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Is President Mahama still a communications expert?

Sun, 27 Jul 2014 Source: Bokor, Michael J. K.

By Dr. Michael J.K. Bokor

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

One major lapse in the handling of affairs by this Mahama-led government is the failure to use COMMUNICATION effectively; the failure to tap into available resources to boost the government’s public image through productive COMMUNICATION. The impact is clear: that the government isn’t reaching out successfully to the citizens; hence, its being buffeted here and there by those who are constantly portraying it in a bad light in the public sphere. No need to elaborate, but evidence exists to prove that the government isn’t getting good press, apparently overshadowed by the huge presence of its opponents in the information dissemination sector.

Sadly, the President is touted as a communications expert and he is fond of using social media to attempt connecting with Ghanaians as he puts out there anything that he thinks will encourage the sharing of ideas. I have written to complain about that approach, but he still uses it. Unfortunately, as we have seen from the retort given to his recent post on Twitter by a staff member of the United States Embassy in Accra, that recourse to social media has turned out to be counter-productive. Better measures can be used to make the government’s case in public discourse.

President Mahama seems to be detached from the citizens and must change that perception. It will do him and his government a world of good if he takes the bold step to speak directly to the people. In that vein—and as I suggested sometime last year—it won’t hurt him to do as the United States system does. It is mandatory for the President to deliver a “Weekly Address” to the citizens in which he engages pertinent issues and keeps the public informed about what his government knows about those issues and how it will tackle them. Room is created for the opposition (the Republicans) to respond to the President’s Address; thus, giving the citizens the opportunity to see both sides of the coin. Informing the public about such pertinent issues encourages vigorous public conversation or debate and is laudable as part of efforts to make governance transparent.

Nothing prevents President Mahama from going that way too instead of leaving the task to appointees who end up causing more credibility problems than needed. This inadequacy creates doubts, suspicions, and fears in the citizens. It’s all about the economy, though. How is the government fixing it, and why is the positive effect not being felt? Communicating information about this particular issue doesn’t have to be by way of propaganda or blaming political opponents as is the penchant for the government communicators. As the Minority NPP side alleged last week, the government seems not to be telling Ghanaians the truth about the economic problems. While it maintains that the challenges are surmountable and that it is implementing measures to solve problems, the existential problems worsen, leading to the spate of agitations, threats of street demonstrations, and many others that have caused tension to heighten in the country.

Meantime, one would have expected President Mahama to give a nationwide broadcast on happenings so Ghanaians can, at least, get some food for thought. Unfortunately, he isn’t doing so, probably unsure of what to say or unaware of the harm that his failure to step forward is doing his administration.

No one is asking him to do more than he can or to bite off more than he can chew. The dire circumstances demand that he should reach out to the people. This is the time for him to use his so-called communication skills to bring the people on board. Will he take up the challenge?

The truth is that the agitations and street demonstrations in protest against the living conditions in the country (or the government’s inability to tackle the economic challenges, the depreciation of the Cedi, and high taxes, among others) have the potential to degenerate into open confrontations between the protesters and the Establishment, which by and large can endanger the political set-up itself. At such a time, it is incumbent on the President to move fast, reach out to the people, and lay bare the facts. Then, he can court their sympathy and support to turn the situation around. If he thinks otherwise, he must brace up for the negative fallouts. The old saying is still relevant: A stitch in time saves nine.

A careful assessment of the situation reveals that the government has virtually lost the communication game despite the huge resources available to it. Thus, it has had its back to the wall all this while, bouncing back to react to all kinds of misrepresentations about it by its opponents and bitter critics. Being reactive and not proactive won’t help it redeem its image.

I foresaw all these problems immediately President Mahama re-designated the Ministry of Information as one for Information and Media Relations and put Mahama Ayariga there to compete with two or three Deputy Ministers in a whirlwind fashion. All that Ayariga particularly did was to goof, making contradictory utterances in one breath and worsening the government’s credibility problems.

At the same time, the government retained the Ministry of Communications whose impact no one felt, apparently because its sector Minister was constrained by administrative functions rather than anything else to make government visible in public discourse. Matters worsened when Victoria Hammah’s loose talk threw the searchlight on the government for a bad cause.

Now, the President has done away with the Ministry of Information, collapsing its statutory functions into those of the Ministry of Communications and assigning two Deputy Ministers there to do his government’s bidding. I am happy that the Ministry of Information is no more and shouldn’t be revived by any future government. Whatever role it might play in governance should be given to the Information Services Department.

Obviously, it is not certain that the Ministry of Communications will solve the problems that have dimmed the government’s light in the public sphere. The real job has to be done elsewhere. Obviously, the government has its own communication team that is also part of the problem detracting from the government’s efforts at marketing itself to the public.

News reports, rumours, and speculations about in-fighting in that government’s communication team have created the negative impression that the staff are more interested in jostling for the President’s blessing to remain at post and enjoy the perks of their calling than really stepping out to do what they are in office for. My good friend, Ben Dotse Malor is in charge, supported by others such as Stan Xoese Dogbe; but little is emerging to prove to me that they are doing the job that will redeem the government’s image. No one is asking for anything extra-ordinary but what is required to put the public and the government on the same page.

Sometime ago, a former Deputy Minister of Information and Media relations, Murtala Mohammed, began a “Meet-the-Press” session at the Flagstaff House and informed us that it would be a daily affair to keep the media abreast of happenings in government so they could disseminate information to the public. A few sessions were held and the entire project ended in smoke to confirm my cynicism against such spur-of-the-moment ventures. The government needs effective measures to communicate with the citizens on what is bothering them and how it is tackling it. Only then can it claw back lost grounds in the public sphere.

I shall return…

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Columnist: Bokor, Michael J. K.