By Kalima Nkonde
It is apparent that President Lungu has adopted a strategy of avoiding to directly communicate to the electorate and the market or dialogue with other stakeholders like the press, opposition, the private sector, NGOs, the diplomatic corps etc and one suspects he has adopted and adapted the PF 2011 campaign strategy of “Dochi Kubeba” (do not tell them) which is totally inappropriate when one is governing a country. It must be a strategy by his handlers to avoid exposing him from committing gaffes before the elections in 2016 but this strategy is a double edged sword!
On basis of the invitation by the President to Zambians to provide advice on the economy, I have written this article because Presidential communication does impact the economy and most people do not appreciate this.
The current communications strategy of the Presidency is a public relations disaster in the 21st century to say the least, and it is likely to backfire on the President. The strategy is promoting negative perceptions about the President which may be difficult to erase in the short term. The President’s Press Aide, Amos Chanda defended the strategy on 8th October, 2015 by saying he did not need to hold press conferences. The President also supported his Aide in way when he told Hot FM radio in a rare interview, that he is not scared of holding press conferences but he saw no need for them because he feels that Government Spokesperson Chishimba Kabwili and Special Assistant for press Amos Chanda have adequately been responding to the issues raised by public. What he does not understand that the two are not taken seriously and are held in very low esteem by the public and their messages are not taken seriously and have minimum impact. He also does not understand that Presidential communications carries more weight in a crisis especially!
The current strategy is clearly a reflection of the amateurish communications and public relations team that the President has at State house. It gives one the impression that the team is unlikely to be sufficiently educated, experienced and exposed because they are allowing the President to score his won goals in the public relations arena!
The above assertion is supported by the fact that during his first eight months (nine months in two weeks) in office, the President has committed the following communications blunders:
- Failed to grant any notable serious interviews to the local media organizations except the one he gave to Hot FM on 10 October,2015
- Failed to address the nation on the state of the economy during the recent economic crisis especially the energy and Kwacha depreciation crisis (forget about the parliamentary address as it was by law, obligatory and not voluntary. Parliamentary address is supposed to serve a different purpose )
- Failed to hold any press conferences for close to nine months
- Cancelled a BBC interview at the last minute when he was at the UN
- Cancelled the Voice of America interview at last minute when he was in the USA
- Refused to meet with the Private sector and other professionals for consultations on the economy(Indaba)
The above appears to be a pattern and it cannot be coincidence. It is clearly an orchestrated strategy by his spin doctors. It is a very risky strategy. The unfortunate thing is that like most important decisions including economic issues by the PF administration, there is a tendency of looking at issues in a simplistic and one dimensional manner. The lack of proper analysis of the pros and cons, risks, the interrelationships when decisions are made and strategies formulated has been their Achilles’ heel. We are in a knowledge century and it is vitally important that informed decisions are made based on analysis and that is the reason that an office like the Presidency requires quality and not mediocre people for one to succeed.
The essence of a democracy is that it is a dialogue between those that have been elected to office and those that elected them to the office. In the modern world, the President has the following different ways of communicating to the electorate and other
- Press releases
- Press Conferences
- Radio and television address
- Public speeches ( rally)
- Social media
The above mediums of communications are not mutually exclusive and they are all important and are appropriate at different times, have different impacts and address different audiences. If a President has to be an effective communicator, he has to make use of all of them depending on the circumstances and the message he wants to deliver. President Lungu has only been communicating through press releases prepared by Amos Chanda and Press statements by Minister Chishimba Kabwili but those are impersonal statements and the two were not elected by the Zambian people and they are not sufficient and do not have same the impact as a statement from the President’s mouth himself.
At other times, the President has hurriedly answered one or two questions when boarding a plane before flying off outside the country or locally which can hardly qualify for an interview! The only public address he has made to the nation at large was mandatory by law when he addressed parliament and one could see that the speech was almost 100% written for him by technocrats! He has avoided interviews, press conference, radio and television address to the nation and so on!
