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Message received

By Sunity Maharaj

Yet another Prime Mminister has joined the chorus of wailing about government's failure to deliver its message of achievement to the public.

Having analysed the findings of the latest MFO political survey which reported a decline in her own popularity and increased disapproval of senior members of the Cabinet, the Prime Minister has concluded that "the message on the development achieved by Government in several areas has not got through to the public".

With local elections next on the horizon after Tobago's tomorrow, the public should brace itself for an overdose of taxpayer-funded PR including an avalanche of state advertising backed by ministerial appearances in every shape, form and location.

Such knee-jerk responses to the problem have been adopted by every administration since Robinson, even if all have failed.

Confronted by the hard evidence of declining public approval, every Prime Minister since George Chambers has been inclined to lick their wounds, attack the media and ascribe their failures to message defeat.

It's an odd reasoning given the easy and voluminous access to media that government ministers, especially the prime minister, enjoy for detailing and retailing their messages of development.

On any day, at any time, a prime minister, with the right sentence, can command the lead story on the entire range of mass media: radio, TV, and newspapers while sending social media into frenzy.

Indeed, the current prime minister has taken central command of development messages to the public, reeling them off one by one before adoring crowds, live on prime-time TV and radio. And yet the result remains: "message not received".

Instead of redoubling the resolve to ramp it up, then, a more strategic mind might ask "Why?" before proceeding to tackle the problem at source.

There is no message more powerful than the truth, even if it suits us to go along and delude ourselves with something more convenient to our needs. But serving the god of a conditional truth is a tricky business.

Like every other government since Robinson, the Persad-Bissessar administration has fallen victim to its own PR when what was needed was a clinical interpretation of the electorate' decision to vote it into office.

So blinded was Robinson by the victory margin of 33-3 seats that he felt confident enough to put Panday out of his government.

So confident was Manning in the power of his destiny that he put the PNM out of his government and installed himself. Twice.

So confident was Panday that he did both: tried to bring Tobago into the UNC and shut the UNC executive out of government. Tomorrow we will know what Tobago thinks about Persad-Bissessar's resort to Panday's playbook.

Unless we commit to change, history has no incentive for doing anything other than repeat itself. But how can the politics initiate change when it has already made a deal with the old?

This is the conundrum in which our politics is trapped. Lloyd Best described the condition as "pre-collapse", when, even before getting into office, a government's future is already decided by the terms on which it has arrived in office.

This is the source of the dissonance at the heart of the government's message disruption. Having come to office on terms no different from the NAR and only marginally different from the UNC, Persad-Bissessar knows her government has to be somehow different. But having set its course before May 24, 2010, the administration finds itself with very little room for changing direction.

Stuck with the hand it has dealt itself, changing the perception of reality, as opposed to reality itself, may be the only variable available for altering the outcome.

This is the basis for the government's heavy investment in message creation and PR. Initially, its priority message was unity, a direct response to the failures of coalition governments and public anxieties about the Partnership's durability. But the PM's handling of differences within the political partnership and general public dissatisfaction with the government have pushed her leadership ability and government performance to the top of a hectic and expensive message agenda.

Before 1987, the government's abuse of state media and the public purse in funding propaganda would have prompted protest and condemnation. Even Jimmy Bain, infamous as Williams's hatchet man at state-owned TTT and Radio 610, might have cringed at the rapturous live commentary of a CEO who had assigned himself to cover meetings of the governing party.

But the media environment of 2013 is several worlds away from the 1970s when TTT was the only television game in town and when state expenditure in advertising was limited to publishing legally required notices.

Today, instead of marching against state censorship and propaganda, the public exercises its right to choice by pressing the steups button on the TV remote and fleeing to other stations where government advertising and air-time dollars follow in seeking them out. Nobody, least of all the media industry, has reason for complaint. Except the public which ends up paying twice: funding an unproductive state broadcast sector and footing the bill for government advertising, mainly on privately-owned media.

Having diagnosed the government's ratings problem as the result of its message not getting through, the odds are on increased advertising by the government and parties of the Partnership, paid for by taxpayers and friends of the party, for which the public inevitably pays—one way or the other.

But, as governments would know from hard experience, more advertising and profiling do not change the messages received. The only way to do this is to change the message itself and anchor it in the truth of reality. Saying that it is so, does not make it so; but if it is indeed so, saying it is so will emphasise and enhance the fact that it is so.

No matter what the image-makers might wish to believe, government is not a product that can be branded away from reality. It touches the lives of people too closely and in too intimate a way for them not to feel its presence firsthand.

Ultimately, it is the tone of the touch falling directly on people that will determine the message received.

Change the touch and the message will change.

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