Governments, especially democratically elected ones in stable and relatively stable societies, spend a lot of resources communicating. They do so because they have to. They have to communicate their policies, planned actions and, in some cases, actions already undertaken, to their electorate and, often, audiences beyond their own national borders. They have to explain themselves to electorates who are often, rightfully, suspicious of government actions. Often, government messages aimed at its country’s nationals are taken and analysed by foreign media for indications of that country’s position on other, more global, matters. Government communicators have a particularly onerous task of ensuring that messages are carefully structured and communicated in order to avoid creating confusion and, in some cases, mayhem.

Choosing the medium

It is often said that when a government spokesperson in, say, an African country where English is not widely spoken, decides to address media in this language, there is a big chance that the message communicated is targeted at an audience beyond the borders of that country. The choice of media platforms and style is a good indicator of government’s intentions with a particular message. In South Africa, where the electorate is multi-cultural – a country with eleven official languages – the choice of English as a medium of government communications is an obligatory compromise. Other languages also get used for targeting specific population groups with messages that are meant to reach them specifically. The choice of media: radio, television, print media or online media is also a good sign of whom the message is meant to reach; but in an increasingly sophisticated country that South Africa is becoming, a combination of all media platforms is crucial. A good communicator has to have a good sense of the media consumed by the intended target audiences in order to reach them effectively. This is Communications 101.

Are government communicators always well chosen?

The short answer is: often not. Government communicators, like many civil servants who are too secure in their employment, tend to be arrogant towards the media and, by extension, the electorate. In South Africa, they are often unreliable, either switching off their phones when they would be urgently needed or never returning calls when messages are left for them. They often behave like a people under siege, sometimes unwilling to respond to pressing questions for fear of saying the wrong thing. There are exceptions, of course, well trained communicators who understand that the media can either be alienated (at their employer’s expense) or brought on board as partners to help disseminate government messages.

Governments who have little to hide (all governments have something to hide) will employ well-trained communicators who understand their target audiences and media. Such communicators also understand the importance of partnering with media to help media do its work and, in turn, obtain crucial help in spreading their messages.