It is common knowledge that if one wants to be a leader; he or she must know how to communicate. People follow leaders who inspire them and who communicate their ideas effectively. If you cannot communicate, then you are not a leader. An effective President is one who speaks regularly about his vision and beliefs. Speeches, for example, can change minds by persuading the public to your point of view and win you supporters.
Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream speech” which inspired a nation and helped break down racial barriers. Nelson Mandel- before he became president – addressed South Africa which was on a brink of civil war after the assassination of Chris Hani in 1993 and helped to avert a racial war. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill motivated Britain through a speech to fight the Nazis after London was bombed. There are many examples where a leader has captivated and united a nation through a speech!
I really do not understand how the President or his advisors cannot understand the importance of communication in the 21st Century especially at the time of an economic crisis like right now when families are hurting from the high cost of living! The Kwacha depreciation and the low investor confidence are partly attributable to the lack of communication and involvement at the highest level by the President. He needs to inform the public and the market personally what his government intends to do thereby instill confidence in the market. These are matters you cannot delegate to juniors unless one does not consider them important and critical! Although it may be difficult for the lesser mortals to understand how the lack of Presidential direct communication can influence the depreciation of the kwacha! The importance of sentiment in the global economy should never be understated; it is a reality when you borrow Euro bonds from the international Capital markets especially!
To quote the International Monetary Fund Managing Director, Christine Largade in 2014, when Ghana was going through the same problems we are going through now : “ when some African countries go to the bond market, they are exposing themselves to the market discipline which they do not understand. You can see the results with Ghana.” She could have as well been talking about Zambia now!
The President has not used television to address the nation. Television is the most conspicuous and potentially powerful weapon to communicate to the nation as the President enters the public’s homes and speaks directly, unfettered by news media’s questions, interpretations and editing. The television address is the ultimate political weapon in shaping the nation’s agenda, mobilizing public opinion and building support for him and the positions he espouses. President Lungu has not used this during our economic crisis. It is at the time of a crisis that you tell whether somebody is a leader or not
The current strategy has left people to speculate rightly or wrongly and come out with all sorts of perceptions of the President such as: he is not confident and has an inferiority complex, he is not on top of things, he is ignorant and not knowledgeable about economic issues, he is weak and cannot fire nor discipline anybody, he is not assertive, he cannot inspire the nation, he over relies on what his advisors tell him, he is not his own man and is captive to those who sponsored him, he is scared to expose his ignorance, he is not feared nor respected by ministers and others, he is highly compromised, he is wasteful and not cost conscious , he is incompetent, he does not work and over delegates and that is why he flies around etc. Negative perceptions can be very dangerous and once they are entrenched, there are difficult to erase.
It is always wise for a person in public office to work hard and erase the wrong perceptions and create one’s own favourable brand by more interaction and effective communication. As a non partisan commentator and observer, I have noticed HH’s effort to dispel some of the wrong perceptions people may have on him by his persistent and constant communication through various media. I am very sure he has won some supporters since the last elections in January, 2015 as some people’s perception of him have changed. By continuing with the current strategy, the President is allowing the outsiders to define him when he is supposed to develop his own brand! The wrong perceptions may stick and become political liabilities in a not distant future.
In continuing with the current communications strategy, President Lungu is not gaining experience in the various ways of communicating to the electorate. In other countries, with a vibrant opposition, he would have been vulnerable to opposition attacks of hiding something by avoiding the public!
My advice is that the President should spend more time reading including the social media and researching on issues on his own just like other Presidents do, so that he reduces over reliance on his Aides by collecting some of the information on his own and in the process be able to challenge some of his aides’ recommendations. He should invest more time in understanding the basics of how the economy works! All other Presidents who are not economist but lawyers like Mwanawasa, Obama, Clinton, Mandela etc just learnt the basics on the job but one has to invest time and work hard! I also believe that the quality of some of his Aides at State House is very low and possibly immature for the jobs they hold.
This is the reasons why some of them are found in bars around 03.00hours when expected at work at 0700hrs or earlier. And others issue outrageous and uninformed statements on television like bringing back exchange controls in a liberal economy after twenty four years! I would advice that he considers changing his team of Aides at State House by posting them somewhere and bring better qualified and experienced people; otherwise the current team will bring him down!