WINDHOEK – The fact that government does not have a communication policy in place makes it difficult for public relations officers to work well with journalists.
The National Director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Namibia, Natasha Tibinyane confirmed to New Era that government does not have an official communication policy, adding that government has not yet “grasped” the importance of communicating with the media and the public to fulfil their communication duties.
“Many [public relations officers] are not trained public relations practitioners,” said Tibinyane who was responding to questions on why many state public relations practitioners do not have a good working relationship with the print and electronic media. Hence, Tibinyane urged journalists to recognise the challenges within the public sector by being more assertive and holding these practitioners accountable. This can also be done by the public writing letters of complaint to public relations officers’ superiors.
“Professionalism in this country will only improve when we hold people accountable,” Tibinyane maintained. Namibia does not have an ‘access to information act’ which compels government and other institutions to avail information and be more transparent.
Amongst others, public relations officers are responsible for upholding and promoting the image of a particular ministry or organisation and speaking on behalf of their employer. But in most cases public relations officers who are in most cases not available when required to comment on certain issues hide behind the blame game to mask their incompetency.
Johanna Absalom, a freelance journalist for Chinese news agency Xinhua in sharing her work experience with public relations officers said there are those who are committed and respond to the media on time while others are inaccessible.
“And then there are those who are uninterested in giving information [that the media has requested] or linking the journalist to those who can provide information. You can send emails, call over and over but they will never get back to you,” lamented a frustrated Absalom.
Absalom went on to say the ineffectiveness of some public relations practitioners is “so much” that she opts to ask “a different person” within the organisation “and you find that you actually get the information you need”.
“When I have information it does not mean that I have all the facts,” said Absalom, stressing that public relations officers should respond to queries from journalists to avoid journalists getting the story wrong and in some cases then having to place costsly adverts to counter the stories – coming too little too late.
Journalist Hilma Hashange of Namibia Economist newspaper said she has a problem with government public relations officers because they take “too long” to respond to questions.
“Some government public relations officers take long to reply and they do not really give information that you want. I can send questions this week Monday and you find that by the following Monday there is still no reply,” she charged.
When asked why public relations officers often respond and react negatively to journalists, Kaitira Kandjii, the Director of Communications and Marketing at the Polytechnic of Namibia said: “generally, we do not respond negatively to media people because it is part of our job to deal with the media and to provide them with information.” Kandjii highlighted that there are instances where journalists present negative information to the public about institutions albeit getting factual information from public relations officers. There are also instances where journalists would misquote public relations officers, he added.
“There are instances where a journalist has a story about an institution but does not have the courtesy to check with public relations officers or wait for comments from those responsible. That creates bad synergy between journalists and public relations officers,” Kandjii stressed.
Utaara Hoveka, spokesperson of the University of Namibia empathises with journalists’ deadline-driven regime but said it is not always possible to respond to queries in the shortest time possible, given the sensitivity of the information requested.
“At times you must understand that it is just premature to comment on certain issues, for example the suspension of staff or the death of a student while investigations are still underway.
“Also, there are some issues that we as an organisation may feel are internal and not for public consumption. When journalists want to write a story we must determine whether it is really in the public interest,” Hoveka explained.
Romeo Muyunda, a public relations officer with the Ministry of Education said depending on how government communicators need to be capacitated, training and refresher courses are offered.
Many public relations officers tend to blame the media for their failures when they are taken to task by their superiors.
By Alvine Kapitako