I have observed that many professional journalists who are paid or appointed as government spokespersons live a very difficult life. Some spend enormous amounts of energy and time burnishing the image of their principals, yet hardly anyone believes them. They are increasingly frustrated and isolated even within the community of journalists from whence they came and to which they will ultimately return. Years after their tour of duty as government spokespersons is over, they crawl back to their base transformed, often a shadow of their old selves.
Why is this so? Why do otherwise fine gentlemen and ladies, people trained to search for the truth, transmogrify in the corridors of power? Why do they sometimes achieve the very opposite of their mission? Why does this job take such a heavy toll on the integrity and conscience of media professionals – much more, it seems, than say doctors who become health ministers and lawyers who become attorneys general? Is there something wrong with the training of media professionals or is it down to individual choices, character and role perception?
I cannot claim to know for a fact the answers to all these questions. But I have closely studied generations of persons, in diverse jurisdictions, who have served or are still serving in the role of Information Minister/Commissioner or Media Adviser, or their equivalents. My views here are based on those observations. My goal is strictly to find a better way.
The role of government spokesperson, media adviser or image maker is very important in providing the inside track on the efforts and intendments of government to the people; in giving members of the public greater faith in their Social Contract with government; and in protecting leaders from misconceptions and some other thankless aspects of “public service.”
But their role does not include defending ALL actions and inactions of government. It does not involve denying the foibles and humanity of leaders. It certainly does not include labelling those who hold contrary views or insist on greater performance and accountability as ignorant wailers and hateful naysayers.
Governments and leaders are often well-meaning but not infallible. Therefore, defending ALL their actions and inactions is not only futile and unreasonable but also unsustainable, shortsighted and self-defeating.
Contrary views are not necessarily enemy views. They have their uses. It is from the interplay between supporting and opposing views, in the open marketplace of ideas, that a delicately balanced modern democratic society is forged. Other known forms of government without this inherent attribute are clearly inferior and undesirable.
I propose that all those aspiring to or accepting to serve as government spokespersons should, at the very minimum, bear two things in mind.
First, that leadership is not for the fainthearted. Those who aspire to public office but have no stomach for contrary or critical views are in the wrong bus.
Second, most members of the public are sufficiently sensible, in the long run, to decide whether the leadership they have is Good, Average or Poor. They only need facts and figures to form their impressions – not propaganda or one-sided advocacy. They can see through the veils of spin doctors. Their minds are not swayed by many words and fancy arguments. Results speak for themselves. Therefore, the spokesperson’s job is best done when the governments and principals they serve first do good work. Only then does talking about it and winning public approval become easier. This is an old, proven principle of Public Relations.
That said, may I also humbly suggest that government spokespersons consider adding the following implements to their bulging tool boxes:
#1. SILENCE: It is not every issue in the public domain that deserves or requires a rebuttal. Sometimes silence, especially when accompanied by good works, is the best answer. A sensible child does not stop to throw stones at every barking dog on the streets. Otherwise, he might forget his errands or arrive home late – usually to stern rebuke or punishment.
#2. ADMITTING OCCASIONAL FAILURE: The idea that governments and political leaders are always right and do no wrong is false and ultimately harmful. To carry on the duties of spokesperson with that mindset is self-sabotaging. It confirms that propaganda, not public service, is king.
Occasionally admitting the imperfections of government and government officials, and promising to fix them increases the confidence of the led that their leaders are genuine, warm-blooded mortals – not angels as they are often presented by image makers. It might even win the leaders valuable empathy. Well handled, this can be a major asset.
#3. FEEDBACK: Even the best governments in the world need authentic feedback to function well. Good intentions do not always result in good outcomes. There is always a margin of error between the two.
When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say I am”, he was alluding to the importance of feedback and public opinion for every leader.
Imagine a government spokesperson who regularly assembles and analyses feedback from the public; boldly flags the negative ones; challenges his principal to respond satisfactorily; and insists on fixing things from inside-out. Perhaps such an image maker is not yet born. He is worth more than his weight in gold.
By assembling feedback I do not mean sending daily media clippings for the public office holder to see. I mean a much more honest and robust exercise that unearths the good, the bad and the ugly sides of a public official.
Good feedback is like standing naked in front of a life-sized mirror first thing in the morning, before the grooming routine starts. It shows up the spots, moles, warts and all. It’s an invaluable reality check. It keeps you humble.
In governance, regular reality check is so important in keeping away the corruptive influence of power. It would appear that in reality most spokespersons cannot muster the courage to tell their principals they screwed up. To justify their hiring, they would rather say, “Don’t worry, boss, I’ll fix it.” By “fix it” they usually mean writing “clever” press statements denying painful reality, planting news items that counter the “bad news,” or bribing & cajoling “friendly” editors to blackout further stories from the “offending” sources.
Yet, authentic and insightful feedback (even one that hurts) could be the best thing that happens to a leader – if s/he is humble enough to face it and use it to correct the course of his actions, style and policies.
When people in authority operate without authentic feedback, the leader, his government and the spokesperson gradually lose credibility and relevance. They even become a nuisance in the eyes of the public. This is the case with several governments across Nigeria today – harried spokespersons doing more damage while trying to fix earlier damages.
It is better to have no spokesperson at all than to have one who is a liability to the government or leader he “diligently” serves. It is like receiving treatment from a doctor who himself is ravaged by an infectious disease. Who is treating who?
I am aware that there are those who say that taking an occasional fall for his principal is part of the duties and hazards of being an image maker. I concede that there is some merit in that perspective. But I must say that a spokesperson who sacrifices his credibility to hold up his boss loses everything. After all, it is his credibility, above all else, that he was hired to leverage in the first place. And if he has none left, then he is only fit to retire.
Perhaps the time has come to change the scope and designation of of “government spokespersons” to that of Citizen Relationship managers. Perhaps the devil is in the designation. Citizen Relations would encompass the two ends of the spectrum – speaking for government to the people and speaking to government for the people. Perhaps this would clarify the duality of the role for occupants of the office, most of whom currently see themselves as guard dogs.
Yet one more suggestion: Our government spokespersons should consider taking regular crash programs and refresher courses in modern Public Relations and Principles of Brand Management. That is, if their egos would permit. I believe it would enhance their perspectives and capacity to function beyond the role of yes men, propagandists and town criers. We all would be better for it.
Victor Anazonwu, a historian, journalist, brand management expert and author, is on the Editorial Board of The Renaissance online magazine. He writes from Lagos.