Thursday, July 18, 2019 1:22 am
By Lai Oso
Despite all attempts to whittle down the power of government, it continues to occupy the central role in the life of the citizensin contemporary society. This means government policies,activities and pronouncement are not just important but must be made known to the citizens. Government is the biggest information factory in many societies. With all its agencies and institutions it dominates the public space for information of all kinds on many aspects of our social life. As Deacon and Golding have noted “the state is at the heart of the news machine” (Deacon and Golding, 1994, p.5).
More than any other institutions in the society, the government and its agencies have the human and materials resources to generate news worthy events and subsidise the production process through pubic media organisations and other channels.The news media which is the dominant institution of the public sphere, privilege the utterances and actions of public officials in what Boyd-Barrett has described as “webs of complicity between major news sources and news reporters” (Boyd-Barrett, 2002, p.34).
The media also accord them such privilege because of the belief that what governement does and/or its officials say are of importance to the public, and the belief in their authority as credible and ready sources of news.
Government information is an aspect of public communication, though it is mainly concerned with the process of governance. It could also be regarded as an aspect of political communication. To many, it is propaganda. However, it is a crucial link between the government and governed. It tends to be unilear, top-down and source and message centred with little or no regard for the audience. Its management is highly bureacratised.
Information management will cover all the goal-oriented or purposive activities of planning, organising and controlling the production and dissemination of information or entertainment through different media channels. As a goal-oriented activity, it is to influence and/or persuade the receivers of such information according to the interest(s) of the source. Government also uses information to set agenda, frame public discourse on issues, for publicity, to market policies and programmes, to create impression of action and manage perception. It could also be used as a negative tool for misinformation and disinformation.
The public needs government information in order to be enlightened about government activities, policies and programmes. Such information address the obligations and responsibilities of both the government and the citizens. Thus public information are part of the requirements for maintaining order and stability in the society. Government information are also crucial in citizens’ empowerment for them to exercise their democratic rights and engagement in the democratic process.
Managing the generation and flow of information is a crucial aspect of managing public affairs. As I have argued elsewhere, information is a strategic resource in a world and a political system built on contestation of ideas, ideologies and world views. The management of this crucial social resource is very important in the exercise of power and hegemony by any social class, group and government. Power, it has long been realised, is better and less costly to acquire and sustain through communication and persuasion.
Information dissemination by government and any other social group is more than just giving facts to the public. More fundamentally, it is an exercise in meaning-making through the machineries of public communication. As John Corner has once noted, “political power works through meanings …” (Corner: 2007, p.215).
Meaning-making is of course dependent on the ability to name and define an issue or situation in a particular way and effectively disseminate such definition to the public. Hahn says: “The power of definition is the power to create or destroy. Definitions determine issues … and personalities” (Hahn: 1998, p.65). An American political scientist, Robert Entman has also observed that democratic politics is about persuading and convincing others, particularly the electorate to see things as you do, and it may be added, to appreciate what you do. According to the scholar, “that means conveying ideas and framing choices in ways that make your side of the story seem the most persuasive” (Entman: 2004, p.147). Walter Lippmann must have been reflecting on this when he wrote many years ago that the significant revolution of modern times is not industrial or economic or political, but the revolution taking place in the art of creating consent among the governed.
The power of definition and meaning-making is an exercise in influencing and controlling societal dialogue, setting the limits of debates and sometimes eliminating some issues out of the debate and public gaze. It is part of the process of what has come to be known as social construction of reality. It is important for us to realise that most of what we claim to know come from second-hand account through the process and machinery of public communication — the mass media and increasingly the social media. It is in this regard that C. Wright Mills once observed that “Between consciousness and existence stand communications which influence such consciousness as men have of their existence (Mills, 1951, p.333, quoted in McQuail, 2005, p.94) Those with better access to these channels with the right message have the definitional power to influence the pictures in our heads about going-ons in the society. Manuel Castells has eloquently expressed the position thus:
Thoughout history, communication and information have been fundamental sources of power and counter-power. This is because, while coercion is an essential form of even more decisive practice to influence people’s behaviour … minds are shaped in the process of social production of meaning. Therefore, the battle over human mind is largely played out in the process of communication (Castells,2010, p.3).
