In the spring of 1977, a few months in office, things started looking very bad for the US president, Jimmy Carter. He was having strained relations with his staff and the press. Gerald Rafshoon, Carter’s long time media adviser started carving personal relationships between the president and major media figures, such as newspaper editors, publishers and foreign correspondents.
In his book, SHADOW, Bob Woodward explains how big Vons from two media owned by the Post Company (Washington Post and Newsweek) were invited to the White House for dinner with the president. At the dinner table, President Carter told the two that he wanted to have a contact, like someone he could call if he wanted to share something off the record or get an opinion or advice.
The journalists told the president that was not practical. Their reason: both the Post and Newsweek had reporters in the White House and would rather if anything, it should flow through them. They did not want to “end-run” their reporters, as Bob Woodward puts it. And as it turned out the poor handling of the media contributed to cost President Carter a second term.
President Tejan Kabbah almost went down that path. The military coup of May 1997, abhorrent as it was and still is, used the terrible relationship with the media as one of their reasons for the overthrow. But unlike Carter, Kabbah did not have a slide in popularity immediately following his election in March 1996 or even after his reinstatement in March 1998. On the contrary, he enjoyed a lot of intercourse with the media and the public. It took sometime for the plunge, and sometimes it was entirely his fault.
He slighted the mainstream media and concentrated on those journalists, known by all to be his protégés, to talk to. That is the problem! You don’t launder your image only in newspapers or radio stations that are known to be on your side. It does not serve its purpose because you will be preaching to the converted.
Nearly six months in office, President Ernest Bai Koroma may not be in as bad a situation as Carter or Kabbah was in. But the honeymoon with some sections of the media surely seems to be ending if not already. After all I don’t think he expected it to last for too long. Even President John Kuffour who appointed more journalists as ministers, ambassadors and to other key positions, saw and felt the wrath of the press not too long after. However, President Koroma’s problem with the media is largely because many of the journalists “around him” are becoming too judgmental about their fellow journalists. Exactly the same scenario following President Kabbah’s reinstatement exactly ten years ago.
Despite the antagonism of some sections of the media, information management is still clay-legged. And amazingly, the APC which was media savvy in opposition is lackadaisical, to put it mildly, with information management now that it is in government.
There does not seem to be any blue print to resuscitate the news agency (SLENA). SLBS, the national broadcaster, despite having some great talent is in dire straits. Morale is low among staff at the Government Information Service. One of the reasons is probably because of that additional ministerial responsibility, Communication. In my view the Communication component of the Ministry of Information should be transferred to another ministry and maybe ATTITUDINAL CHANGE added in its stead. Whatever it is, I repeat, the Communication portfolio is a distraction in that ministry.
Having said that, one thing which seems to be working remarkably is the injection that has been pumped into the Office of the President with the reintroduction of a Press Secretary. The frequency and quality of press releases from that Office is stunningly impressive. Amazingly, one gets to know now about the president’s every move now, with press releases issued even when he is abroad.
The dramatic change from the sleepy, stale and warped ones we used to receive is astounding. However, the Press Secretary should ensure his releases are very distinct from his personal opinions. Such releases MUST be on an official letterhead. Additionally, we should also have more radio reports and pictures in a similar fashion especially when the president travels abroad. Waiting until he is back and putting out all the essays or TV reports is boring and makes the government guilty of what it almost always criticised the former one for. Remember PRESIDENT AT WORK? After all reporters accompany the president and tax payers’ money is doled out to them. Otherwise take no reporter or cameraman along and rely on footage which will definitely be provided by the host anyway.
Another brilliant initiative is the introduction of a State House press corps. BUT, these reporters assigned to the presidency must not see themselves as hangers-on around State House or as public relations officers for the government. Otherwise their credibility will be in question. Nor should State House blacklist reporters who are objective even if critical of the establishment. The editors should respect the reporters, just as the Newsweek and Post journalists.
In all this, the President himself should romance the press. Regular press conferences. The other day we thought we could see him beside George Sorus as had been bantered. But no! One excellent tool President Bill Clinton used was his romance with the press. Right from his first press conference, he had studied the names and faces of journalists that he called them by their names when they wanted to ask a question. Can you imagine that feeling? He should stop talking to only his protégées like President Kabbah did.
One thing before I go: people who talk or write for the government must be sincere with and honest to themselves. Don’t tell lies especially to the media. Confidence once eroded, is very hard to regain. Putting a spin on something and lying about it are completely different. We can have the power of an elephant, but let us also have the grace of a gazelle.
By Umaru Fofana