The recent events in Zimbabwe can at worst be described as being off the charts in as far as public relations and the fragility of a nation’s reputation is concerned. Putting what I term the “ridiculousness” of the government’s latest actions aside (no matter how hard that may be), the effect of their decisions were beyond the imagination of any ill-prepared entity.
Public relations with Lenox Lizwi Mhlanga
However, the reality is that we have had to deal with the negative effects, be it a corporate entity or an arm of government. The optics were catastrophic for the mantra that Zimbabwe is open for business via the sheer impunity with which government has dealt with a clear and present crisis. It has put the country’s image in opprobrium. Actions that are usually associated with totalitarian regimes located in the armpits of the globe.
Let us put all this in its proper perspective. On the one hand, we have an administration that has decided to adopt a-devil-may- care attitude to dealing with issues. Barring the fact that these can neither be ignored or won’t go away anytime soon, the sheer outrage around the effects of fuel price increases, the resultant violent protests and the blackout of internet services is spectacularly numbing.
Governments in normal democracies place a great deal of importance in how they communicate their decisions with the populace and the protection of their image and reputation. It’s a basic principle that is part of government communication strategy, if it exists at all.
It is instructive that after a series of communication blunders characterised by knee-jerk and uncoordinated responses, the Information and Broadcasting Services ministry has realised the need to recruit communication experts. This has been long overdue.
As this writer indicated in an article lamenting the absence of a coherent communication policy, the government desperately needs a coherent and well-funded communications arm.
“There is so much that is deficient with the manner which government organises its communications. Top of the list is a lack of appreciation of the power and importance of communication in the conduct of government business,” this writer stated in an op-ed.
It went on to lament the lack of adequate budgetary support for the implementation of such a function and the absence of qualified communicators in government ministries, agencies and state enterprises.
The state does not have a government-wide communication strategy. This embodies standards by which any entity can successfully deliver communications around its policies and their implementation. The setting-up of such a function essentially covers the glaring gaps that we have observed in our body politic.
Governments implement public affairs that combine government relations, media communications, issue management, corporate and social responsibility, information dissemination and strategic communications advice. As can be observed, all the above fall under the domain of public relations, albeit a specialised strain.
Public affairs professionals disseminate information to stakeholders with the goal of pushing or influencing public policy, building support for organisations’ or a government’s agenda. Some governments have communication departments whose mandate is to provide strategic guidance and ensuring communication of the country’s vision by communicating progress on visible and tangible implementation of government programmes at home and abroad.
Those in the profession have always lamented the inadequacy at the Information ministry to spearhead a coherent government communication policy. Not that there isn’t any precedence in terms of models that the Zimbabwe government can adopt.
Neighbouring South Africa’s professional approach to handling communications through a dedicated internal set-up is a case in point. The South African government considers communication to be a strategic element of service delivery.
Besides having a coherent communication strategy, the United Kingdom provides guidelines for all government communicators. That is, anyone with the task of handling communications across the ministries and the public service.
They go even further by evaluating government communication activity following set standards. All this information collateral is available online so that the professionals whose task is to communicate policy are held accountable.
As government communicators, they are all aware of the need to make every piece of work that they produce as effective and efficient as possible. To do this, government appreciates the need to understand what’s already working well and where there’s room for improvement. Evaluation also helps shape future activity.
In short, without a measured and professionally led initiative to establish a government communication arm, any efforts at informing stakeholders about government activity and policy implementation, and sharing of their success would be an exercise in futility.
Therefore, the Zimbabwe government is advised to: set aside a significant budget for the establishment of such an arm, recruit communication professionals like what is finally happening, empower them to initiate an all-stakeholder process of communication strategic planning, then implement programmes while setting up the necessary infrastructure to support and evaluate effectiveness.
Finally, the importance of the contribution of government communication capacity to achieving good governance outcomes cannot be over-emphasised.
Governments have a responsibility to institute regimes of transparency and accountability, according to the World Bank’s Communication for Governance and Accountability Programme.
The World Bank further states that providing citizens with adequate information on priorities, programmes, and activities ensures the legitimacy of the government and therefore stabilises the political climate in a country. When governments communicate effectively, crises, like the one experienced recently, can be averted.
Focusing on responsive government, media development, and communication in support of various development goals represents an effective approach to promote government communication capacity. Capacity building can be framed in terms of building public trust and the resultant benefits of long-term relationships with constituents and the media.
l Lenox Mhlanga is a communication specialist who has worked under the World Bank Group. He is considered a public relations thought leader and is a council member for the Zimbabwe Institute of Public Relations. He also sits on the boards of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe Centre For Media Literacy.