As I blogged earlier in the week, I was recently in South Africa advising the government there on communications issues. The Independent group of newspapers asked me to write about my visit, and some of the issues we discussed. Here is the article I did for them.
For a political romantic – and despite the image that is what I am – there is always something wonderful about coming to South Africa. Whenever I hear anyone say that politics makes no difference, I say visit the country where politics and protest swept away apartheid and joyously brought so much change.
Because of your past, this is a country also blessed with a rare, living global icon, a man whose name will echo through all time, joining the likes of Lincoln, Luther King, Gandhi, Churchill in the list of political greats, to be remembered and taught about forever.
I had the privilege of meeting Nelson Mandela several times, first as a journalist, then when working for Tony Blair. He remains one of the few people on the planet for whom the hair on the back of the neck stands to attention when he walks into the room. He is one of the reasons why South Africa has a strong image globally. Another is the story of the struggle against apartheid itself, in which people from all around the world played a part. Another is the Football World Cup. After all the talk of South Africa’s inability to stage such an enormous event, it went superbly. That the quality of football left something to be desired cannot be blamed on the host country.
Of course no man, even one as saintly as Mandela, lives for ever and one day, sad though this may be to consider, he will not be with us. Just as his life was one of the great events of the last century, so his passing will become one of the most important milestones of this century. I remember when Princess Diana died, Tony Blair said it would lead to an outpouring of grief none of us had ever seen. I can only begin to imagine what kind of outpouring there will be for Nelson Mandela. The global focus on his recent hospitalisation gave but a foretaste.
It will be an enormous human, diplomatic and media event. It will in many ways represent the moment when South Africa becomes just another ‘normal’ country competing for business, attention and standing in our fast-changing globalised world.
This was one of the issues I raised when speaking to this week’s conference of the Government Information and Communication System. It is not often that the eyes of the whole world focus on one country, and reflect on its past. When they do, it is an opportunity to signal the future with strength and confidence. I have no doubt all the logistical planning is in place, but when people question the need for government communicators, they need to be involved in this too, partly because of the scale of the media invasion there will be, partly because of the interest in the country.
I made three speeches to the conference, and the backdrop to all three was the pace of change, not least to the media landscape, and the impact that was having on politics and government. I emphasised the need for a more strategic approach to communications, and greater co-ordination across government.
This was a theme echoed by Jimmy Manyi, the head of the GICS and Cabinet spokesman, who is also attracting the kind of headlines I used to when director of communications for the Blair government. Indeed, the first paper I saw on landing had the headline ‘Dirty Tricks Boss’ over a story about plans for a government newspaper. By the time I got on the plane home, I was handed a newspaper whose front page suggested some internal rebellion against Jimmy’s planned changes to government comms. I had all that too. I was able to tell him however that I had headlines comparing me with Hitler and Goebbels, so he didn’t yet have too much to worry about.
I can see why some commentators might worry about a government newspaper. But three points in his defence. First, internet access in South Africa is low so exhorting citizens to get information online is done more in hope than expectation. Second, government has a duty to seek to keep its people informed. And third, if you put those two points together, and consider how much governments like the US or the UK spend on putting information online – a lot – then it ought to seem less threatening. Of course people need schools and hospitals more than they need newspapers, but communications is an important and legitimate part of government too. One of Jimmy’s colleagues spoke of a ‘trinity’ of policy, public service delivery and communications. The first two are what matter most. But both need the third to be fully effective and understood.
So government communicators should always seek to be strategic, and not be defensive. Nor should they get overly concerned by every piece of criticism or negative reporting. The disjunction that matters most is not the one between government statements and media coverage, but between media coverage and people’s lives. Most people make their judgements according to their own lives rather than what they read in papers.
I did several interviews in Johannesburg and in most if not all there was an assumption of two types of communication; government communication – bad – and media reporting – good. The truth is there is good and bad in both and both sides should have a grown-up debate about each other’s role without thinking the other side is always venal. One of the speeches I made was attended by journalists as well as government personnel and to be fair to the media, they were not entirely dismissive of the idea that government communications should be strengthened, though they were concerned about the idea of a media tribunal and keen to be involved in any discussions about it. Foreign media were also keen to be able to work with the government in ensuring the coverage of Nelson Mandela’s passing does him and the country proud.
As for Jimmy, I can see that the media find him a lively and interesting character, which he is. There is always a risk when the spokesman becomes the story. It happened to me often enough. But it must not stop you doing the things you believe need to be done. Perhaps I didn’t always help myself, but I lasted a decade or so, which is a long time to be at the interface of media and politics, and I endured many many long forgotten bad headlines. It is always wise to try to differentiate between a screaming headline and what really matters.
Provided Jimmy has political support from the country’s leadership, stays focused and strategic, and builds a sense of teamship across government departments, I am sure he can take a lot of heat. Indeed, it would seem that being a lightning conductor is often part of the spokesman’s job.
The discussions I attended brought back memories of the early stages of the Blair government. The need for change was obvious, but not always easy to bring about. But the media world continues to change so quickly that ‘no change’ is not an option. The question is what kind of change is required to adapt to the changed media world. For my part I recommended greater co-ordination across government, far more frequent direct briefing of the media, more direct comms to the people, and an understanding that when times are tough, and the story difficult, that is the time to make sure the phone is on, not turned off.
There were a lot of bright people at the event. I think they know what the challenges are. I hope that as they seek to meet them, the media will see it is in their interests too that government communications strengthens and improves.