More than ever before, the process of meaning-making has become highly contestable and conflictual. Many social groups are in the field of play, challenging, contesting and creating meanings in order to influence, manufacture and win consent. Politics and governance have become “dominated by the constant engineering of consent among an increasingly fickle electorate” (Scammell, 1995, p.14).
Forces of Change
The 21st century has been shaped by many forces which have made a lot of qualitative changes in many areas of our social life, institutions and processes. Fundamental among these forces, at least in the context of our discussion are New Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), political democratisation and neo-liberal economic policies. Otherforces will include the high level of political mistrust, cynicism and alienation of majority of the people, particularly the poor, the politics of identity. In the Nigerian case, this is what the newspaper columnist, Tatalo Alamu refers to as “ethnic nationalism and negative political consciousness” (The Nation, July 7, 2019, p.56). Nigeria is a country with no agreed values or what this cerebral columnist and scholar, elsewhere, called normative bounds. The high level of division and polarisation brings to the public space many interpretative frames which make meaning making quite difficult.
The workings and effects if these forces are interwoven. For instance, ICTs have implications for economic liberalisation and political democratisation. Also, some scholars have argued that neo-liberal economic policies, e.g. commercialisation and the operations of free market forces tend to further worsen the plight of the poor; thus leading to nationalist political agitations as well as ethnic and religious politics.
The point we will like to make is that the processes of communication and information management exist within the context provided by these forces. In that sense, the issues and challenges of government information management are inherent in the interplay of these forces.
Information, Communication Technologies (ICTs)
The 21st century with its peculiar features has been variously descried as information society, informatio revolution age,network society, knowledge society, digital age, post-industrial, post-modern society. All these labels tend to suggest a radical break from the previous epochs. This, to some extent, is true. One needs not be a technological determinist to realise the profound transformations that technologies have created in the last few years.
No one will contest the disruptive effects of the new Information and Communication Technologies on the media and communication ecology at all the points and facets of the communication circuit, institutions, groups, individuals and social processes. In fact, the labels above came mainly from the ICTs induced changes this century has witnessed and still witnessing.
The information/digital age addresses our minds to the unprecedented availability and rapid flow of information from diverse sources. It is an age where individuals, groups, organisations and governments enjoy seemingly unlimited opportunities to freely and openly express their perspectives, views and ideologies through many and diverse internet-enabled interactive tools and platforms, and mobile telephonesthat are now available at relatively cheap cost. We can also note the proliferation of the old media, particularly broadcasting through digitalisation. Lagos alone has more than 20 radio stations and up to 10 TV stations. Those who can subscribe to DSTV, GoTV and/or Startimes have access to unlimited channels. We live in an era of channel abundance. With technological convergence, it is now possible to watch TV, listen to radio and read newspapers on one’s cellphone or computer; location and geography have been eliminated. Media production and consumption are now like fast food chains, what is now termed McDonaldisation of the media.
The media and communication ecology has definitely changed. It is not just wider; allowing many players on the discourse field; it has become cacophonous, unruly, anarchic and undisciplined. The forces of communication technologies and democratisation have opened up the public space for so many actors that the centre can no more hold. As Castells contends, it has “contributed in a large extent to the worldwide crisis of political legitimacy” (Castells, 2010, p.4).
Though the institutional organisation for mass communication and information production are still with us, we are witnessing the blurring of the boundaries between the publishers, producers, distributors and consumer. In addition, the consumer is no more just receiving information; he/she is searching, authenticating/verifying, interacting and sometimesalso producing. He/She is now more active. Desktop publishing has given power to individuals to publish newspapers, pamphlets and books. The audience now exercises more control and autonomy. Communication has also become more interactive and horizontal. With these developments, Castells has noted “the rise of a new form of social communication; mass self-communication.”
ICTs offer a means of counter-power, i.e. “the capacity by social actors to resist, challenge, and eventually change the power relations institutionalized society” (Castels, op. cit., p.10). The important point to note is that the changes that we are witnessing in the media and communication landscape have led to changes not only in the behaviours and activities of social actors, but to fundamental changes in the approach, style and techniques of information management.
The last century ended with a lot of pressure from the western powers on developing countries to democratise and institute free-market economic policies. Political democratisation implies multi-party electoral processes, competition, freedom of expression, media pluralism among others.
One main assumption of democratic governance is its people-centredness. This also implies that it is participatory and deliberative. No wonder one of America’s most famous presidents, Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” This people-centredness character of democratic governance throws up two mutually reinforcing features of governance in our contemporary society. First, government policies and programmes must be directed at meeting the general expectations and welfare of the people and the government must at all times seek legitimacy which comes from popular support for and acceptance of such policies and programmes. This implies that government must seek the support and consent of the electorate for its policies and actions. This is done not just by delivering the so called ‘dividend of democracy’ or providing infrastructure (mainly roads and over-head bridges in state capitals) but creative impression and perception management.
Perception is everything in today’s politics. All governments want to be seen as good and/or working in the people’s interests. Hence one of the main activities of any government in contemporary society is the marketing of its policies, programmes and activities through the use of promotional and publicity tools and information management strategies.
A feature of today’s politics and governance is thecommercialisaton and commodification and the subsequent marketisation of almost every aspect of our life. Almost everything is now subjected to the logic and principles of marketing. These are “promotional times”. Just as corporate organisations are highly concerned with competition in the so called free market, so also are the players in the political arena. Liberal democracy connotes competition among diverse initerest groups. In this context, two British scholars have observed that “the marketing of government activity has become a central activity of modern statecraft. Inevitably, the launch of any major policy initiative will be devised with thisapparatus of promotion and information management in miind” (Deacon and Golding, op. cit., p.7).
We must also acknowledge the deepening of democracy and the greater possibility of higher level of citizen participation and widening of the public sphere. Pressure groups are mushrooming while the civil society with many NGO’s are becoming stronger and bolder in the attempt to make governance better and government more accountable. It is now easier to organise and mobilise people for public protests in order to register dissent and put pressure on public authorities.
The people themselves, as individuals and social groups must be able to influence such public policies and programmes. This is to say that today’s politics and democratic governance thrives on popular expression and representation of diverse viewpoints and perspectives. Public opinion is now regarded as a potent force in democratic politics and governance.
Concerning the third factor, economic liberalisation (with its twin policies of commercialisation and privitisation), we are witnessing the triumph of market forces as the main determining factor in the allocation of social goods. In the area of media and communication, our broadcasting has been transformed into channels for entertainment and marketing of commodities, including the news. Advertising interests now dictate programming and programmes. The philosophy of public service Broadcasting is more or less dead. In the press,tabloidisation and sensationalism have become the order of the day. Many media organisation have reduced their staff strength, thus reducing the ability to gather and process news. Economic and market pressures have greatly eroded the professional distinction between news/public affairs journalism and entertainment. Economic and market dynamics have greatly impacted on the ability of their gates from being penetrated by outsiders, some with unwholesome materials, e.g. fake news and hate speech. Commercialisation, many scholars have argued, has negatively impacted on the civic functions of the media.
Writing on the deficits in journalism, Blumler and Gurevitch have opined that “the watchdog role of journalism is often shunted into channels of personalisation, dramatisation, witchhuntery, soap-operatics and sundry trivialities…the public interest in constructive civic communication has been short-changed” (Blumler and Gurevitch, 1995, p.1).
In the context of this discussion, it is important for us to underline the fact that these three developments: technological, political and economic transformations, have provided the fundamental changes taking place in the realm of media and communication in terms of organisation, management, practices, production, access and consumption.
Information and Power
The exercise of cultural and communicative power implied in the concept of information management becomes crucial if we recognise that all stakeholders not only register their desperate voices in the public space to be heard but crucially to dominate and control the discourse field, set the terms and frames of public debate and media agenda and hence make their own meaning(s) the dominant and acceptable one(s). Control over public communication is a crucial part of the practices of hegemony. Every social group or institution wants to promote its own ideas, philosophy, perspective and meaning system as the ideal and most acceptable. The means of such promotion and dissemination are readily available in almost all societies today, though the technical skills, knowledge and access may not be equally distributed. This is what is referred to as digital or knowledge divide. Despite this, the culture of promotion now seems to dominate our contemporary times (Davis, 2013).
