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Governance in the Age of Digital Media and ‘Public Sector Branding’

Sina Odugbemi's picture

In the years that I have been working with international development professionals (especially the governance specialists),  I have been baffled by the refusal of many of them  to see the central importance of communication systems as well as communication approaches and techniques to the glories, and the pathologies, of governance systems around the world. So, I have tried to contribute in a small way to the evidence base on the subject by joining others to produce publications like Public Sentinel: News Media and Governance Reform (edited by Pippa Norris), Accountability through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action (edited by Sina Odugbemi and Taeku Lee) and Making Politics Work for the Development: Harnessing Transparency and Citizen Engagement (an effort led by my esteemed colleague, Stuti Khemani). My convictions on the subject arose from having worked in the media and interacted with leaders of governments across West Africa and thereafter working for the government of the UK and seeing how much the media matters to leaders, especially how strong government communication capacity is now at the bladed edge of state effectiveness.

The good news is that political scientists are increasingly taking the phenomenon seriously and studying it. For instance, in the January 2017 edition of Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions there is an excellent article titled: “Governance in the Age of Digital Media and Branding “by Alex Marland, J.P. Lewis, and Tom Flanagan, all from three different Canadian universities. I really enjoyed the piece because it is on all fours with my experience inside government. Through a thorough analysis of the Canadian example, especially the years that the Conservatives ruled Canada (2006-2015), the authors are able to make their general point. It is as follows:

The proliferation of Internet connectivity, smartphones, and digital media is revolutionary for society and governance. Political events and information can increasingly be viewed live from almost anywhere. Issues management personnel are branching out from worrying about tomorrow’s headlines to dealing with the last five minutes’ tweets and Instagram posts, and the forward march of technological change suggests that we are on the cusp of real-time media and image management. Continual communications control is the new reality of governance. (p. 125) {Emphasis mine}.

Smart modern governments are importing from the private sector the techniques of branding, information management, and message discipline and so on. In a sense, they don’t really have a choice. First, if they don’t become savvy communicators they will not break through to their tremendously diverted citizens. Second, not being good communicators will make these governments vulnerable to their opponents. Too many reform initiatives have failed because the opponents of reform were better communicators than the proponents. But the authors add a third reason. They argue that:

Institutional conditions for the branding mindset align with the organizational ethos known as New Public Management that integrated private sector practices into the public sector.

According to the authors, there are five key components to the modern approach to government communication which they call ‘public sector branding’:

  1. Central control: Communication strategy for the whole of government is set at the center of government, perhaps in the office of the Prime Minister or the President. Central coordination is imposed and everyone has to fall in line once the strategic framework is arrived at.
  2. Marketing ethos: The government and the different agencies under it set up professional marketing operations. Their products? Government services. They study their customers/audiences. They do detailed market segmentation. They market to customers/audiences constantly. They hire advertising agencies. They also recruit a cadre of highly skilled communicators and keep training them up. Some of the best training in communication techniques that I have ever received happened while working for the UK government in London. My favorite was a week spent studying Direct Marketing/Precision Marketing at the Institute of Direct Marketing.
  3. Master Brand: As the authors point out: “A government’s brand is composed of the master brand and many sub-brands. The master brand is the evoked set of communications impressions associated with the government overall, including brand tangibles (e.g., flag, logo, colors, institutions, public policies, spokespersons) and intangibles (e.g., reputation, ideology, diplomacy, impressions of good governance”).
  4. Communication cohesiveness: Done properly, communication takes a whole- of -government approach. Key messages are agreed and thereafter ministers, agency heads and spokespersons stick to them with soldierly discipline. It is an attempt to impose order on the chaos of chatter, the overwhelming din of the modern public sphere. Senior officials have to be team players …even if they disagree with the message.
  5. Message simplicity: Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS). Citizens are busy and their attention span is notoriously short…and promiscuous. So, keep the message simple. If you can, make it memorable and pound away…and repeat and repeat. It is the drum beat.
The approach the authors describe is what people often hate about modern government communication. This is what is called spin, and the practitioners are demonized as Sultans of Spin. And, to be honest, the approach is open to abuse. If the practitioners are too cynical, or totally amoral, then you get into the terrain of propaganda, of ‘alternative facts’. Second, the approach is the very opposite of ideals of participatory communication. It also does not tolerate great individualists. Like jazz music, it might permit some improvisation but that’s it. Finally, with this approach governance can easily become a permanent election campaign.  Yet, in my experience, when the governments of new democracies lose despotic control of the media and the public sphere they rush to learn and master this disciplined approach to government communication. They do so because they feel that without it they will not survive in the age of digital media.

Finally, what these authors fail to mention is the core driver of all this: the relationship between the acquisition and retention of power in any political community and the dynamics of public opinion in that community. Yes, the technologies of communication are changing rapidly but the core driver of power or the loss of power remains the same. And it is public opinion. As a result, serious strategic players have always sought, and will always seek, to shape it in order to achieve their objectives…whatever those are.

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