The recent media blitz on how proceeds from the presidential jet sale were expended and under what terms countries contributing troops to a United Nations peace-keeping mission deploy on, has revealed how disgraceful the public relations function of government and its departments’ is.
For the past weeks, government spin doctors kept on tossing different answers on the where abouts of the presidential jet proceeds with some alleged beneficiaries denying ever receiving such funds while others kept silent.
The climax came when a Sadc official had to clarify a statement she had made earlier, while the civil society and opposition political parties questioned how the proceeds were to offset an alleged debt government owed a military equipment supplier.
Who can blame the media for publishing what government deemed wrong messages when people whose duty is to give correct information at the right time do not do so? The misinformation demonstrates that government either has the wrong people as public relations officers or there are able personnel whose ideas are trampled upon.
Public relations is becoming an increasingly influential management discipline. It aims at persuading the public, investors, partners, employees and other stakeholders to maintain a certain point of view about an organisation.
Yes, government has made an effort to place some personnel in its departments as public relations officers, but a content analysis of the news media shows that most of these people are just spokespersons that are open to talk about a positive event that has occurred in their organisation. They are usually elusive from the media when their organisation faces a crisis.
Public relations is not all about picking up phone calls from reporters and attending to media queries. Public relations designs campaigns, reaches out to publics and clients, stage press conferences and create messages in various media formats to send across a point. Just because someone was a radio personality or can speak at a public gathering does not qualify them to be a public relations personnel.
Public relations personnel are supposed to be people who can proactively inform the public, handle publicity and execute internal and external communication analytically and in a timely manner.
Public Relations personnel are supposed to advise their bosses on public opinion issues based on facts. They need to have detailed plans to communicate effectively what an organisation is achieving on a short or long term basis.
If you take the jet issue critically, it is the Malawi Defence Force (MDF) that is to blame for the whole mess that has surrounded the issue. The MDF is one of government’s departments that has postured itself as an exclusive club that citizens do not have to question its expenditure and dealings all in the name of national security, yet it runs on tax payers money.
Malawians do not need a Sadc officials to start schooling us on what terms are UN peace support operations handled. The MDF should have told the nation that information.
All over the world, militaries no longer operate like undercover organisations. They always justify their deployment and explicitly declare their interests using a clearly defined public affairs posture. Their conduct is subject to public scrutiny and leading media organisation like Daily Mail, Newsweek, The Sun and many more give these military a good run for their expenditure and dealings.
Back here the story is different, just like the scenario at Kamuzu Central Hospital where someone’s negligence turned a mere cold room issue into a presidential issue. The issue has attracted much scrutiny because someone somewhere has not done his job well.
The MDF needs to be open. Effective public relations starts with listening which entails openness and systematic effort. Days are gone when militaries always hide their dealings in the name of security reasons.