Public relations (PR) has been used from time immemorial by governments world over to their advantage as well as its citizens.
For instance, during the Great Depression (1929 to 1939) when the United States experienced the deepest and longest economic downturn, then president Franklin D. Roosevelt used PR to update the citizens on various reform measures his government was undertaking to lessen its effects. The US government felt that the public deserved to know or hear their government explain, in a variety of avenues, what it was doing and why.
Likewise, currently, Malawi is going through serious socio-economic woes. Going by the general discourse in the public sphere, it is obvious that Malawians are going through hard times. Despite some efforts being undertaken by government to address the situation, all we hear are negative stories about government’s failures. The simple reason is that bad news travels faster than good news. People get excited by information about disasters, tragedies and failures.
This is the reason government, like any corporate entity, should invest in PR considering that we are in a global village. But it has to be appreciated that PR is never cheap.
It should be mentioned that our democracy is still young and there are many people out there who still perceive PR as propaganda, more so when issues of PR are in the context of government system. But in the context of government, PR should be there to help share and disseminate information (good or bad) which is very crucial to citizens to make informed decisions.
For example, if the information is bad, the purpose is to assure citizens that government is aware of the tough situation people are going through and everything is being done to improve the situation. Probably that is the reason citizens have, over the years, been crying for a legislation to facilitate access to information (ATI). Citizens are partners in the running of government, that is, government runs on taxpayers’ money. Hence, there is need for government to win over the good will of the citizens in all its endeavours.
However, government has to be commended for having PR officers in various ministries and departments who, to a certain extent, have been instrumental in sprucing up government’s image. But how well prepared these officers are to competently handle PR and communication issues is beyond the scope of this discussion. Suffice it to say that the absence of a PR and communications strategy could easily render them ineffective. This, therefore, calls for the need to have a public sector PR and communication strategy.
The overall plan would be to enhance the image of government by, among other things, slowing down the movement of bad news which, in itself describes the principal purpose of a PR and communication strategy. The actual techniques that aim at slowing down the movement of bad news are referred to as tactics. These should consist of laid-down procedures within government ministries and departments to facilitate regular and timely dissemination of news about government’s success stories. Once the strategy is in place, those in the PR and communication team should be drilled to ensure its effective execution.
It is also important that the strategy should be backed by proper logistics such as good ICT infrastructure and research facilities while providing feedback and monitoring mechanism.
Furthermore, PR being a management function, it is advisable that those handling PR issues should be well-trained and that they should be at management level. The reason is that functions carried out by a PR manager requires someone whose tactical judgment and leadership are critical in providing strategic direction to the public sector PR and communication machinery.
Finally, considering the complexity of government machinery, a PR and communication strategy is handy when it comes to crisis management. The strategy would also enable government ministries and departments to strategically position themselves in the event of the enactment of the ATI Bill since there will already be set-out procedures to respond to demands for information by the public. n