Image: Flickr, Pedro Ribeiro Simões
Image: Flickr, Pedro Ribeiro Simões

JOURNALISTS can't present government's side of the story without asking questions. Too often though governments interpret inquiry as opposition and act to block rather than assist the journalists who are necessary adjuncts to democracy.

No responsible journalist will surrender his scepticism, but every responsible journalist tries to get all sides of a story. When public officials refuse to answer media questions, they deny the media one of the critical elements they need to produce balanced coverage. The result is often lopsided or inaccurate reporting or – on the government’s side – embarrassment and cover ups.

Smart press secretaries don’t tell state secrets, but they do provide enough information to convey the positions and policies of the officials they represent. The following recommendations are drawn from interviews with professional communicators and a booklet from the US Department of State entitled A Responsible Press Office: An insider’s guide.

Craft a communication plan. Methodically identify key messages, target recipients and the most appropriate media to transmit them. Prioritise what government is going to say on any given day and prevent major announcements by ministers from clashing during any one day’s news cycle. Dull, formulaic communiqués fail to capture or inspire audiences. Be proactive and anticipate events; don’t be continually reactive and defensive. Every message to the public should answer the Five Ws: who, what, when, where and why.

Make peace with the media. In democratic societies, the people have the right to information and journalists and politicians have a duty to deliver it. Both sides must learn to coexist within an inherently adversarial relationship. They need to develop professional but personal relationships and respect each others’ needs and mandates. Interaction between public officials and the media should be symbiotic – government needs the media to transmit messages and the media needs the government to explain their actions and objectives. Access enhances accuracy.

Trust and train the talkers. Communicators should have the confidence of the people they represent. They must be intimately involved in the decision-making process. Politicians need to empower their spokespersons. Press officers deserve rigorous training and thorough daily briefings. Essential attributes for effective communicators include affability, approachability and availability.

Follow the golden rules. Communicators must always be honest and accurate to maintain their credibility. Always try to return journalists’ phone calls and respect their deadlines. Communicators should never lie or speculate. Consider everything as ‘on the record’. Correct any mistakes instantly. Admit not knowing an answer and commit to finding the information.

Be ready for crises. Every organisation must have a plan for when the worst happens. If there is bad news, don’t cover it up, lie or go silent. Remember Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky: It’s going to get out eventually. Engage the press early. Acknowledge the problem and outline measures being taken to address it. Leaders should deliver bad news first, fast and in person. Provide regular updates.

Improve internet interaction. Websites should provide usable current information, updated contact details and well-organised documentation. Regular maintenance is crucial.

Put some money where the mouth-piece is. Effective communication requires sufficient investment to retain professional, articulate staff as well as to develop first-class promotional material. Governments and institutions can no longer afford to treat their PR and communications departments as peripheral.

Mix in a little marketing. Much of communication entails selling something, including ideas, policies and opportunities. The purchasers need to be persuaded to buy – and sufficiently satisfied with the product to buy it again. Nepad, for example, is in essence the brand name for the ‘New, Improved Africa.’ If political actions contradict the message, the buyer is likely to walk.

28 Apr 2008
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