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The inside story on government and media
“Moreover, before some audiences not even the possession of the exactest knowledge will make it easy for what we say to produce conviction. For argument based on knowledge implies instruction, and there are people whom one cannot instruct.”
—Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric
The principles of effective communication were established in the 4th century BC when Aristotle assembled the series of lectures called The Art of Rhetoric that, to this day, serve as the foundation theory for all students of political and other forms of communication. Effective communication, Aristotle argued, is based on three foundations: the credibility of the speaker, the mood of the listener, and the logic of the argument being advanced. If the speaker has no credibility, the message fails.
The bombardment of viewers by a government programme aimed at promoting the “good works” of the People’s Partnership administration is as likely to be as effective as the decision of the Tobago Organisation of the People and its media handlers to schedule nightly national broadcasts—on all television stations—of its political meetings ahead of the THA election. That is, it is more likely to turn viewers off the PP than to persuade them to its cause.
But according to Aristotle, the most effective way of communicating a message is through a story. So here’s a personal one:
When I joined the Government Information Services Ltd (GISL) in 2007, the country was mere months away from an election and the company had a programme running called Head On which featured a government minister opening himself up to being interviewed by journalists. It promised no editing, and no aspect of a ministry’s operation was to be off the record. It was a government information programme well in keeping with the GISL mandate and had been outsourced to an advertising agency, which was responsible for establishing the production values to meet industry standards.
But the programme immediately ran into problems. The fact that the government was approaching end of term meant that ministers, who were at the time preparing and hoping for a second term, were sceptical of opening up to journalists who could, with probing questions without the possibility of post-production editing, open them up to scandal and ridicule. And the journalists, who were paid a token fee for their efforts, were sceptical that, by appearing on a government-funded programme, they would be perceived as partisan. One blogger had already begun suggesting as much.
Although the programme had the blessings of the Prime Minister we were faced with reluctant ministers and an even more sceptical pool of journalists. It soon died.
The government was re-elected, however, with the PNM being given its largest mandate.
We devised another programme. The market research conducted by MORI (which is available at www.mpa.gov.tt/home/component/content/article/116-opinion-leaders-resear... ) has shown in T&T that people with the highest credibility were journalists and public servants and the lowest were politicians.
So we devised a policy to communicate the government’s message through a news-formatted programme featuring public servants, freelance journalists and ordinary people, and to leave the politicians, wherever possible, out of the picture. So, at the opening of a bridge, there would be the obligatory shot of a minister cutting the ribbons, but the story would be told through the eyes of the affected residents telling what the bridge meant to them, through the journalists.
The programme was called the Inside Story and was an instant success. Not only was it the highest-ranked government programme ever in the MFO ratings (where the viewership of government programmes was previously too low to be ranked) but it was ranked among the top five programmes viewed on local television. The success of the programme owed much to its news format but was also helped by the fact that we had negotiated with the television stations an additional 15 minutes of prime time coverage in exchange for placing advertising promoting it, which we had already intended to do anyway.
Despite the measureable success of the communications effort, the PNM lost the election by the second largest margin in its history.
There are two takeaways from this story. The first is that having a successful government communications programme cannot, by itself, turn around the fortunes of an administration no matter how well it is executed.
And this is because of the second takeaway, that media programmes are only one means through which the Government communicates. Even if the Government is successful in getting one hour of prime time to highlight politicians who, the research has shown, are just not credible, it will do nothing to further the message of the present administration.
The true face of the administration is shown not by government information programmes, but by the unrehearsed sound bites shown on television news (including off-the-record comments that are not government policy); in embarrassing photographs and newspaper reports; and from people’s interaction with ministers, ministries/departments of government and state agencies. The polls are showing that for the majority of citizens who are not “from a low socioeconomic status and/or 55-64 years old, and/or those of East Indian descent and/or living either in Central, South or Tobago” (who clearly attach more credibility to members of the current administration), the message has not been getting through.
In the last days of the Manning administration the government also intensified its effort by commandeering prime time coverage directly from the Office of the Prime Minister. The present battle between the Government through the Ministry of Communications and the electronic media is, therefore, one all members of the media have seen before.
They need not be worried since, we all know, the media always have the last word.
Maxie Cuffie runs a media consultancy, Integrated Media Company Ltd, is an economics graduate of the UWI and holds an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School as a Mason Fellow in Public Policy and Management.
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