Op-Ed

Front Porch | Fostering a greater culture of public and govt communications

There is an extraordinary and widespread lack of understanding of the nature and purposes of public and government communications in The Bahamas.

Still, such communication is slowly improving, thanks in large measure to the invention and demands of social media, which has upended and is continuing to transform modern communications.

Donald Trump is in large measure president of the United States because of the use of social media by his campaign and the manipulation of this media by others.

Today, both the Office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Finance are employing communications officers to improve government communications.

This represents a major change in the culture of government communications and likely forecasts more changes in how government communicates, which has often been stymied by a hidebound communications culture buttressed by some political leaders and a civil service culture largely allergic to open communications.

Public communications is not about marketing and sales. Nor is it primarily about public relations, though that is a component of a comprehensive public communications strategy and program.

In the context of this commentary, public communications is about how institutions such as government, businesses, churches and the non-profit or social sector and others communicate with a network of public audiences or groups.

Mass media communications concern those who are in the news business and in the print, broadcast and social media field, though the lines between news and propaganda continue to blur in the age of social media powered by often complex algorithms and artificial intelligence.

Government and political communications may be considered a subset of public communications, though they are unique in definitive ways.

Public and government communications are mostly art, though there are technical or scientific aspects which help to make for more effective communication.

 Inventory

For a retailer, his inventory may be clothes or food or some other tangible good. For a communications practitioner, her inventory is mostly words and images.

Some months ago, the head of a Bahamian company with revenues in the tens of millions noted that his firm did not have a full-time communications director or officer on staff.

The company relied on one of the executives doing the communications work part-time, as well as an external firm.

The company failed to understand that today a well-staffed communications operation is essential, especially for a business or operation of a certain size.

Communications is often seen by many businesses or organizations as an adjunct or add-on to an operation. This is a major lacuna and oversight, again, especially in the social media age.

The time when a communications operation or political party had only to deal with a few newspapers and media houses is long past. Today, the absence of a well-oiled social media machinery may be the difference between success and failure in public communications.

When a crisis strikes, the absence of a social media strategy often exacerbates it, limiting the capacity of an organization to communicate its messages instantaneously and around the clock.

The greatest source of news and information for Bahamians today is through WhatsApp and Facebook. Though still influential, newspapers rank at the bottom as a source of news and information.

Newspapers remain a primary source for the more affluent and individuals over 55. Though some politicians and some others remain fixated on the daily headlines in the print media, the vast majority of Bahamians are more attuned to talk radio and social media.

In the recent Australian federal general election, the incumbent government of Liberal Party Prime Minister Scott Morrison was continually behind in polls, trailing the Labour Party led by Bill Shorten.

Many of the dailies predicted a Labour victory and regularly pilloried the incumbent administration. But party communications and campaigns matter.

Morrison and the Liberals pulled out a healthy upset victory over Labour, who were shocked, along with the press, at the outcome of what many thought was a forgone contest.

 Operations

This is a compelling message to both major parties in The Bahamas. In today’s political culture, party communications operations can no longer ramp down after an election.

There is also a critical and necessary distinction between government communications and party political communications.

A government communications employee must maintain his or her integrity and be concerned with accurately relaying government information and communications. They should not be involved in partisan party communications.

Those who do not understand the power of social media are politically doomed. Old media like billboards are yesterday’s news.

A dear friend, who is constantly on social media, noted that she knew nothing about the proposed ban on single-use plastics by the government next year.

Never mind that a billboard advertising the ban, which she drives past five days a week, sits yards from her office. She also does not watch the local broadcast media and she is a higher information voter than many Bahamians. Politicians take note!

Like politics, communications is such a natural part of human and daily life, many assume that they are good at one or both and that neither really requires certain gifts or abilities or experience.

Like a good politician, a capable communications practitioner requires a complex of skills and gifts. These include an appreciation of psychology, sociology and history.

Social media giants like Facebook and public relations and marketing firms typically hire individuals with experience or education in the behavioral sciences such as anthropology, social psychology and sociology.

Such companies also hire experts in areas such as neuroscience and sociobiology in order to better understand how humans think and operate.

Some hire individuals with degrees in literature, folklore and film and other forms of storytelling. One of the best communicators this columnist knows, studied biological anthropology.

Effective communications and messaging is hard and complex work. The great mistake made by many who hire individuals for communications work in The Bahamas is the mistaken belief that a journalist or a reporter is by default a communications expert because they have worked in the mass media.

There are former journalists who excel in public and government communications. But there is quite a number who have failed because they lack a general capacity and the writing skills and strategic thinking required for such work.

Moreover, expertise in social media requires a variety of skill sets that a reporter or writer may not possess. The digital media space, including graphic arts, informatics and other areas, all require certain gifts and expertise.

The best communications experts are strategists and storytellers, who can create clear, compelling and simple narratives and messages that move publics and audiences. These messages may be in words or images or both.

Because an individual hosted a talk radio show or a television program or had a certain on-air presence does not automatically translate into the ability to work effectively or successfully as a communications official.

Devising communications and information strategies along with content for various platforms is complex work requiring creativity, innovation and capacity for growth.

The various professions and areas of expertise in the public and government communications fields require the same quality of gifts, imagination, creativity and experience as other fields of endeavor.

frontporchguardian@gmail.com.

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