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Opinions of Thursday, 25 August 2011

Columnist: Ata, Kofi

Is the Director of Communications at the Presidency Fit for Purpose?

By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK

Since the NDC came to power in January 2009, there have been numerous instances of miscommunication or poor communication on government policy and many national issues involving the Presidency, ministries and other officials. Often, the impression is created that either government business is in disarray, disorganised, disjointed, lacked clarity, cohesion and direction, etc. Ministers and deputy ministers often offer different explanations on the same subject, including situations when the substantive minister would offer an explanation only for his or her deputy to contradict him or her on the same matter. Initially, I assumed that they were new in office and with time, they will settle down to their new roles and get things right at the first go. It is now two years and eight months and government communication is no near better than when they first took office, if not even worst.

The most worrying development is from the heart of government, the Presidency. From the word go, there was constant confusion from the presidency as to who spoke for the President. For example, there was struggle for supremacy between Mr Ayariga as Presidential Spokesman and Koku Anyidoho as Director of Communications at the Presidency. The two gentlemen provided conflicting messages from the Castle as they tried to win the battle of “who is who” when it came to communication from the Castle. Finally, the power struggle was resolved when Ayariga was appointed a Deputy Minister and moved out of the Castle. But that did not resolve the problem of ineffective government communication either from the Presidency or the Executive as a whole.

I have lost count of the number of occasions when the Communications Director at the Presidency, ministers (including deputy ministers) and other government officials have offered different and contradictory explanations and excuses on a single matter. For example, the Deputy Minister for Information claimed government had created over a million jobs only for the Minister for Employment to say in Parliament that, he had no data to prove that claim. After a Presidential visit to Switzerland, Koku Anyidoho told the public that FIFA President had given his blessing to the President to investigate GFA, only for FIFA to refute any such permission, then another Deputy Minister for Information was seen on Ghana Television publicly asking or ordering staff of Information Services Department to tell lies to make government look good. The Minister for Works and Housing has given various reasons why the STX Project has been delayed and provided varied dates when the construction of the houses would begin but none of those promises have materialised. These are only few examples of the miscommunication and the confusion of the NDC government.

Then a bombshell was dropped from nowhere on a supposedly, “a token gesture” from a corporate entity to the President that was not a gift. My question is, when is “a token gesture” from someone (be an individual or a corporate body) to another person not a gift? I do not intend to answer this question since Koku Anyidoho has become an English Language Professor and has been lecturing Ghanaians on what is meant by “a token gesture”. In fact, since I passed my GCE Ordinary Level English Language exams, I have not had the opportunity to study English Language again, so I would not challenge Koku Anyidoho on his attempt at excusing himself from poor communication by becoming an English Language expert. It is his explanation and his mode of communication that is what I want to analyse.

I do not know the background (academic and professional) of the Director of Communications at the Presidency. However, even if he has no academic or and professional backgrounds related to communications or public relations, that is no excuse for the lapses that he has shown so far. I should point out that, one does not have to hold an academic qualification or be an expert in a specific area in order to hold a position in that area, especially in a political office. It is advantageous to be knowledgeable and an expert in the subject area but no criteria for effectiveness and success. There are experts who support and advise the post holder.

The art of effective communication is a complex matter that can be made simple by ensuring that a number of cardinal principles are observed. The first principle is the recognition that effective communication has three elements (the sender, the message or information being conveyed and the recipient who could be one or many). It is also important not only to focus on the delivery of the message and the information but also how the information is received by the recipient. That is, is the recipient’s understanding of the information contained in the message what the sender meant? This is where in my candid opinion, the NDC government and the Director of Communications at the Presidency appear to be grappling with. Communication is not effective if often the recipient misinterprets and misunderstands the information conveyed by the sender. It means either the sender is poor at communication or the recipient lacks understanding of the subject matter of the information. There are some information that are subject to different interpretations and understanding by various recipients depending on the interests and motives of the recipients, especially, information conveyed in political messages. It is incumbent on the sender to ensure that the information contained in the message is clear, precise and unambiguous to avoid misinterpretation and misunderstanding by the recipient. This is even crucial and critical when one is playing the role of the public face of a corporate entity in a politically charged environment such as it is in Ghana, where the two main political parties are in propaganda tug of war to paint each other as either the devil or the devil’s advocate.

Koku Anyidoho ought to have and must have known that, when he claimed that, the alleged mansion was a token gesture from Regimanuel to the President, that could be verified from Regimanuel, the recipient of this information would have concluded that, it was a gift. Why do I say so? First, there is the perception that, African leaders are corrupt. Second, there are regular allegations against the President’s appointees that they are building or have acquired mansions. Third, the President is said to be an honest individual, perhaps different from other politicians. Fourth, as President any gift to him would be considered as an attempt to gain favours from government. He should have also known that the main aim of the newspaper publication on the alleged mansion was to challenge the perception that the President was honest and perhaps, incorruptible. And last but not the least, the issue of conflict of interest and potential legation of abuse of office or corruption. A token gesture from a leading housing construction company to a President at no cost to the state or not involving state funds has one and only one interpretation and meaning by the listening public (both foes and friends). A Gift, period.

