Government communicator must start two-way dialogue
BEFORE rushing to replace Jimmy Manyi, whose contract as Cabinet spokesman was not renewed, the government should recast the job of head of government communications.
First, it should split the jobs of head of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) and Cabinet spokesman (the person who does the weekly post-meeting briefings). There should be someone dedicated to Cabinet communication. It is too much to do both jobs, and the jobs require different skills, abilities and approaches.
That would allow for a redefinition of the job of head of the GCIS.
I suggest that the conception of this job should move away from the old-fashioned and very limited notion of being the person responsible for communicating what the government does. That task should lie with the Cabinet communicator, alongside the presidential communicator (and perhaps these two jobs could be merged).
The new head of the GCIS should be defined as the primary facilitator of participative government, tasked with pulling government communication in line with what is intended in the constitution.
What do I mean by this?
The constitution is clear that it envisages a participative democracy, in which citizens are intended not to be passive and limit their role to voting every five years and then leave it to their representatives.
The constitution creates opportunities for citizens to make active and meaningful interventions in all levels of policy and law-making. The laws that govern local municipal politics, for example, are insistent on mechanisms — such as ward committees, open hearings and consultations — to allow citizens to air their views on matters that affect them. At a national level, Parliament is meant to be an open forum, and parliamentarians are obliged to give all citizens a chance to take part in the making of laws and policies in committees and through hearings, petitions and other mechanisms.
The notion of a government communicator who is there to tell the world what ministers or other government officials are doing, and fend off questions from the public or the media about this, is an old-fashioned, top-down idea of one-way communication.
All good communication these days is two-way, as much about listening as talking, about conversation rather than statement.
Government communicators should stop seeing themselves as serving their principals and doing their bidding, but as public servants there to facilitate two-way dialogue and participative democracy in all its forms.
Their role should be as much to get their principals (ministers, directors-general etc) to listen to the public as to talk to them.
The role of the head of the GCIS should be to make participative democracy work as the best form of communication: you should be the primary promoter and enabler of citizen engagement, ensuring as many people as possible have access to the forums for participation, making your principals stop and listen and take part, and using this to improve two-way, up-and-down dialogue. You should be promoting and encouraging bottom-up communication and participation.
The keyword here is dialogue rather than communication; it is involvement and engagement you want from the audience, not just passive listening.
Convert media conferences into town hall meetings, change statements into conversations, turn advertisements into invitations. This way you will promote democracy, break down the sense that you live in a bubble and are talking down to your audience, and give people a sense of involvement. You will be talking to citizens, rather than the media.
Most of all, you will start to undermine the sense that the government is increasingly removed and distant from its people. And you will promote the idea that change, transformation and development are not delivered by the government from above but that the government’s role is to organise and facilitate the people of this country to make it happen at all levels.
To do this, the GCIS chief needs to become the major advocate of open access to information, pushing all government departments and ministries to publish the masses of information they have.
This would empower people to participate, because they need the information to do so effectively.
Fortunately, the internet is a huge enabler in this regard. It can facilitate dialogue and participation and make easily available the information people need to assert their rights and express their needs.
The head of the GCIS should also become the main campaigner for cheap and fast bandwidth available to all, particularly on mobile devices. These are the modern tools of participative democracy.
These are contemporary notions of effective communication. Change the job and you will start to change how the government operates, how it relates to its citizens and how it is viewed by them.
So much for what the head of the GCIS should be. What you should definitely not be is:
• A media critic. It has become customary for those in this job to see it as their function to highlight media problems and issues and critique coverage and tell the media what they should be doing. This often creates the wrong relationship with the media. This is not to say you should not criticise bad or inaccurate reporting, but that you should do it with the purpose of improving it, not because you sees yourself as an astute media critic.
• Someone who generalises about "the media". Anyone who makes loose generalisations that lump all the media together should be excluded. The job requires differentiating between good and bad media, enemy and friend, ally and opponent — and learning to work with them all. Lumping everyone together without discernment makes it impossible to do this and is contemptuous of the media.
• Someone who does not understand how the media works and, most of all, does not appreciate its limitations. Much of your role should be to tell ministers and directors-general when they are being unreasonable in their expectations of the media, and to advise them clearly on what not to expect from the media.
• Someone who dislikes journalists. The job requires the cultivation of mutual respect and you can only do this if you enjoy engaging with, spending time with and sharing food and drink with the media. If you have a visceral contempt for working journalists, no amount of fake charm will hide it and you will never find friends in the media.
• Someone who likes undisturbed sleep. Forget it; if that is what you want, get another job. This one requires you to be on call around the clock every day.
• Someone who wants to be the centre of attention. You will do the job best when allowing and encouraging others to speak, be heard and be noticed — not yourself. You should be reluctant to be in the media and keen to put others there. If you want attention and like being in the spotlight too much, you will hog it and quickly become the story yourself — and that is the kiss of death for any government communicator.
Just ask Manyi.
• Harber is Caxton professor of journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand.