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The Technocrat and the Reporter

Sina Odugbemi's picture

In a previous job, I was asked to organize media training for senior technocrats in international development who would, in the course of their jobs, have to face the media from time to time to answers questions about their areas of responsibility. As I set about doing a learning needs assessment and organizing the training, I noticed a dynamic I had not reflected on before. It is this: when working in headquarters most senior technocrats working in bilateral or multilateral development organizations are really anonymous bureaucrats. In fact, in bilateral donor organizations they tend to be part of the civil service; as a result, they are not meant to be seen or heard. That is the job of Ministers. Thus, although they take decisions that affect millions of lives, these technocrats are not used to public questioning by the media. 

But it all changes when they are asked to go to a developing country to head the donor office there, or run a major development initiative. Suddenly, they are not so anonymous anymore. They are known, they are named, and, worse, they are filmed and photographed. Not only that, they have reporters with notepads, open mikes and cameras in hot pursuit. In my experience, as well of those of other colleagues, very few senior technocrats relish encounters with the media. There are a few naturals. Most approach the prospect with sheer terror. In fact, Reuters Foundation - I hired them to deliver the course I was asked to organize - has as the title of one of the chapters in the manual they produced " Putting your head above the parapet without losing". As Reuters Foundation says in the manual, most of these officials have not chosen a life in the public eye; so when they have to face journalists they are scared silly. They also worry about saying something "career-threateningly stupid". 

Well, as a result of this degree of fear, media training is the one course on communication I have ever been involved in that senior technocrats attend, attend in numbers, and behave themselves. For instance, Reuters uses top former print and broadcast journalists to run these courses. They make the courses as real as possible. The print interviews are practiced with singular bloody-mindedness. The technocrats get a real grilling. The television interviews are also as realistic as possible. Each officials is filmed during the practice interviews, and the recording is played back for the entire group to review. It is also the only time you see some of these hitherto sure-footed, even arrogant officials suddenly humble and sweaty-palmed.  Sheer theater!

The Reuters team I worked with taught three simple rules:

  1. Know who you are talking to.
  2. Know what you want to say and how.
  3. Know when to keep your mouth shut.

I recall the experience today for a couple of reasons. In the first place, what the senior technocrats fear most about reporters is the immediacy of the pressure for accountability; suddenly they are not able to hide behind the protecting ramparts of technical language and unreadable reports. Reporters ask blunt questions and want clear answers; no elaborate conditional statements, no ifs and buts. This is especially true if there has been a blunder, a cock-up of some sort, and it happened under your watch and you are now under fire. Will you find grace under pressure? Will you stutter like an imbecile? Well, my point is simple: that pressure for accountability that senior technocrats feel and they queue for media training before an exposed role begins is the very reason they should support independent media systems as part of efforts to improve governance in developing countries.

Secondly, as they take part in media training sessions, these senior officials come out with their previous encounters with reporters in developing countries...usually a bad experience of one kind or the other. They point to failings in the media in these countries. And they are usually correct. For most of these officials genuinely care about what they do. They would like the media to raise the 'real issues' in development up the domestic agenda in developing countries. They usually say, these officials, that they want to 'get the real stories out', not the nonsense, not the trivia. Well, my reaction to that is simple and you can guess what it is: all this is why strengthening free and independent media as a fundamental part of the governance agenda is necessary work. It is not enough to moan when you are in a position to do something about a problem. You should do something about strengthening independent media wherever and whenever you can.

Photo Credit: Flickr user hiddedevries