Wednesday, June 6, 2012

We are in this together, folks!

By Motalatale Sam Modiba

Recent months have seen a heightened focus on the state of media in South Africa. The machinery of government communication has also come under scrutiny as issues pertaining to the agenda of the media, access to information and journalistic ethics are debated in the context of our fledgling democracy.

It was within this context that I set out to attend the week-long course for “Government Media: Essential Tools for Editors and Journalists” hosted by the Sol Plaatje Institute for Media Leadership at Rhodes University on 14-18 May this year.

My expectation of this course, having heard about it from fellow colleagues who have taken part in it previously, did not disappoint.

I am convinced, despite the many challenges that confront those of us that ply their trade as government communicators, that in our midst lies many skills and experiences which, if correctly harnessed, can serve as some of the best practices as we strive to serve as ‘indispensable links between the public and government’.

Having said this though, and in view of my opening paragraph, it quickly became clear -- to borrow a quote from Themba Sepotokele, a seasoned journalist, spokesperson, speech writer, communication strategist and media trainer -- that “There is never a dull moment in the love-hate relationship between government and the media”.

From the robust engagements that ensued over the five days of the course, it was easy to understand why there is ‘never a dull moment’. As government communicators, we sometimes tend to take a very critical view of how the media operates and how we think the media should actually function and the same is true of the media about government communicators.

While at Rhodes University, a colleague of mine and I visited the Rhodes Journalism Department and hardly before we could finish introducing ourselves we were already having to deal with some misconception about government communications and their shortfalls thereof.

Again at a Working Dinner session for course participants – it is traditionally held on Thursdays to continue deliberating on some of the issues which may not have been exhausted during lectures -- a debate broke out between a member of the Fourth Estate and some government communicators on the role of the media in society and who sets the media agenda and the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of government communication.

The course and our discussions at the journalism department and during dinner left me more appreciative of the reality that there will always be tension between my role as a government communicator and that of the media, although ultimately we are standing across the same fence: that is, our desire to relay messages to our respective constituencies.

What needs to happen though is to ensure that the unavoidable tension is a healthy one, and this can only be done when we all realise that what divides us is not a solid wall but a mere fence. This means that efforts must be made to build relations between the two groups and to understand the intricate environments in which each operates in, how and why.

Government communicators need to listen closely to what the media is saying, no matter how biased the media may be perceived to be. On the other side of the coin, there is a need for the media to not be condescending in their attitude and to at times appreciate the delicate environment in which government communicators operate in.

Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your vantage point, the tension will always be there. What both parties should strive for is to ensure that it remains healthy.

-- *Motalatale S. Modiba is a senior media officer at Ekurhuleni Metro in Gauteng, South Africa. He contributed this article in his private capacity.

-- Editing by Francis Mdlongwa, Director of Sol Plaatje Institute for Media Leadership, Rhodes University, South Africa.