Connecting through communicating

In the week this column was penned, President’s Counsel Manohara De Silva, in an interview published in the mainstream media, took to task the contents of the Bill gazetted to establish an Office of Missing Persons (OMP) now before Parliament. Problem was, instead of clarifying or submitting a principled critique, interviewer and interviewee worked together to give the veneer of credibility to what in fact was a thinly veiled act of disinformation. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the day after, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa took the OMP to task as well and was given wide publicity in the mainstream print media. The day after that, a full page interview with Basil Rajapaksa ended with him saying human rights and the Right to Information are matters of concern only for the “upper strata of society”. When Namal Rajapaksa was arrested recently, the whole incident was live streamed over Facebook, a first in this country. Later on, the media reported Parliamentarian Dullas Alahapperuma noting that Namal Rajapaksa was teaching yoga to fellow inmates. Even whilst in prison, tweets from Namal’s popular and official account claimed the government was “making a mockery of the justice system”. In fact, every summons to the FCID is a field day for the media savvy Rajapaksas and more broadly, the joint opposition. Rarely a day passes without some sort of widely reported mindless palaver from the joint opposition, which, importantly, goes on to frame and define key issues, shape the perception of institutions, the support of vital processes and the public appreciation of individuals.

A distinct pattern emerges, and it needs to be identified and neutralised. The Rajapaksa regime literally employed dozens in the service of disinformation, especially leading up to a key Presidential or Parliamentary election. Leading advertising companies, paid millions and no doubt enticed by the prospect of millions more of State ad revenue, created compelling campaigns to support the then government, appealing to fear, parochialism, race, religion and patriotic duty. The Rajapaksas wield social media as few other politicians or even political parties do, and today it is with good reason. They need to be in the public discourse, and their currency or brand has turned from what used to be fear to one that is now, controversy. They cannot go silently into the night, not just because they may not want to, but also because to do so would be to invite an avalanche of investigations, inquiries and indictments, outside the popular imagination, that would eviscerate them as individuals, family and political grouping. The media blitz around arrests, the pronouncements around key accountability and reconciliation mechanisms, the statements around the discovery of weapons used by the LTTE or student unrest at Jaffna University – these are all part of a strategic, well managed and indeed, somehow still adequately funded campaign to keep the Rajapaksas alive through moving image, soundbite, photo ops and short, shareable, video.  You see a parallel to this by way of Trump’s command of the American media – they love to report him, and by reporting him, they help create and promote his image. And by promoting an image, you promote a brand of politics, which even when in opposition, has power in framing, defining and shaping issues of national importance.

The answer is not to create more social media accounts, put out more tweets or start live streaming the PM’s daily commute to work. They key to effective political communications is to prefigure the worst of what can be done and said, and pre-emptively act to neutralise negative consequences by producing, publishing and promoting content in support of an idea or issue. The joint opposition can say anything they want. A government has to respond and counter with facts, logic and reason. In a communicative space, the joint opposition and Rajapaksas have more power even today – they can be wildly creative and set the agenda with scant regard for facts, if only to distract the government to a point of paralysis by the need to respond to wild allegations that risk derailing the best laid plans. This requires a media strategy around constitutional reform, transitional justice and the on-going investigations into allegations of monumental corruption by the Rajapaksa to be supported by a strategic, responsive, multi-media, multi-lingual and demographically targeted communications campaign. It can be done. It must be done. But clearly not with the President or PM as champions. Both men, it appears to be the case, don’t really listen to anyone outside their closest circle at best. This is self-destructive. No technology and no amount of money spent on media campaigns will succeed unless the top tier political leadership appear to live what they preach. The litmus test is then convincing senior leadership in government today that strategic communications is inextricably entwined with electoral success – where effective media coverage is the primary currency on a bourse where political futures are traded.

It doesn’t however appear to be the case that those in power get this, which is strange. Take for example the PM’s frustrating and ultimately utterly damning defence of the former Central Bank governor, over many months. Or as was reported last week, the outrageous defence by the Leader of House MP Lakshman Kiriella of 45 consultants paid 65,000 rupees a month under the Ministry of Highways, noting that the government should care for those who ensured its victory in the Presidential and Parliamentary elections. But most damaging of all, new luxury vehicles for MPs, passed at a time the country was reeling from the aftermath of devastating floods, an explosion in a military base which shocked the entire countryside around it and widespread opposition to VAT increase  You would think the yahapalanaya government’s primary motivation is to ensure the generation of pushback, wrath, opposition and ridicule!

This must change and soon. It must start with political leadership. A reboot requires the recognition of how debilitating and dispiriting it is to work within government structures to support key initiatives through effective communications, when bureaucracy, staffing, rules of engagement and authorisations are all designed to stifle, stymie and silence. In contrast, the White House’s Office of Communications, under Obama, was able to attract those from the private sector, with significant cuts in income, to work around and promote a core set of ideas and beliefs. Sadly, our government does not make us believe in what’s possible, or should be. Our government does not define or clarify matters of national importance. Our government doesn’t inspire. Our government doesn’t connect.

There are, quite simply, one of two options moving forward. The governance must change or the Government must change.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 24 July 2016.

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