The relations between government communicators and the media are necessitated by the communication responsibilities that both parties have to society. In fulfilling our roles and responsibilities we are compelled to work together. Each needs the other – the media need the story to tell the people and the government communicators need to get the story out to the people.
Government has a constitutional obligation to communicate with the people. It must ensure that the people are informed of its policies and programmes; it must ensure that the people are aware of their rights and services and opportunities for improving their lives; it must ensure that the people are able to effectively participate in policy formulation and other matters of public interest by making information about such matters available and easily accessible.
In meeting its communication obligation government engages in various communication activities. The media offer a very critical platform in this regard. The media have a significantly important role in facilitating a free flow of information between government and the people, thereby helping create the possibility for the people to participate in the work of government and hold government accountable.
Government also acknowledges and accept the role of the media as a watchdog for society keeping government under constant check and subjecting it to rigorous scrutiny.
It is the view of government that for the media to play its role effectively it needs to be properly appraised of the work of government and understand how policies and programmes are formulated and how they impact on the lives of the people. Journalists need accurate band credible government information to write balanced reports and intelligent political comment. Access to information and reliable government sources is of vital importance in this regard.
In our discussions at this workshop we must closely examine our relationship and identify practical things that we need to do to ensure that both the media and the government fulfil their responsibilities and obligations to the people.
As government there are a number of things that we do to as part of our obligation to communicate with the people. There are a few types of media engagements that we conduct. These include:
- Cluster media briefings following the State of the Nation Address where ministers highlight key cluster priority issues for the year. These briefings are also used to give more details on the issues covered in the state of the nation Address.
- Cluster media briefings on the implementation of the programme of action are held every two months in line with the cycle of clusters reports to the Cabinet.
- Post Cabinet media briefings are normally conducted by the government spokesperson and are held after every cabinet meeting to brief the media about key cabinet decisions.
- The President conducts post mid year Cabinet Lekgotla briefings
- Ministers and senior officials normally brief the media about their departments’ programmes during the budget votes.
- Other media briefings are conducted by ministers and DGs on ad hoc basis depending on need.
- The Department of Foreign Affairs conducts weekly briefings to highlight key issues relating to South Africa’s international relations programme.
Apart from the formal engagements there are informal interactions between government and the media. These take various forms including media breakfasts, lunches, dinners and networking forums.
Our assessment is that while these engagements are useful in ensuring that there is a free flow of information between government and the media more could be done to promote more regular and frequent engagement between government and the media.
Recently the cabinet approved a proposal by GCIS that ministers and senior officials should brief media more frequently and avail themselves to answer questions about they work. The intension is that every department must have at least one media briefing session a month.
The issue of the Presidential Press Corps (PPC) is also receiving attention. Our view is that the PPC as it was originally conceptualised may not work and that what we need is a government wide press corps which would facilitate regular interaction between ministers and senior officials and the media. We are currently engaged with Sanef and some of the political journalists in a process that would lead to the introduction of the new press corps. We are also studying a similar model in Germany to see how it works and what aspects of it can be copied.
In 2005 GCIS commissioned research among journalists to in order to improve the media liaison function of government communicators. The research revealed important lessons and pointed areas that needed attention in our media liaison function.
Here are some of the things that the research told us:
- Avoid an adversarial relationship
There needs to be an alignment of government communication and the media behind common objectives. A ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality is counterproductive. The culture needs to be one of information-sharing, trust and respect.
- Understand the needs of the different media types
Part of the professional standards required from government communicators is that they need to know the different platforms they can harness to deliver a message.
- Understand the importance of journalists’ deadlines
Be accommodating and assist in meeting the deadlines. Understand the immediacy of daily newspaper, radio and television news deadlines.
- Be accessible
Government communicators have to be accessible to the media to share information. Ministers and senior officials should be more available to the media.
- Consistent professional standards
Government communicators should consistently reflect professional standards in their work.
- Government spokespersons are not bodyguards
It is not the job of government communicators to protect their principals but to rather be their ‘voice’.
- Contact and recognition
The media wants more contact and recognition at the senior level of government.
The key findings of the research have been incorporated in the government communicator’s handbook which guides the work of every government communicator. The handbook also includes the following basic instructions:
- Know the policy positions of your department and articulate them well.
- Be professional, efficient and enthusiastic.
- Know the journalists who work in your field and avoid limiting your relationship to that of a voice over the telephone.
- Develop an understanding of the different kinds of media and customise your service to journalists to suit each medium.
- Make time to visit newsrooms to understand the news process and how decisions about what is newsworthy are made.
- Find out about deadlines since each newspaper, radio station or television station has its own deadlines. As a general rule, print media will have longer deadlines than broadcast and online media. This means that a radio journalist will be working on hourly or even half-hourly deadlines compared with the print journalist who may have a day or longer to write an article.
We have taken all these steps because as government we attach high importance to the building and maintenance of professional working relations with the media so that both government and the media can fulfil their respective responsibilities to the people.
Our presentation focussed on what we are doing as government and how we can improve our work to contribute to healthier working relations between government and the media. I deliberately did not talk about the concerns that we have about the media, and I know my colleagues from government will have a lot to say about that during the discussions, because we expect the media presentation to address that and tell us what is being done to improve these working relationship.
I am certain that at the end of our discussions we will have agreed on the practical things that both government communicators and journalists must do ensure that we both fulfil our responsibilities and obligations to the people.
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)