If you read a speculative story in newspapers, chances are that the public relations officer in the relevant ministry did his/her damnedest to ensure that the relevant information doesn’t get out.
That is what Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Botswana heard when it gathered together a scoop of journalists on three occasions and that claim has been repeated in a paper that was presented at a research seminar held at the University of Botswana (UB). Titled “Would you Believe it? Accuracy as an Ethical Concern in the Botswana Private Press”, the paper was authored by Professor Richard Rooney who is head of the Department of Media Studies at UB. The paper investigates the extent to which inaccurate reporting occurs in Botswana, what its main causes are and how journalists in Botswana might improve standards of accuracy. One of its main sources was FES Botswana which has sponsored African Media Barometer workshops with media practitioners in Botswana to collect attitudes on media performance in the country. The discussion at one of these workshops got around to the working relations between the media and government PROs.
“Workshop participants reported that sometimes articles were inaccurate because it was difficult to get information, and this led to reporters relying on speculation. Each government ministry has a public information officer, but they tend to block information, rather than provide access to it,” Rooney says in his paper.
However, “block information” may be a mischaracterization of the situation because the term suggests that government PROs have any power to abuse at all. From private conversation with some of them, all power to discharge PR work resides outside their own offices. One says that even when PROs have information at their finger tips and can easily respond to media questions submitted in writing, they still have to consult their superiors who characteristically take absolute ages to tender a response. When the superiors finally get around to attending to the questions (and often past a newspaper deadline), the response is sent to headquarters and has to be signed off by the permanent secretary – who may be away from the office at that point in time.
“When the PS finally signs off on a response, the story has long been published without our input and setting the record straight could mean having to buy editorial space,” says the source, adding that PROs can also not exercise discretion with regard to where to place advertisments. “I may prefer a particular newspaper because it reaches a relevant readership but the final say lies with theBotswana Government Communication and Information System which, for its own reasons, may choose an inappropriate paper.”
While the source says that event management is the only area where government PROs are allowed a lot of freedom, an incident in the not-too-distant past suggests that some PROs can’t even exercise discretion on very minor issues – like choosing the colour of flowers to display at events. Around the time that the Botswana Movement for Democracy was the talk of the town and the rumour mill was rife with speculation of Botswana Democratic Party veterans like Daniel Kwelagobe planning to join it, one female minister is said to have thrown a temper tantrum when PR staff decorated an event venue with orange flowers. The minister allegedly charged that such choice was tacit endorsement of BMD, which has adopted orange as its political colour.
The main worry of a government PRO who has been in post for more than 10 years is that the way the system works stifles professional growth.
“Our academic learning is going to waste because we are not using it. Even after being in PR for so long, I don’t have adequate exposure to the media. I don’t have the power to call and address a press conference despite the fact that I am a PRO. The decision-making in the government is entirely dominated by people who don’t understand the media. If I were to work in a professional environment – say in South Africa, I would have to start from square one because I have no real PR experience despite what my years of service suggest,” the source says.