for the dissemination of information to stakeholders. Its goal is to push or influence public policy, building support for a government’s (or organisation’s) agenda.
For this purpose, governments find it necessary to establish communication departments. Their mandate is to provide strategic guidance while ensuring communication of the country’s vision. They do this by communicating progress on visible and tangible implementation of government programmes at home and abroad.
Those in the profession have always lamented the inadequacy of the apparatus with which to spearhead a coherent government communication policy in the Information Ministry. Not that we are dismissing its role outright, but we must point out that there exist plenty of models to follow from around the world that the Zimbabwe government can adopt.
We don’t have to go very far for that. Neighbouring South Africa’s professional approach to handling communications through a dedicated internal structure is a case in point. The SA government considers communication to be a strategic element for service delivery to succeed.
A Global Example
We see examples from elsewhere on the globe. The United Kingdom, besides having a comprehensive communication strategy, provides guidelines for all government communicators to follow. That is, anyone with the task of handling communications across the ministries and the public service can refer to a handbook designed for that purpose.
They go even further by evaluating government communication activity following set and measurable standards. All this information collateral is available online. This is so that the professionals whose task is to communicate policy are continuously accountable.
As government communicators, they are all aware of the need to make every piece of work that they produce as effective and as efficient as possible. To do this, government appreciates the need to understand what’s working well and where there’s room for improvement. Continuous evaluation of government communications also helps build the frame work for future activities.
In short, without a deliberate and professionally led initiative to establish a government communication department, any efforts at informing stakeholders about government activities, policy implementation, and the sharing of their successes would be an exercise in futility.
The Way Forward
The Zimbabwe government must set aside a significant budget to establish such a department. It must recruit communication professionals like what is finally happening and empower them to initiate an all-stakeholder process of communication strategic planning. The final step is to implement programmes through infrastructure set up for that purpose.
Finally, the importance of the contribution of government communication capacity to achieving good governance outcomes cannot be over-emphasised. Governments have a responsibility to instil transparency and accountability, according to The World Bank’s Communication for Governance and Accountability Program.
The World Bank further states that providing citizens with adequate information on priorities, programs, and activities ensures the legitimacy of the government. By extension, this stabilizes the political climate in a country. When governments communicate effectively, crises, like the one experienced recently, can be averted.
An effective approach to promoting government’s communication capability is to focus on responsive government, media development, and communication in support of various development goals. Capacity building can be framed in terms of building public trust and the positive benefits of long-term relationships with publics and the media.
Lenox Mhlanga is Lead Consultant Magna Carta Reputation Management. He is a public relations thought leader and a council member for the Zimbabwe Institute of Public Relations. He also sits on the boards of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe Centre for Media Literacy.