I offer my sincere apologies for standing you up the past two weeks. It was never out of disrespect for you my wonderful readers who have sustained this column for years and without whose support, criticism and time to read, it would have melted into the dustbins of history long time ago.
By way of explanation, without boring you with the details, I can only say that “exigencies of duty” kept me away from my computer.
But thanks to my so-called exigencies of duty, I have also picked up a few words that have enhanced my otherwise non-existent diplomatic speak.
But enough of this self-deprecation!
There are much more serious issues to talk about, given the developments during my absence without taking leave of my readers.
I have always said that one of the biggest problems that the Peter Mutharika administration has is that for some reason it is never able to develop coherent talking points on major policy or emerging issues/crises and share them among key spokespersons across government and State House so that everyone remains on message.
This was clear when presidential spokesperson Gerald Viola went on national television for an interview that ended up probably being the biggest public relations disaster of the year.
The man said a lot of stuff without, as it turned out, investing thoughts in what he wanted to communicate.
I even doubt he had any clear objectives to achieve in that interview, let alone clear messages that needed to be delivered to achieve those communication aims.
Since this was a planned interview, I am not even sure he had a conversation with the President or any serious policy mover in the administration to agree on a message framework, before going on television.
I don’t know who sanctioned that interview, but Viola was simply ill-prepared, ill-equipped and clearly out of depth for such a prime time appearance with Times Television talk show host Brian Banda.
And so he, apparently, said things he should never have uttered and the Ministry of Information had to trash-talk the poor fellow. Viola’s position may now be untenable at State House thanks to a botched-up job of what he thought was in defence of the President.
The press secretary’s job is to get the President’s story or “presidential information” out to help the Head of State deliver on his agenda as well as achieve his personal, policy and electoral goals.
Where the President has to face the press himself, the press secretary must ensure that he prepares his boss well enough so that he does not make silly mistakes like banging tables, boasting of being rich and getting angry with journalists as if they are a bunch of kids who he wants to get off his lawn. In other words, the press office must help the President to remain on message.
Sometimes, once the President has delivered his message, the press office has to amplify and where necessary, defend him fiercely. I am sure this is what Viola was trying to do.
The problem is that Viola did not do this with the accuracy, speed and clarity always needed in this 24-hpour news cycle public relations era.
Still, I have a larger question: Why was Viola on the set in the first place? Was he speaking for the President or for the government? I want to believe he was speaking for the President because that is what his brief says.
Now, if he was speaking for his boss, why did the damage control statement come from the Ministry of Information? I would have thought that the Director General of State Residences—who also oversees the presidential press office—should have been the one clarifying Viola’s statement, not the Ministry of Information.
Then again I ask: Why, for the life of me, was Viola allowed to go out there to talk about subjects that, even rudimentarily, he does not understand and, in the end, messed up a President who was just managing to rebuild his public image after the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) controversy?
Okay, one might argue that spokespersons do not have to be experts on issues they are communicating.
But clever spokespersons anticipate questions and consult to prepare and rehearse their answers or at least stick to government-wide agreed message.
And because these answers have to be consistent across the government establishment, smart communications teams develop talking points so that the message is similar no matter who is delivering it.
To go out there and purport to speak for the President or government without a consultatively agreed message is an invitation of the type of disaster consistent with what I can now confidently call Viola-gate.
Gerald Viola forgot that his job is not to state his opinions: It is to tell the President’s story. That lapse in memory is proving costly to the President and Viola himself.