The use of promotional activities is, of course, a response to the challenges thrown up by the changes we are witnessing in all areas of life. Everything seems to be changing. This presents a lot of interesting challenges, not least to public communicators. The time we live in presents a picture of flux, chaos and uncertainty. It is an age of uncertainty.
There are more players in the field, contesting and competing. Though governments remain major players, their erstwhile dominance has been greatly eroded by the socio-technological factors we have noted above. We have seen the rise of PR and other cultural intermediaries in the public information and communication process. The practice of pervasive communication, PR, perception and image management has been greatly enhanced by “the volatility and turbulence of communication flows unleashed by democratisation…” (McNair: 2006, p.xx).
In a period which Jay Blumer and Dennis Kavanagh called the ‘Third Age’ of political communication, public (political) communication has been reshaped, according to them by five main trends:
The professionalisation of political/public communication involves the increasing use of PR and other marketing communication techniques and skills. In a media saturated socio-political environment, the use of PR, media and persuasive communication skills have reached an unprecedented level. Scholars now variously refer to this phenomenon as political marketing, designer politics (Scammell, 1995), PR state (Deacon and Golding, 1994)Simon Cottle has explalined the situation thus:
The rise of the public relations industry, and its associated army of public relations consultants and so-called ‘spin doctors’ employed by governments and corporations, pressure groups and celebrities, mirrors the rise of an increasing media aware, and “mediatized’ society — a society where both commercial interests and cultural identities seemingly compete for media space and strategically mobilize forms of communication power. (Cottle, 2003, p.3).
With increase in the number of communication channels due to advances in ICTs, political advocates are forced to compete for space and attention in the public sphere. Even within the same medium, there is stiff competition by different genre and content types. There is no more one form of journalism; news is competing with sports, fashion, entertainment, business and priority is being accorded to the ones that enjoy better commercial and audience patronage. High ranking politicians now jostle for space on talk-shows with musicians and Nollywood actors and actresses. To stay in the competition, news and other public affairs programmes are increasingly adopting entertainment format in language and presentation. The competitive pressure is eroding the line separating public affairs journalism from more popular media contents. One implication of this, as Delli Carpini and Williams have shown is that:
The resulting media environment is rearranging traditional power relationships as the authority of journalists, public officials, and other political gate keepers is increasingly challenged by other producers of political and social meaning — including the public itself. (Delli Carpini and Williams,2001, p.161).
With more, often times, antagonistic voices entering the public sphere quite often without the mediatory, gate-keeping and filtering influence of the established mass media, the top-down flow of information is increasingly being challenged. The paternalistic discourse of government and officialdom is, as the two leading scholars argue, no longer an option. It is now much easier to produce, disseminate and mobilise counter or oppositional discourses. It appears public opinion, as mobilised by various interest and pressure groups, is becoming stronger in influencing public policies and exposing wrong doings by individuals. Pressure groups and other alternative social actors including subaltern social groups now find it easier to mobilise and challenge official policies and events. All thanks to the ubiquitous social media. Local examples in this regard include ‘Occupy Nigeria’ protest against increase fuel price in January 2012, ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ campaign in support of the abducted Chibok Girls and recentcampaign against Senator Elisha Abbo for beating a woman, the rape allegation against the Abuja based Pastor, Biodun Fatoyinbo and Federal Government RUGA policy, amongst others. The point is that discourse power has been decentralised and democratised by the ubiquity and power of ICTs and the ready access to the global public sphere they have created.
Hitherto most political/public communication has been centripetal. But now with more channels, the axion that there is no general public is coming into full play with emphasis now on segmentation and tailoring of messages to specific target publics. The idea of mass audience is being questioned by the emergence of many websites and TV channels with relatively small audiences (Curran: 2001, p.x). The audience has become fragmented. This trend has a lot of implications for some of the theoretical and professional assumptions of political/public communication. In this view, Blumer and Kavanagh have argued that:
The presumption of mass exposure to relatively uniform political content which has underpinned each of the three leading paradigm of political effect — agenda setting, the spiral of silence, and cultivation hypothesis — can no longer be taken for granted (op. cit., p.4).
