A few weeks ago an official was lamenting in an interview that although the Government was doing “good works” its message was not getting through. This has been the common complaint of all administrations especially when public opinion does not appear favourable. A former prime minister personally visited a radio station to protest a particular broadcast and famously a newspaper was burnt by a major politician in Woodford Square.
What makes the complaints so puzzling however, is that the Government now controls more than one television and radio station either directly or indirectly. Moreover it can go to other media houses as part of negotiated arrangements to ensure that the information gets through. On top of that there are the numerous newspaper advertisements not to mention the staged photo-opportunities and speeches. Access is clearly not the problem, so why is the message still not getting through?
There are probably two main reasons for this. The first has to do with content and the second and perhaps more important factor is credibility. In terms of content, an audience tends to listen to information that it believes to be relevant and will not be distracted by a story that it considers trivial or insignificant. People will be even more turned off if the format is boring and unimaginative as most government features tend to be. The now mandatory newspaper supplements are little more than glorified photo-albums and I have heard PR people remark that “once my boss sees his picture in the papers he’s happy because he believes that is what communication is all about”. Unfortunately saturating the media with pretty pictures and catchy slogans does not guarantee public support. Not when there are burning questions crying out for answers.
Credibility is critical to the success of any communication strategy not only in terms of the message but also the messenger. It is counterproductive to use a discredited voice as chief spokesperson for an issue especially in times of crisis. Once the public believes they have not been getting the facts from a particular source they will pay little attention to it, however loud or frequent the appeals.
As a result leaders should not easily squander their credibility because once it is lost it is extremely difficult to recover. It could eventually reach a stage where people switch channels automatically whenever a certain personality appears, even before he or she has started speaking. The late Trevor Boopsingh, a much sought-after commentator on energy matters, stated repeatedly that he preferred credibility to visibility and would only do an interview when he had something meaningful to say. As a result he was always seen as a credible expert on the energy sector both locally and internationally.
On the other hand there are those who believe that constant visibility especially in the media is the key to convincing a sceptical public. As a result they seek every opportunity for publicity and self-promotion even if it means incorporating religion. In this regard, permit me to quote the words of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospel of St Matthew, “when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray, standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray in secret to your Father”. It seems that communication even with the Almighty may be more effective when it is done quietly and sincerely without fanfare and ostentation.
Notwithstanding the proliferation of communication officers and specialists there continues to be some misunderstanding about the role of public relations and advertising vis-a-vis corporate social responsibility (CSR) and strategic communication.
Many practitioners assume for instance that PR and CSR are the same thing and have the same objectives. In previous articles I have referred to a 2008 UNDP study on CSR in Trinidad and Tobago. This report was done in collaboration with the Energy Chamber and a major conclusion was that “the majority of companies were involved in what would better be described as philanthropic and PR/marketing-related activities. There is little evidence of strategic programme development and many programmes and projects are funded on an ad-hoc basis, resulting in a lack of sustainability”. The key words are “strategic programme development’’ and “sustainability’’ because these are the elements that separate CSR from PR.
The recent oil spill in La Brea provides a valuable case study and the responses so far have adopted the traditional PR approach i.e. media conferences, highly publicised site-visits and newspaper ads about Petrotrin’s concern for the communities.
All well and good but what’s next? What are the “socially responsible’’ programmes that will promote “sustainability’’ and enhance the community’s ability to overcome current and future challenges? Are there plans to upgrade the health facilities in the area so that makeshift clinics will no longer be necessary?
What about new initiatives such as aquaculture and much-needed infrastructural development? These are just some of the projects that will help establish credibility and demonstrate that the concerns for the people of La Brea are genuine and it was not only about damage control.
Incidentally there was a 2012 update on the original UNDP/Energy Chamber study and an unfortunate conclusion was that “not much has changed”. Despite this finding millions of dollars continue to be spent on so-called CSR programmes with little evidence of any serious impact assessment beyond the initial publicity. In many instances the candle costs more than the funeral and more money is spent on the launch of a project than the project itself. The hunger for visibility instead of credibility continues to drive the process although the public has recognised a long time ago that what you see is not always what you get.
• Richard Braithwaite is a