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Open channels: governments have developed ways to communicate with the public. The challenge now is to help citizens find a nonconfrontational way to talk to their governments.

In any nation, there must be some form of communication between the unit that governs society and the people who make up that society. It is only when citizens have at least some information about government programs and plans that they can decide upon the wisdom and validity of the reasoning behind the actions of political leaders.

As the size and influence of a government increases, the need for adequate communication becomes more urgent. Communication, to use author Harold Laswell's famous formula, is all about "who says what, in which channel, to whom, with what effect." Most government communication involves only the first three parts of the formula. The important point here is that for communication to take place, four elements must be present in the process: the sender of a message, the message itself, the receiver and feedback. "With what effect" implies some sort of feedback, to determine whether the message sent in the attempt at communication was received and understood.

There is insufficient evidence to conclude that feedback mechanisms are built into most government communication systems, and that is certainly true in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Nevertheless, throughout the developing world, there is an increasingly strong need for the organized dissemination of government information. Several factors have led to the growing need for effective government communication, including:

* Increasing complexity of society.

* Increasing citizen demands.

* Increasing public scrutiny.

Giving information, however, is not communication. Effective, sustained government communication campaigns should start with well-designed objectives largely aimed at gaining the active cooperation of citizens in action programs (for example, soil conservation); compliance in regulatory programs (for example, public health issues such as immunization of small children); and voter support for the incumbent administration's policies (for example, a free market economy). The extent to which these objectives are routinely met is debatable, generally speaking. Looking specifically at the Latin American and Caribbean region, they are overwhelmingly ambitious.

The reality is that most of the impetus for government information programs stems from the need to garner public support for the money and measures that must be voted in Parliament. But it is undeniable that there is insufficient information, and where it is provided, it generally lacks the breadth and depth of an effective public education program.

"Advertising" government

Bernard Rubin, author of Media, Politics and Democracy (Oxford University Press, 1977), maintains that governments have a responsibility for "advertising" themselves--conducting a reporting program that attempts to describe the government's role, function, programs and policies. Governments are, in effect, a great repository of facts, much of which could be of great value to citizens--if they knew about these facts and how to get to them. Much of this information simply never has been made available at all. In other words, the public has a right to know and governments have an obligation to tell, but that obligation has, generally speaking, not been fulfilled.

A second role of communication in government is that of the salesman or persuader. Rubin argues that the most neglected aspect of public administration is salesmanship. He speaks of the two primary roles as reporting and persuading; certain administrative measures will not succeed without such activity. In short, government may need to tell its citizens why as well as what, and sometimes one branch may feel it must persuade the citizenry to bring pressures to bear on another branch to accomplish its own objectives. This persuasive role, in a sense, attempts to force the citizen into a full, active partnership with government.

A third role grows out of the increasing demand for a two-way communication program between government and its publics. Telling and selling are both one-way techniques; there is also a need to learn what those governed want, need and like. Rubin lists publicity, advertising, propaganda, promotion and public opinion research as the major necessary communication functions of modern democratic government. While the dividing lines between the first four may be blurred, the last stands clearly apart as a different sort of a role.

Governments have developed ways to reach their publics when they want to talk. The challenge now is to help citizens find a nonconfrontational way to talk to governments when they have something to say. When a government receives and reacts to this communication with its publics, the information, judgments, frustrations and attitudes that come out in the open often affect programming and change the agenda of government. There is ample evidence of this in the politics of the developing world.

The problem raises anew and with fresh urgency a simple but critically important question posed by Aristotle centuries ago: "The environment is complex and man's political capacity is simple. Can a bridge be built between them?"

Without doubt, Aristotle's bridge must have as its foundation informative, candid, continuous reporting by government, and more accessible communication channels to government for all citizens.

Without sufficient understanding of the communication process and the value of feedback, there is a slim chance of this happening. There are those who maintain that the political directorate deliberately keeps citizens ignorant, so that their ability to ask informed questions is severely limited. The result may be a greater degree of latitude for the political elite. This, however, is a somewhat cynical view, which gives no credit to those of the elite who genuinely wish to maintain open lines of communication, nor does it contribute to satisfying the need for accord between civil society and the state in the development process.

about the author

Berl Francis, a former vice president and manager of the Jamaican branch of Peter Martin Associates, later formed Communications Consultants Ltd., now the leading PR firm in Jamaica. Her success in PR eventually led her to academia, where she established the IBM/UWI Quality Circle, a leadership development program for students at the University of the West Indies.
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Title Annotation:SPECIAL REPORT: Latin America and the Caribbean
Author:Francis, Berl
Publication:Communication World
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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