Priceless advice on how to be an effective government spokesman

A piece of free advice is that an openly partisan approach is a sure road to hell

Monday March 21 2016

New Government spokesman Erick Kiraithe. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

New Government spokesman Erick Kiraithe. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

I know for a fact that the National Communications Policy and Strategy document that was painstakingly prepared during the Kibaki/Odinga Grand Coalition Government tenure is “rotting” somewhere on some shelf.

The intentions of that effort were noble. The querulous ODM/PNU brigades of that heady time somehow had a rare agreement that there was a need to harmonise how the government communicates with its various publics.

I dare say that if my good friend, Mr Eric Kiraithe, is to make even a modicum of difference in his new role as government spokesperson, it would help if he familiarised himself with that document.

A well-coordinated public sector-wide communication strategy is no easy task, and more so in Kenya. The one thing to contend with upfront is simply that the real government spokesperson, given our very peculiar history, is actually the presidency. You must be in a position and in proximity all the time to read his lips.

That role can be progressively delegated. Technical docket ministers routinely chip in depending on the subject matter at hand and the level of sensitivity. Some free advice here: as a spokesperson, do not purport to be the devil’s advocate on such sensitivities as high-level corruption for you will sooner or later burn your fingers.

A second consideration: it pays to be aware that we have created some rather incredible structural difficulties. The ideas informing the creation of a government spokesperson were solid and sound, especially at the tail end of the Moi years. Regrettably, when the moment came, the usual uncritical political posturing took centre stage and with it, went the vision.

One reason the last occupant of that office, Dr Alfred Mutua, often sounded like a propagandist was simply the fact that he got into an office that literally had no limbs.

The reality was that the office of public communications secretary merely became a functionary role under the Office of the President. Given how the Kenyan statecraft had evolved, complete with laws governing the exercise of public information, a solo official at KICC periodically parroting as the “heartbeat” of government was an exercise in self-deception.

LACKED INSTITUTIONAL LEGITIMACY

The public communications secretary lacked institutional legitimacy and had no clue what his supposed principals were hatching so far away from him.

To really speak on behalf of the government and to exude the necessary legitimacy, a good guess is that you have to be literally a heartbeat away from the principal.

A more fundamental issue, however, is that other than the legal basis for any pronouncements made, you must be able to somehow judge how the principal, his key ministers, and other key functionaries feel and wake up every morning. A piece of free advice is that an openly partisan approach is a sure road to hell.

It is good to occupy an apex office so far away from the real boss, but you literally need “limbs” that recognise you in all the key ministries, departments, and agencies. Ultimately you need — in the Kenyan situation— a consummate senior minister in situations where the presidency will, of course, not always be available to be spokesperson.

Let me explain a little about the “limbs.” The law recognises public information/communication officers who are deployed to the ministries. A spokesperson who does not have professional and legal links with this critical cadre can be ignored because he is often perceived as a pretender to the throne. I am sure, of course, that some of these structural cum legal bottlenecks can be weaned out, but they require tremendous political will.

Since 2010, the constitutional climate has rendered government spokesmanship even more complex. The devolved structures are a minefield of potential discordance and competition.

However, the national communication strategy anticipated some of these matters. Mr Kiraithe’s starting point could well be to pay some attention to this priceless document.

Dr Odera-Outa was involved in the formulation of the National Communications Policy and Strategy. [email protected]