31 July 2013

Liberia: Assessing Sherman's View on Govt. PR Architecture


CLLR. HARRY VARNEY Gboto-Nambi Sherman was the orator at the 166th Independence Anniversary celebration in Tubmanburg, Bomi County, and minutes he descended the rostrum the Liberian populace, particularly the intellectual class, became afire by nearly every portion of the 15-page speech coming under dichotomous scrutiny; dichotomous because it is generating diametrically opposing reactions. And one thought-provoking opinion is his call to Government to revamp its information dissemination or communication architecture. Cllr. Sherman highlighted a number of grey areas in the performance of the Sirleaf administration but also opined that much of what is done to improve the lot of the people is left in the dark because the dissemination of information on the positives of Government is weak and poor and therefore needs a radical shakeup if the public is to appreciate the Government's hard work.

THIS IS HOW the Unity Party Chairman put it: "The absence of information to the Liberian people about these achievements and accomplishments is a serious deficiency that must be remedied immediately. It should be acknowledged that [the government's] accomplishments and achievements contribute to peace and reconciliation in our country. I therefore recommend very strongly that the information dissemination structure and process of this government be revamped and adequately supported to provide all information about the accomplishments and achievements of your government – information that permeates every sector of the country." Though opinions are mixed, as they are on other opinions expressed by Cllr Sherman, we support the call for revamping and supporting Government's information dissemination regime and we do so in the view that any such revamping process will take into account the philosophical and ideological outlook of any emergent public information regime.

WHAT DO WE mean? The Ministry of Information, Culture Affairs and Tourism and other information and communication agencies, such as the Liberia Broadcasting System, are statutorily supposed to promote and communicate public—we hate say government—policy and programs. But these instruments of the state, particularly in recent years, have perverted that mandate, turning themselves into propaganda cells manned by zealots and fanatics. It seems those who have taken over government information dissemination responsibility think that the public relations and communication career is merely about whitewashing government image and gatekeeping. They think it is about combing the airwaves of the electronic media and slipping the pages of print media to pick up dissenting voices and paragraphs for venomous rebuttals. They think it is about pleasing their appointers by tongue-lashing critics.

THE TASK OF playing the public relations and communication role of Government or any entity is more than that. As the British Institute of Public Relations put it, "public relation is the deliberate, planned, and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organization and its publics". This means it is not a haphazard endeavor. It is about knowing your client and making your client know itself. It is about making your client to know its publics and making the publics to know your client. In other words, it is a professional calling; it is about honest and honorable communication or dissemination of policies or information, and taking public reactions or public opinion back to the organization.

IN THE LAST several but recent years, particularly during and after the civil conflict, political leaders prefer to employ public relations or communications officers due to their special relationship with, or proximity to, the power that be, and the employees' tenacity and proficiency to obscure or pervert facts, feed the public with propaganda and to rubbish anyone no matter who. National leaders, like warring faction leaders, needed public information personnel who were unruly enough to insult people as old as their fathers and question the wisdom of people well-read as their professors. For contemporary Liberian public information personnel, truth does not matter as long it does not fall on the side the boss. The opinion of the public does not matter so long the boss does not share it.

IF THE SIRLEAF administration were ever to accept Cllr Sherman's suggestion to revamp and support of its "information dissemination structure", the first step should be to de-propagandize and de-politicize the mentality of those put in charge. Those who disseminate government information and speak on behalf of public officials and entities should be people who know, if not learn, that such a responsibility comes with adherence to ethical standards: honesty, promise-keeping, fairness, respect for others, accountability, integrity, fidelity, etc. They must be people who know that public opinion is not a nuisance in the governance process and that researching to garner public opinion and appropriately advise administration is integral to the public relations career.

IN OUR VIEW, the weakness of Government's public relations machinery as identified by Cllr Sherman is so because in Liberia nowadays commitment to upholding the propaganda desire of political leaders is the preoccupation of those hired to perform. And this makes it a matter of keeping a job, even if it means barking at your own mother for saying something dissenting about the employers. It compels public information personnel of Government to employ or feign overzealousness, fanaticism and sycophancy even at the expense of professionalism. Until this kind of seemingly entrenched mindset is erased from the corridors of Government's public information regime, no amount of support will make the difference. And it is only a matter of time before another pragmatic Independence Day orator resonates Sherman's views.

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