Time was when we can speak of a national audience glued to watch NTA News at 9. I doubt if the NTA can now boast of its famous “30 millions” viewers of those days. Apart from its local competitors, there are many options including CNN, BBC, and many others. The media audience has been fragmented and dispersed to graze on diverse fields.
With media abundance and the attendant availability of many and diverse contents, the audience can now ‘pick and choose’ (Blumler and Kavananh, op. at., p.223). Contents that were hitherto treated as separate (e.g. news vs. entertainment) are now mixed (infotainment), and made available under the same format. The boundary between journalism and popular content is dissolving (McNair, 2006). While some scholars have criticised this practice as dumbing down, tabloidisation or devaluing the news, others have lauded it (see Thussu, 2007 and McNair, 2006 for the opposing arguments). The structure of the audience has been altered. It is now more dynamic in its relationship to information.
The effects of these trends, according to the two scholars are:
The traditional sources, nightly television news programmes and daily newspapers face growing competition from information genres like talk shows, on-line chat rooms, 24 hours satelite news channels, and customized news reports delivered by e-mail and web-sites. Most of these news sources are international if not global. Potentially creating a much more complex flow of information and disrupting the media’s (and elites) ability to establish dominant frames. Just as important is the competition from increasingly attractive, high targeted, and differentiated entertainment media whose growing political content may alter media effect on the public opinion and system.(Entman and Herbst: 2001, p.222).
Confronting the challenges and issues thrown up by the changes in the communication architecture, we have highlighted above, demands a lot of changes in government information management policy, strategy and practies.
Using the mass media
The news media occupy a prime place in the government information management strategy. This priority is reinforced by the regular appointment of journalists to serve as media advisers and press secretaries to government at different levels. The privileging of the media is understandable but we must note the limitations. It is now clear that whatever advantages the mass media offer those in government, a news media-centric approach to information management is outdated. It neglects the limitations of the media in terms of audience perception of their credibility, their ownership and control structure, commercial orientation, the importance of our traditional institutional channels of comunication and the changes in the media and communication landscape.
In the prevailing communication environment, the power and influence of the mainstream media are declining, “as the number of competing news and entertainment media are continuing to rise” (Davis, 2007, p.8).
We must also note that because of professional values, ideology, and practices (e.g. gatekeeping) the news media are quite open to contradictory discourses, hence, no advocate can be too sure of how its message will be presented. This is moreso in a democracy with its insistence on media pluralism and freedom which thrives on competition and contestation of ideas. The tendency is for the media to reflect the diversity and sometimes the cantankerous exchanges inherent in the system.
The high level of mistrust and anti-elite feeling prevalent among the populace is equally translated to the mistrust of the media which they i.e the elite largely own and also predominantly reflect their interets.
Government must therefore use other channels of communication in communicating with the citizens; needless to say, a social media strategy must be a major component of the overall information management strategy. Though, one may not endorse President Trump’s style and politics, however, the social media afford government officials and other advocates the opportunity to go directly to the public with their messages and get feedbacks without the mediatory role of journalists. Such feedbacks, if properly processed could indicate the direction of public opinion.
Also, of high importance are interpersonal commuication platforms. The Lagos State Government has instituted town-hall meetings where the governor engages verious stakeholders on various issues. But it appears elitist. Efforts must be made to incorporate lower class groups, e.g. trade unions, market men/women associations, CBOs, NGOs, students and youth organisations, among others.
Entertainment media (music, film, drama, etc.) should also be employed for public communication. Its seems more people consume these popular arts than those who watch or listen to the news. It is mistake to now regard them as just for mere entertainment. Studies have shown that they also function as channels of political and development communication and public enlightenment.
Two other issues are quite important in information management. First is the choice of who speaks for the government on issues. While knowledge and expertise are important in assessing source-credibility, the issues of empathy and sensitivity to socio-economic, cultural and political differencies are also very crucial. Government spokespersonsshould acquire the attributes of salesmen; they must be persuasive, and tolerant of opposing views and criticism.
The role of the press secretary or media adviser is more than just being a good journalist or a writer. He is an adviser on media relations, PR and coordinator of government communication strategy. He must work closely with not only the Governor/President but with the Commissioner/Minister for Information and the Information Officers in governement agencies and ministries. This is to ensure that government speaks with one voice, with a consistent and unified line. Political appointees and senior government officials must be ready to take professional advise before any media appearanceand presentation, e.g. press conferences/briefings.
