Why it’s important to inform people about government work, writes Maropeng Manyathela
At the height of his political power, former president Thabo Mbeki, a renowned orator known for his catchy phrases, regularly stressed the importance of informing people about what the government is doing.
One such reflection was made in January 1999, when he was the Deputy President of the Republic, at the launch of a government website. Mbeki reminded his audience, including former government policy guru Joel Netshitenzhe, about the government’s position on information and communication. “We believe that it is indeed the responsibility of the Government to communicate to the South African population, and indeed to the rest of the world, on a continual and on an accurate basis. And therefore we have always adopted a somewhat critical attitude towards ourselves as Government as to whether we are discharging that responsibility properly. The head of GCIS Joel Netshitenzhe, has just for instance referred to the Comtask, a group that was put together to assist in assessing the effectiveness, or otherwise, of Government with regard to the information and communication area. And indeed, they then made a variety of recommendations, which they did,” Mbeki said.
“From the point of view of the Government, this is important because we do indeed sincerely believe that when we talk about a democratic system in South Africa, which is responsive to the feelings, the ideas, the moods, the needs and so on of the people, it is important that the people should know what the Government is doing.
It is important to know what the Government is thinking, planning and so on, so that the people themselves can make an impact on those processes in Government.” Put differently, Mbeki was simply highlighting the need and importance of using information and communication to change how people view the government.
I am reminded of his words each time I observe how we go about our work as government communications agents across the country. While communicators are generally doing well, despite limited budgets and a robust media, we often shoot ourselves in the foot or act contrary to what is expected of us.
One of the best crisis communication strategies to have ever emerged out of government communications in recent times were the handling of the recent Listeria outbreak. The worst, without any doubt, has been the handling of the problems at StateOwned Enterprises (SOE’s) such as Eskom, SABC and SAA.
Let me start with the good. As a government communicator, I was left in awe when I listened to colleagues such as Limpopo government spokesperson Phuti Seloba articulating a well-crafted strategy to inform the public about what the government was doing to deal with the biggest outbreak of listeriosis in the world.
I was relieved to see communicators allaying public fears, with a clear and assuring message, amid public panic following the deaths of more than 180 people including 78 infants.
The fact that listeria was traced to Tiger Brands’ production facility in Polokwane, Enterprise Foods, did not help matters. It meant the problem was on our doorstep. But my fellow government communicators grabbed the bull by the horn and made all of us proud of our role and contribution to society.
Undoubtedly, our handling of the Eskom, SAA and SABC sagas was both amateurish and almost embarrassing. I am afraid we dropped the ball. Our message was unclear, incoherent, often contradictory and quite unconvincing.
If anything, it resembled panic and a very poor communication strategy. In short, our messaging on what was happening at these SOE’s –especially on their turnaround strategies and financial sustainability -- left the public more confused than clarified.
You would swear that a handful of our colleagues are inspired by US communications strategist Kellyanne Conway’s so-called “alternative facts”. Conway is that advisor to US President Donald Trump who famously labelled as alternative facts former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s lies that Trump’s inauguration drew “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration.” This was simply not true. And her statement did very little to change the public’s perception of the Trump administration.
To be fair to government communicators, there are other factors beyond their control that they have to contend with. These include limited budgets and failure by political heads and high level bureaucrats to appreciate the importance of communication to service delivery and the government’s overall work. Let’s look at the communications budget. According to this year’s Budget Speech delivered by former Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba, “consolidated spending will increase from R1.67 trillion in 2018/19 to R1.94 trillion, representing a nominal annual average growth of 7.6 per cent, or 2.1 per cent in real terms”.
It’s an irrefutable fact that the GCIS had a budget of not less than R1 billion last year. This is where part of the problem is. In simple terms, it means the government is spending R1 billion to communicate programmes worth R1.6 trillion. It is less than one percent of the national budget. This figure must by all means trigger a debate about whether or not R1 billion is enough to communicate R1.67 trillion worth of government programmes.
It often leads to communicators failing to fund some of the critical campaigns needed to keep the public informed about government work as envisaged by Mbeki and Nelson Mandela when they conceptualised GCIS. Compare our ad spend with the communications budget of a developing country such as Brazil, whose communications machinery is are among the best in the world. Although it’s unclear how the country spends on communications, its annual budget is said to be higher than ours.
As if that’s not enough, you often get a sense that some colleagues do not show enough appreciation for the importance of communications to service delivery. This is seen mainly when they have to implement mandatory cost cutting measures as instructed by National Treasury, or when contingency funds are needed to deal with natural disasters or emergency situations.
Which directorates do they usually set their sights on? In almost all cases: communications! The departments of health and cooperative government countrywide, for example, are quick to dip into their communications budgets to fund malaria outbreaks or storms related disasters.
What they forget, is that they need the very same communications units to inform the public about their interventions to deal with the same disasters. They need the same communicators to tell the public what to do and where to go for help. As advertising expert Steuart Henderson Britt once said, “Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you are doing but nobody else does”. This kind of approach does as little to change people’s perceptions about that business as it does perception about our government. It is defeatist to be blunt.
Maropeng Manyathela is the Head of Communications for Roads Agency Limpopo, and a PHD candidate focusing on government communications. He is the editor of Mmileng, RAL’s corporate magazine