Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Activist Seodi White's public dislike for Rev. Chakwera unfortunate

I am having problems with Human Rights activist Seodi White's public expression of her feeling about Rev. Chakwera's accent.
Nyasa Times is reporting that Seodi White says Rev. Chakwera's American accent irritates her. According to the online news site, Seodi’s argument on her face-book page is that she is only exercising her right to free speech. Well, that is not disputable. She is indeed entitled to her right to free expression as granted by the country’s constitution.
Where I see a problem is the implication of her freely expressed speech on her credibility as an activist.

First, in Malawi, the clergy have been very instrumental in shaping public issues. Rev. Chakwera is president of the Assemblies of God in Malawi and is definately among those whose word on public issues cannot just be dismissed without giving it enough thought.
Second, there have been media reports suggesting that Rev. Lazarus Chakwera intends to contest for the presidency of the Malawi Congress Party, the country’s main opposition party. The party will be holding its convention in a few weeks. If he contests and gets elected, Chakwera will be the former ruling party’s presidential candidate at the country’s 2014 polls.
Credibility implications
Seodi White is a renowned human rights activist in the country and I would not be afraid to say that when she speaks, policy makers and other people that matter in society stop to listen. They may not necessarily agree with her position on issues. Her activism examines issues across a wide spectrum i.e. the interrelationships between culture, traditions, politics, law, religion etc on one hand and human rights on the other.
Such a role in society demands that one’s credibility remain intact. Although there are several factors that can determine an activist’s credibility in the public eye, that standing is largely secured if the activist is seen to be objective in their analysis of issues and in their advocacy. Any allusion to subjective analyses of issues simply serves to erode the authority such a figure might have earned on public issues.
Now, is Rev. Chakwera public figure? We may not have to argue over this. However, one thing for sure is that as president of the Assemblies of God in Malawi, he holds an influential position in the country. He can influence policy at different levels.

That aside, imagine a scenario where the reverend stands for the MCP presidency, wins and gets elected as president of this country.

The question I would like considered is: Should Rev. Chakwera, whether as a religious leader or - if he is lucky - as president of this country,  be involved in some human rights issues deserving the intervention of minds like Seodi's, will the activist's word  be viewed objective and credible, especially if her's is not Chakwera's stand?
My bet is that in such a scenario her objective look at the issue will not be accorded the attention it is supposed to earn. By commenting on the reverend's accent, such a useless thing, Seodi has attached herself to an issue that I dare say is not what a person of her stature should be seen to spend her energies on, at least not in public. The public will judge her analysis as a personal attack against the reverend. Why? She may not have intended it but Seodi's comments  have surely prompted serious minded Malawians to view her as an ordinary person who concentrates on personalities not real issues.
Final thought
Yes, she is entitled to her free speech but as a public figure herself, Seodi White could do better by confining her public comments to issues, not trivia like people’s English accents. Her dislike for public figures’ personalities could be privately shared with her siblings and friends, no?

Friday, 12 April 2013

Malawi State House statement on Madonna

The BBC is reporting that Malawi President Joyce Banda is ‘furious’ because of the press statement her communications team issued recently, accusing Madonna of demanding VVIP treatment when the pop star was in the southern African country. I must say I believe the BBC story. That is not to suggest that I believe the President is indeed ‘furious’, though.
It’s not the focus of this post but I want to acknowledge right at the outset that I wouldn’t be surprised if it is figured out the reported anger is simply some PR operation. However, let’s assume President Banda is indeed angry as reported by the BBC.

One thing I am interested in regarding the press statement from the President’s office is the  conduct of the press team. I have to admit, when I read the statement as published on Nyasa Times I was not impressed with the kind of language and tone used. To say the least, the statement resembled some communication from a private citizen to another. No sense of executive decorum. No wonder writing on his face-book page, Malawi based BBC correspondent Raphael Tenthani described the statement ‘yummy’. Was I wrong to read a lot of sarcasm in that one word description? I just feel the press team that worked on the statement did a great disservice to the president, which takes us to the second aspect of the issue around the statement.

Going by the BBC story, the President did not know about the press statement. That raises a big question on PR practice. It is a basic norm that press statements issued by PR practitioners are supposed to represent a position taken by the institution or individual the practitioners work for. In other words, an institution or an individual takes a position on an issue and a PR practitioner communicates that to a target public or advises the institution/individual how they should communicate that position for an intended effect. It is also the PR practitioner’s responsibility to advise their client on the sort of position to take on an issue.
What this tells us is that whatever goes to the media ought to represent the views of the client institution or individual, whether based on advice from PR staff or not.
However, PR practitioners and their clients are not always talking in order to come up with positions on issues. Yet, sometimes, during those times when the two are not in touch, the practitioners are supposed to communicate with different publics through the mass media. It is such moments that reveal the level of expertise of the practitioner. It is such situations that the practitioner’s understanding and knowledge about their client becomes handy. In other words, basing on how they understand their client, a PR practitioner can offer a media statement on behalf of the client without even seeking their view first. But that ought to be done with extreme caution in order to avoid goofing which is what the Malawi Presidential Press team has done.
The press team has demonstrated they didn’t consult their client i.e. the president on the kind of response they were supposed to send out to Madonna. That in itself is a big goof. They were supposed to seek her opinion on the matter.
And if it is true that President Joyce Banda is not happy with the statement by her press team I am sure this means she would not have endorsed it if the statement were sent to her in-tray for vetting. This clearly suggests that the press team do not fully understand the thinking of their client, the state president. If they did, they would not issue a statement that contradicts the way she looks at the Madonna issue.
That leads us to the question: how far should PR practitioners be allowed to express their client’s ‘view’ in the absence of that client’s say on any given issue? If the Malawi president’s press team had bothered to wait to consult their client on the Madonna issue before issuing a statement, would that have any adverse effect on the country’s first citizen’s PR image to the world?( Right now, the issue is no longer a Malawi PR issue, it’s about the president’s image to the world).
An extra question could be, how can the President salvage her ‘image’ in the issue? Publicly disown the statement by her press team?

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Who would your priority be?

I am currently in Nairobi, Kenya, with a team of other Plan International Communications persons from Africa, attending a week long training on Communication for Behavioural Impact (COMBI) being facilitated by Dr Everold Hosein, a Senior Communications Adviser at the WHO.
Just to put you in perspective, COMBI is a communications planning approach that draws from private sector marketing principles to design communication programmes aimed at creating impact on people’s behaviour in social development. Some refer to this as communication for behavioural change.
This morning, we were discussing market segmentation. We looked at the basic fact that at any given point with regard to a behavioural impact/change communication intervention, audiences will be classified as follows:
-          Those who have never heard the message you would like them to hear
-          Those who have the information but are not yet convinced about what you are communicating
-          Those who are convinced but have not yet decided to act
-          Those that have decided to act but have not yet done so
-          Those that have acted but are still not sure if their action is worthwhile
-          Those that are fully into the desired behaviour  and need to maintain that
The question that we grappled with was this: In view of the ever limited resources communications persons in social development organisations work with, implying that one cannot focus on all these at once, which of the categories above should one regard as their priority when it comes to communication planning if they were to chose only one segment ? Is it the first group? The second, etc?
Which segment would be your priority? Why? Remember, the assumption is that the situation demands that you choose only one segment.
To this I would like to add my own question: With what is given above, are there other factors you would consider in order to determine which segment you would prioritise?

Supervise your superior

Obvious! It’s a ‘taboo’ for you as a junior to supervise the work of someone senior to you. But not when they are meeting the media.
One day I accompanied a team of Plan Malawi’s disaster preparedness team to a southern Malawi district where floods had destroyed houses, property and crops and had displaced hundreds of people. Plan was visiting the area to distribute relief items to the floods victims.
My role was very clear. I had to pitch our story to editors at local media houses and I did just that. A team of journalists came along.
The journalists and I had agreed very well on the time they would need Plan’s and other officials for interviews. When the time came, I alerted who ever the media had asked for. I listened to the media interviews as they were being conducted and everything went on well.
However, one experience prompted me to arrive at a resolution I will leave with as long as I remain in charge of Media Relations for any organisation or for any individual.