The second point relates to the question, what is in a name? As the RUGA debacle has shown a name can evoke negative reactions, misinterpretations or resistance and/or rejection. As already indicated in a nation with no agreement or consensus on basic values and issues, communication across cultural and political boundaries become very difficult. In a highly charged politcal environment, words or concepts can easily beweaponised in the political and hegemonic struggle by the contending social forces. We must also note that the ultimate power of interpretation lies with the audience based on their historical experiences and prevailing circumstances.
In this context, information managers must know the values of audience research. A social mapping of audience to know their demographics, beliefs, attitudes, and other characteristics is essential. Public communication and information management must be audience centred. As Scammell as noted one unique contribution of marketing to politics and governance, “is the strategic concern with what the market (electorate) wants and it will bear” (Scammell, 1995, p.8). Public policies, programmes and even individuals are now packaged and sold like any other commercial product in the marketplace of ideas.
In this age of convergence and the fragmentation of the audience, a multi-media strategy is better then just relying on the news media. These days, corporate, political and state institutions are adopting a multi-faceted approach across diverse communication platforms with well – targeted audience and focused messages. We have moved to the era of stategic communcation which Mccart has noted “is more than the‘standard’ communications usually associated with governmental public affairs, public diplomacy, international broadcasting and information operations —“ (Mccarty, n.d p. 167). It incolves a lot of planning and audience analysis and targeting.
Paul defines strategic communication as “coordinated actions, messages images and other forms of signaling or engagement intended to inform, influence or persuade selected audiences—-“ (Paul, 2011, p.3). A 2010 Whitehouse National Framework for Strategic Communication describes it “as the synchronization of our words and deeds as well as delibrate efforts to communicate and engage with intended audiences”.
One point we must also stress is that government information should not be limited to verbal or written communications alone. With ICTs, the internet and particularly the cellphone there is no more hiding place for anybody. The line separating the private from the public has become very thin.
The deeds, actions, activities and behaviours of public officials constitute powerful symbolic information which sometimes can be more effective in influencing public perception than the verbal or written messages. There must be a close fit between official communication and actions, deed and behaviours. Contradictions lead to confusion in the public mind, multiple images thus develop. The cognitive inconsistency or dissonance thus created can be resolved in any possible and unpredictable way. This affects public trust in government and its officials.
Public information management is not propaganda. Basic ethical principles of communication must be observed. In this age of social media, timeliness and comprehensiveness are essential in releasing information.
Government information managers must be guided by the principles of effective communication; transparency, honesty, credibility etc. At all time we must be guided by the statement made by the British Communication Scholar, Margaret Scammell that “but just as the easiest product to advertise is the best product, so it is easiet to promote the party or politician who is most credible. Advertising works best when it chimes with reality” (Scammell, 1995, p.23).
Government information managers must come to terms with the transformation we are witnessing in the society. Competition in the marketplace of ideas or the public sphere is become deeper and more widespread. Tradition and old practices can no more meet the challenges of this period.
The ecology of communication has become highly chaotic (McNair, 2006). Ruling class control of the process of politics and governance can no more be as total and secured as in previous decades. The top-down linear flow of communication can no more be sustained.
Today, many interests groups are challenging the power of the elite over public policies and programmes and the distribution of resources of the state. Many advocates pushing diverse causes, and views are in the public arena. Nigeria’s celebrated columnist Tatala Alamu recently observed “The tribe of hidden and so hidden persuaders is multiplying and mushrooming all over the place” (The Nation on Sunday, January 6, 2013)Such groups are adopting many strategies not only to be heard but to also influence government decision – making process.
Before now news production and professional routines seem to privilege the voices and activities of the established power holders. But as Jay Blumler and Michael Gurevitch have observed “…latterly the pecking order of political voices in the news has altered.”
-Lai Oso is a Professor of Mass Communication School of Communication, Lagos State University. He was the Dean of the school between 2011 and 2015. He is the current President, Association of Communication Scholars and Professionals of Nigeria (ACSPN).