Learn to Blow Your Own Horn Mr. President

South African president Jacob Zuma last month defended the ANC government’s performance track record, saying it had made “substantial progress” in delivering services to the poor.

Having lived in both apartheid South Africa and in what we love to call the New South Africa, I can attest to the truth of what Mr Zuma says.

Millions of people, especially in the rural areas, now have electricity and access to telephones. Between 1996 and 2010, the number of households with access to electricity increased 127.9% and the number with access to piped water 76.6%.

It’s also true that much more could have been achieved but for rampant corruption and incompetence born of nepotism. But many misconceptions have been caused by government’s failure to communicate its successes. It was quite refreshing to hear Mr Zuma acknowledge this failure recently.

Because of it, government achievements have gone largely unreported, while its failures get amplified. When institutions fail to communicate their achievements, they only land in the public eye when something goes wrong, with dire consequences for their reputations.

So President Zuma’s government has only itself to blame for negative public perceptions. Its disastrous public relations record mirrors that of the apartheid regime it replaced. But apartheid bosses had good reasons to be secretive. The ANC has a far better story to tell.

But when the honeymoon phase enjoyed by the ANC came to an end, and they had to roll up their sleeves and do the work, they found the critical eye of the hitherto sympathetic media discomforting.

Sadly, instead of working on its messaging, government sought to change the media and get them to see life through rose-coloured glasses. Several meetings were held with editors to get them to buy into the government’s idea of “patriotic journalism.” They wanted stories that portrayed South Africa negatively to be downplayed “in the national interest”.

Needless to say, the editors did not bite. Relations between the government and the media have deteriorated to their worst levels since Zuma became president in 2009.

His administration’s hostility towards the media is reflected in attempts to pass the Protection of State Information that will hinder the free flow of information and have journalists jailed for publishing classified information – even if it’s in the national interest.

Government’s appointment of Jimmy Manyi as head of government communications was disastrous. His legendary run-ins with the press, penchant for attacking editors and jingoistic comments dominated coverage of government business. Manyi is now gone, but his legacy lingers.

Government now has a good opportunity to rectify the monumental communications mistake it made by appointing someone who truly appreciates the importance of communication and the role the media play in that regard.

By investing in messaging and media training, government can become known more for its successes than failures – for providing healthcare facilities and taps where they never existed before; instead of making the news only when the clinics such run short of drugs or the taps run dry, for example.

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