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Effective and professional government communication is essential to democracy

When one of the country’s top rugby commentators Kaunda Ntunja died recently, a senior government communicator issued a press statement expressing condolences on behalf of her minister. The statement went on to trend in social media for a few days. It trended not because of its excellence or sincerity, but because of its headline which read: “Minister Nathi Mthethwa joins the SA rugby community in morning the passing of rugby commentator and former SA schools captain Kaunda Ntunja”. 

The writer clearly cannot distinguish between the time of day and the state of grief. 

This is embarrassing and disrespectful to both Ntunja’s family and the minister.

The same spokesperson is no stranger to gaffes. When the country first went into lockdown she issued a statement about the coronavirus death toll, when she meant the number of infections. This too earned her public ridicule.

I am not picking on this official because I dislike her —  I don’t know her from a bar of soap. The only thing connecting us is the communication she issues on behalf of our government. As a communication professional, a former government communicator and now as a citizen, I remain interested in what happens. I take government communications and government messages seriously. 

I am using the case of this senior government communicator as an example of what happens when a role as important as this is not taken seriously. 

One of the many criticisms levelled at the government during the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown has been about its handling of communications. The government is accused of not having communicated effectively, especially about prevention measures. 

The feeling is that the government should have involved citizens more, given our language diversity and socioeconomic architecture.

Some of this criticism is valid. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has a set of communication guidelines that countries should use in times of health crises. One of the guidelines deals with the importance of involving citizens as part of building relationships and giving them ownership of the response to the outbreak or crisis. 

In its document titled: Communicating Risk in Ppublic Health Emergencies: A WHO Guideline for Emergency Risk Communication (ERC) Policy and Ppractice, the point is emphasised that effective communication ensures those most at risk understand and adopt preventative behaviour as part of reducing the risks facing them. 

Perhaps, because we were all stunned by this pandemic, we did not invest more effort in driving a huge public awareness programme. It took us a while as a country to get to this point and I strongly believe more can be done.

The second point has to do with the communication space that has been crowded by too many messages and messengers. This leads to information overload, contradictions and confusion. In times of crisis experts always advise against clutter. Instead, develop simple messages and keep spokespeople to a minimum to reduce the risk of contradictions and loss of public trust.

How can government communication be improved and made a centre of excellence for communication professionals? To answer this question we have to go back to the recommendations of the Communication Task Team Report (Comtask) compiled in 2000 as part of a plan to improve the government communications machinery and make it a major nerve connecting government and the public. 

One of the recommendations deals with recruitment, professionalism and training. Not just anyone can be a government communicator; it is a specialised environment that requires a certain skills set and an understanding of why government communication matters. We have been blessed with many such individuals in the past, including the late Ronnie Mamoepa who epitomised what a government communicator should be. In simple terms, a government communicator must command respect, not only among his or her peers but also with journalists and the public. They have to be trusted by their political principals on the basis of their professionalism and excellence as interlocutors. 

Government departments should make much more of an effort in recruiting people who have adequate skills and the right attitude to ensure that what they communicate is effective and crystal clear. 

The Government Communication and Information System should be empowered to guide departments and give a professional opinion on the performance of those in charge of this essential service. Otherwise we will be stuck with irresponsible messages that disrespect citizens.

Fidel Hadebe is a communications specialist and director at Njiwa PR

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