Communications strategies

A Failure to Communicate

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When it comes to dealing with foreign media, the Georgian government knows how to communicate on a world-class level. Witness Mikheil Saakashvili’s masterful interaction with Western journalists during the August 2008 war: Watching the Georgian President interviewed then on all major television networks, an untold number of Americans not only discovered there was another Georgia outside U.S. borders, they also learned about historic and existing conditions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Since then, the deft handling of global media by top-level Georgian officials has people around the globe talking knowledgeably about Russia’s “occupation” of the two Georgian territories.

When it comes to dealing with local media at home, however, the government of Georgia still has a long way to travel. With a few notable exceptions, Georgian ministries and government offices lack effective external communications strategies. Some public relations officers display little understanding of how to communicate even reactively, let alone proactively, with media. It is not unusual for media inquiries to go unanswered for extended periods or to be ignored entirely by some government ministries and offices. When Georgian journalists are unable to obtain public information from official sources, they are unable to report responsibly on important matters that directly and profoundly affect the daily lives of Georgian citizens.

Governments that communicate proactively and interactively with society demonstrate a willingness to listen to the voice of the people and to rethink governmental priorities to meet changing societal needs. Media are vital partners in that mission because they perform the dual function of informing the society about government and serving as a means of communication between government and the people. Society is best served when government and media interact with mutual respect for their different roles and distinct responsibilities to the public.

Media technological innovations and convergence have revolutionized government communications in the Twenty-First Century. This century so far has witnessed evolutionary stages of what American media theorist Mark Poster calls “the second media age,” which began with the Internet and is now exploding throughout the world with interactive social media. In his book “The Second Media Age,” Professor Poster explains that the first media age was characterized by state control of a one-way flow of information via media designed to influence audiences conceived as an amorphous mass. Media in the second media age are beyond state control and democratizing through two-way decentralized communication.

At the same time, new media platforms have dramatically altered citizens’ expectations of accessibility to government information and heightened public awareness of its centrality to participatory government. Modern technologies enable governments rapidly to disseminate vast amounts of public information – and citizens increasingly expect that level of transparency and accountability from modern governments.

These seismic shifts in the political, social and technological landscapes have transformed the way in which governments now communicate with their citizens through media. External communications have necessarily become a top priority today for successful governments. Mordecai Lee, a professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, sees these trends, “in part, as reflections of the rise in importance and centrality of the news media and other communication methods vis-à-vis the public sector in the 21st century.” A highly regarded expert on government public relations, Professor Lee has published numerous articles on the subject, edited books on “The Practice of Government Public Relations” (CPR Press 2011) and “Government Public Relations: A Reader” (CPR Press 2008), and written the chapter on “Media and Bureaucracy in the United States” in the Encyclopedia of Public Administration and Public Policy (Taylor & Francis 2011). In his view, “freedom of the press and freedom of information laws compel civil servants to be accountable to the news media and the public-at-large” and, no matter how negative the media coverage, “civil servants need to accept this harsh media environment rather than bemoan it.”

To navigate today’s media environment, governments worldwide have hired public relations professionals and former journalists to serve as government public information officers, public affairs specialists and press spokespeople. (Western governments tend to avoid the term “public relations” or “PR” because of its association with self-serving publicity or even propaganda. As confirmed by Professor Lee’s 2009 study of “government flack flicks,” popular culture views government “public relations” with suspicion.) The principal job of government external communications professionals – whatever title they are given – is to engage with the public, primarily through proactive media relations and interactive media technologies.

Governments in developed countries employ multiple media strategies to reach citizens through various media channels. European governments collectively employ thousands of public information officers and other media specialists in their national ministries and agencies. The U.S. Government alone employs thousands of public information officers and public affairs specialists across all federal agencies. Public information offices serve, first and foremost, as a central source of government information for release through media. Many governments have media guidelines that allow for dissemination of only factual, objective information by public information officers, typically civil servants who speak for the institution. In some countries, government press spokespeople serve the separate function of speaking for political leaders on matters of government policy. In the U.S. federal system and a number of EU Member States, senior public information officers work collaboratively with top-level government officials in developing media strategies and initiatives that support democratic principles and agency goals. All of these professionals are recognized by their governments as trusted and knowledgeable advisors on external communications and are kept apprised of major developments within their ministries and agencies. Whatever their particular title or specific functions, they all have the full support of governments that give priority to media relations and public awareness.

Professor Lee identifies two general categories of government public relations: pragmatic and democratic. “The first one – pragmatic – enlists the practical uses of external communications to help accomplish the substantive mission of an agency. A columnist in the New York Times concisely stated the premise of this orientation: ‘No matter how lofty the aims of a government program, it usually won’t make a difference if people can’t understand it,’” Professor Lee writes in the Journal of Public Affairs Education. “The second category of government PR activities relates to public administration’s general role of promoting democracy.”

The ability of democratic governments to implement public policies and to achieve institutional goals depends, to a large extent, on the degree to which the public understands and supports those policies and goals. It is axiomatic that people do not trust what they do not understand. Successful governments utilize media as an educational tool to make government understandable to the people.

A dozen years ago, when enthusiasm was perceived to be waning among its Member States and candidate countries, the European Union took a hard look at its communications capacities and refocused efforts on raising awareness of EU external actions. Today, the European Union requires that all actions it wholly or partially funds incorporate a range of media strategies and communication activities. The latest “Communication and Visibility Manual for European Union External Actions” provides tools to enable EU contractors and implementing partners “to develop a communication and visibility plan that will highlight in a dynamic way the impact of the EU support” and requires EU beneficiaries to work proactively with media “to show the impact on the ground.”

Pragmatic considerations and democratic principles of government transparency, participation and collaboration are at the heart of the “Open Government Directive” issued by the Executive Office of the President of the United States. The U.S. Open Government Directive – signed by President Barrack Obama on his very first day in office – requires all U.S. government departments and agencies to take specific actions to bridge the gap between the American people and their government. Those specific actions include publishing government information online, improving the quality of government information, creating and institutionalizing a culture of open government, and creating an enabling policy framework for open government.

“The three principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration form the cornerstone of an open government,” the U.S. Open Government Directive states. “Transparency promotes accountability by providing the public with information about what the Government is doing. Participation allows members of the public to contribute ideas and expertise so that their government can make policies with the benefit of information that is widely dispersed in society. Collaboration improves the effectiveness of Government by encouraging partnerships and cooperation with the Federal Government, across levels of government, and between the Government and private institutions.”

Georgia still lags behind the times when it comes to open government. Only a few government institutions – most notably, the Ministry of Justice of Georgia and the Parliament of Georgia – have external communications plans which embody the notion that democratic principles and pragmatic priorities require proactive media relations and interactive media technologies. The lack of institutionalized media protocols within ministries results in slow, inconsistent and incomplete government responses to media requests for information. That problem is compounded across government ministries and offices by uneven compliance with both the letter and the spirit of the freedom of information law. Georgian journalists report their access to public information is more likely to depend on the disposition of the individual government officer contacted than on the institution’s conformity with existing law and international standards.

Not only is too little government information provided to media representatives, but too much of the information provided by government is self-serving, irrelevant and/or outdated, according to Georgian journalists and media organizations. Some ministries seem to assume that putting self-congratulatory information on government websites satisfies the aims of open government. That is a faulty assumption, both in terms of content and mode of communication. Public relations officers should serve less as publicity agents for their ministries and ministers and more as central sources of public information for media and society. Providing only information that reflects glowingly on ministries and government offices raises questions in the public mind about the objectivity of the disseminated information as well as the credibility of the government itself. It also cannot be assumed that most Georgian citizens are able to access information posted on government websites. As Tabula editor-in-chief Tamara Chergoleishvili points out in this edition’s Letter from the Editor, “despite a high growth rate in Georgia, the Internet has a very low penetration rate – only 26.9 percent, according to ITU data last updated in December 2011.”

Existing conditions here require that Georgian ministries and government offices employ a range of media strategies and media channels to communicate with citizens. There are many things that Georgian ministries and offices can and should do now to give effect to democratic principles of transparency, fairness and inclusion. Some immediate steps in that direction include:

• Implementing well-formulated long-term communications strategies which integrate traditional media techniques with new social media tools;

• Identifying benchmarks against which government external communications strategies can be measured objectively over time;

• Professionalizing government public relations offices by establishing clear and consistent media guidelines and providing training in proactive external communications for public relations officers and designated press spokespeople;

• Soliciting journalistic input in formulating media protocols to improve access to government information and to remove unnecessary impediments to responsible newsgathering;

• Educating public relations officers and journalists alike on what government information can be released to the press and public, and what government information must be withheld – and why;

• Synthesizing government internal information-sharing so public relations officers are aware of government priorities, pending matters, upcoming major initiatives and events likely to attract media attention – or where proactive media planning should be anticipated and developed;

• Scheduling “open door” events at which journalists can meet regularly with key government personnel to gain a better understanding of government procedures and processes and institutional goals and objectives;

• Developing informative government collateral materials – such as media information kits containing accurate and timely press releases, fact sheets with relevant data and statistics, plain-language answers to frequently asked questions, biographical profiles of key personnel – and making those materials available to media in electronic form;

• Formulating guidelines for disseminating up-to-date, accurate and objective information in accessible formats on government websites and on non-government sites such as Facebook and YouTube.

• Creating a separate “media information” section on the general government website, posting newsworthy information, along with video news releases and electronic elements of the media information kit, with easy navigation to that section from a link on the home page.

• Introducing an interactive “open government” website through which government officials and designated spokespeople can engage in participatory Web-based dialogue with media and citizens.

For their part, Georgian media also have to work harder to earn people’s trust. Journalists, as well as government public relations officers, need to improve professional standards and communications with the society. Media fairness and objectivity not only shape people’s attitudes about their government, but also determine what people think about the media.

 

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