Perhaps, it is high time the Government considers setting up a communications unit for effective communication both with its domestic and international audience. The unit would complement the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and not duplicate its functions.
Such a unit would be better placed in the Office of the President where it can speak with ultimate authority and clarity.
The trend worldwide is that governments communicate through the highest office in the land, whether it is the White House in the US or Union Building in Pretoria or Tshwane, on cardinal issues that affect ordinary people and key issues of foreign policy.
The president of the republic has a lot to communicate to the people and thus he needs an official spokesperson or a Press secretary. This gatekeeper, in the form of a communication expert, would ensure timely response of the Government and the Presidency on issues of national or international importance.
The President needs someone senior, perhaps at the level of a permanent secretary or deputy minister, who would not only speak on behalf of his office but also offer advise to the President on what to say, when to say it and how to say. He needs someone knowledgeable about issues in the public domain to brief him constantly and to offer advice. The official should be able to sit in on policy meetings such as Cabinet and others.
Our advocacy for a strategic communication approach should not be confused with spin doctoring or such other public relations exercises. All we are asking for is substance and depth in communication from the Presidency and the Government.
Previously, the Office of the President experimented with this idea and appointed communications expert, Jackson Swartz, and later Charles Mubita to man such a unit. Reasons why the formation of the unit was later aborted are not readily available.
What is clear though is that a communications unit is a must in this era of democracy where governments are accountable to those that elect them. A communications unit would ensure a best communications strategy and best communication practices.
It would advise the Government and the Head of State in particular, on issues to be communicated and formulate prompt responses on burning issues. This would ensure that the Government as a democratically elected institution takes the lead in setting the people’s agenda, the very electorate that entrusted it with governance.
The unit, manned by professionals, would be ideally suited to tailor make messages and statements that meet the criteria for news as dictated by journalism and media codes.
We say this mindful of the fact that lately, a number of burning issues have cropped up and the Government’s handling of such issues has been found wanting. At best, the Government’s communication and reaction to the issue of the International Criminal Court case by the Namibia Society for Human Rights and the so-called “health crisis”, just to name a few examples has been lacklustre, too slow and therefore ineffective.
It took too long for the Government to react to the issue of the ICC. The same goes for the controversy around hospital services. A long time elapsed, as if public opinion did not matter, before these issues could be tackled or commented on.
The time lapse meant that the Government was put under tremendous pressure and on the defensive. This was totally unnecessary.
Government should never allow itselve to be put under pressure and thereby resort to pressing panic buttons when things threaten to go out of hand. Crisis management is not the route to go hence governments must avoid being caught up in crisis.
Had the Government had a working communication strategy and “watchdogs” or trouble shooters in the form of communication experts to deal with these issues, things could have turned out differently perhaps and the Government would have avoided the embarrassment that it had to endure in both cases.
It took the intervention of President Hifikepunye Pohamba in both cases, albeit at the eleventh hour, to put down the fires. The question then is where were the fire fighters?
Last but not least, we join the rest of the nation in remembering those that sacrificed their lives for the comfort that we enjoy today – the heroes and heroines of our revolution.
May God comfort them.