There is normally, a common understanding of words and phrases and of course, there are different interpretations of words and phrases depending on the context and the environment where they are used. Unless otherwise explained or clarified, the public are most likely and rightly so, to take the common understanding or perception of words and phrases. The attempt by the Director of Communications to tell the public to look for the dictionary meaning of token gesture is an exercise in futility and perhaps an insult to the intelligence of the public. He must admit that he used the wrong choice of words and that that is not what he meant to convey and stop explaining himself. One interesting aspect of the NDC government officials and their communication methods is that, the narration that follows the initial miscommunication instead of ameliorating the situation rather aggravates it. For example, in his efforts to explain himself, the Director of Communication is on record to have said that, there was a payment plan and then the arrangement was for the President to rent the property in question from Regimanuel. A payment plan on a property is a mortgage and mortgage on a property is different from renting it.

It appears to me that the NDC were good at the propaganda game in opposition and after nearly three years in office, they have found it difficult to transform themselves from effective propaganda machinery into effective communication strategy. All political messages contain some propaganda information (here in the UK we call spin so we have Spin Doctors). It also appears to me that the NDC government may be finding the liberalisation of the media in Ghana and free speech too much to handle. As a result, they tend to put the blame on NPP sympathetic media, instead of a critical assessment of their communication strategy which is not ineffective. Though from facts on the ground so far, what was published about the President grabbing a mansion appears to be false, the ineffectiveness of the rebuttal has created doubt in the minds of the public and that is why their opponents are now questioning if the President actually signed those letters when on those dates, he was out of the Castle in the regions. Such challenge is infantile for a number of good reasons. The letters do not have to be signed the on very day they were word processed and they could be signed out of the office. I once signed and dated document in London whilst that day I was away from my office in East of England and attending a two-day training in London. A member of staff travelled to London with the document for me to sign. There electronic signatures that could also be used to sign the letters in the absence of the signatory. I also believe that when the President travels, he travels with his office and should be able to operate as normal as possible (though he does not travel in Air Force One).

The Director of Communications is on record to have said that “he will personally deal with Peace FM” and even alluding to the fact that he would bring down Peace FM for reporting what he said as exclusive interview with him. A group within the NDC have also suggested that it is time the Presidency or the NDC government cracked the whip on Peace FM or the media. I am afraid to tell both the Director of Communications at the Presidency and the NDC group that, neither the Presidency nor the government has authority or powers to deal with any media in Ghana. That power is vested in other constitutional bodies such as the Media Commission and the Judiciary. At best, what could be done is a libel/defamation claim through civil action against Peace FM at the courts who have powers to adjudicate on the claim. That would not bring down Peace FM even if the Director of Communication wins his civil claim. However, from the facts of the matter so far, I can assure you that the Director of Communication has no case and if he attempts to sue, he would end up paying for the legal cost of Peace FM. In other words, his threats are empty threats.

It is high time people in positions of authority in Ghana understand that they have no powers to deal with any individual or organisation as they wished in a democratic society. It is time such officials take time to study the constitution and laws of the state to understand their roles and the limitations of their offices. Even, the President has no powers to deal with the media if they published or broadcasted falsehood about him. The powers rest with the Media Commission and the Judiciary. This dictatorial mentality of “I will show you where power lies” does not work in a democratic society and would not contribute to political development and nation building. If Ghana was a truly democratic country, Koku Anyidoho would have resigned for publicly threatening to personally deal with Peace FM or would have been sacked for incompetency or both. I have listened to radio interviews granted by the Director of Communications at the Presidency and I find him very amusing. He appears not to be aware of the serious of his role. He would sometimes laugh at very serious allegations against the government or the Presidency, instead of putting up a serious and credible rebuttal. He is known to use one Akan proverb to describe the NPP. My Akan is not good so I will not attempt to write in Akan but what he says something to the effect that “if NPP would tickle themselves and laugh it’s up to them” and often ends by saying that NDC will retire Nana Akufo Addo because he would lose the 2012 Presidential elections. He should leave the retirement of Akufo Addo to NPP and the Ghanaian electorate as it is not up to him.

I guess the problem of ineffective communication or propaganda in Ghana is not a matter for the NDC and the government alone but also the NPP, the media and even some reputable organisations. The Director of Communications of the NPP recently claimed a voice on a tape was that of Baba Jamal and when challenged for proof, he asked journalists to get voice experts to verify the voice on the tape. If he could not prove his claim, why go public but not wait till voice experts established the fact? The same applies to the Director of Communications at the Presidency. If and when you do not have the facts on an issue, you do not have to respond to a question from a journalist. There is nothing wrong with asking for time to come back but everything wrong with trying to be all knowing and manufacturing excuses. It is becoming increasingly difficult for those of us in the Diaspora to believe what we read and hear from the media, politicians and even some trust worthy organisations such as the Institute for Economic Affairs, who until last week were considered to be a very respected, independent and impartial organisation.

In my opinion, the ineffectiveness of Director of Communications at Presidency is such that, he has brought the Presidency into disrepute at least, on two occasions and therefore he is not fit for purpose. If the President and the Presidency are to crack the whip as is being suggested from within the NDC, then it should and must start with the Director of Communications and not Peace FM or the media. That is where the limits of the President’s powers and Presidency lie. The President and the Presidency have powers to hire and fire their appointees.

Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK