Finance Ministry

Last week’s government Gazette Extraordinary on the special commodity levy triggered a media feeding frenzy. It was widely thought that the government had done an upward revision of taxes on food items such as sprats, dried fish, butter, salt, mustard seeds, finger millet or kurakkan, and their prices would go through the roof, as a result. Opposition activists had a field day, bashing the government, and those who had voted or it. The apologists of the government welcomed the special commodity levy, insisting that it would benefit the local producers. All young netizens who fall for any sensational post, hook, line, and sinker, let out a howl of protest, thinking that the prices of the commodities listed in the Gazette had been increased again. They cannot be blamed for their reaction, which was based on a misconception. It took nearly three days for the government to clarify the issue.

The government could have avoided the messy situation it got into following the publication of the above-mentioned Gazette if the services of a team ofcommunication experts had been available to it. Only thing it should have done to clear doubts in the minds of the people was to preface the announcement of the gazette with a single line to the effect that it was only extending the validity period of an existing gazette and there would be no new levy increases.


The Gazette that led to a controversy

The hullabaloo caused by the gazette notification in question is not just a one-off. Following the appointment of Basil Rajapaksa as the Finance Minister, a similar situation arose, when an official announcement was made for formality’s sake, listing the institutions that cameunder the purview the Finance Minister.

The success of any political organization depends on its ability to communicate with the polity, and much more so for a government, which needs to shape public perceptions of its performance, etc., to keep its approval ratings high.

Government politicians in this country are often heard saying that the public is not fully informed of the good things they do. This is puzzling in that every ministry has a media division, and the Government Information Department is at the beck and call of the ruling party, which also controls the state-owned publishing house, and television and radio stations. How come a government has communication issues?

The aforesaid claim is intended to have the public believe that the government is working really hard, and doing a lot for the people, but most of its good work goesunreported. Similarly, it is true that all governments herehave serious communication problems that result from three factors: they mistake publicity and/or public relations for effective communication; they have no communication specialists, and do not listen to communication specialists even when the latter’s servicesare available to them.  

Communication, propaganda and persuasion

Communication, one of the most important life skills one who seeks success in life or professional career should master, basically means the act of conveying information to generate greater understanding in verbal, non-verbal, written, vocal and visual forms, which are soft skills that enable a person to interact harmoniously and effectively with others. Some communication gurus consider listening also as a form of communication, but opinion is divided on this score. The process of conveying or exchanging information on a large scale involving a wide range of people through different media is called mass communication.

In the modern world, communication is ranked the first among all soft skills, as could be seen from some international surveys, the most famous being the one conducted by LinkedIn (2016) in the US. The rankings were as follows:

LinkedIn survey results
LinkedIn survey results

The type of communication widely used in politics is propaganda, which is information, views, images, etc., organized in such a way as to sway the target audience; itpresents only one side of an argument/issue and has a negative connotation; it is basically employed to demolish or reinforce existing beliefs, ideas and the like. Newspeak, doublethink, doublespeak, etc., come under propaganda, which has an element of trickery.

The use of persuasion is also common in politics; it is a subtle form of propaganda based on the credibility of the communicator, or logic and reason, or emotions.

There is no universally accepted communication models as such, but there seems to be a general consensus on the following: Linear Model of Communication, which means one-way interaction and the process of communication could be complete without a feedback; Interaction Model of Communication, which means the two-way process of communication, where there is a feedback but not immediately, and the Transactional Model of Communication, which is a two-way communication process, where feedback is immediate, as on social media platforms.

What the media units of political parties and state institutions usually do is to bombard the public with raw propaganda with persuasion thrown in for good measure. Propagandists, or spin doctors as they are called in journalese, may succeed in duping the public in the short term, but propaganda comes with a short shelf life. They emulate Reich Media Minister Joseph Goebbels and believe that repeating their propagandistic claims umpteen times will help turn public opinion in favor of their political organizations or leaders. They are not interested in or capable of the scientific management of information and effective communication, and some of them even cannot differentiate communication from propaganda.

Communication and efficient organization

Critics of the state sector argue that it has to emulate the corporate sector to serve the public efficiently and manage state funds better. But what they do not factor in is that welfarism is absent in the profit-seeking corporate sector, which is also free from bureaucracy. In the private sector, decision-making is not a tedious process. States cannot be run like private companies owing the presence of vulnerable groups who need assistance andgovernments are wary of taking tough decisions for fear of antagonizing the public. However, governments could learn effective communication from the private sector, which, however, also uses propaganda for purposes such as promoting sales, countering adverse criticism and justifying their unethical practices.

Communication should not be confused with advertising, which is only one form of non-personal communication. Marketing is also heavily dependent on effective communication to achieve its goal of creating mass consumerism and having people driven by their wants rather than needs.    

Apple founder, Steve Jobs’ success in building his business empire was mostly due to his extraordinary communication skills, which helped him enrapture his audiences. He was extremely concerned about the quality of Apple products and maniacally raised the bar where quality assurance was concerned much to the resentment of his business rivals who had to follow suit, but Apple gained more from his communication skills than anything else. He used to introduce new Apple products himself. When he talked, the world listened and bought Apple products; there was hardly anything left for his marketing team to do after product launches. Apple products sold themselves when Jobs was around.

Propaganda overkills are counterproductive

Successive governments in Sri Lanka have used political propaganda to further their interests, and their publicity campaigns are always at the expense of the taxpayer. There have also been numerous instances of propaganda overkills.

The Ranasinghe Premadasa government had an enormous appetite for publicity, and when the Gam Udawa housing schemes opened, hundreds of thousands of posters announcing those events appeared in all parts of the country. The critics of that administration claimed that publicity cost more than houses. Politically speaking, President Premadasa had narcissistic streak of sorts; he loved to see his face the frontpages of newspapers and on television, and hear his voice on the radio, almost daily. Huge cutouts carrying his pictures were also put up in public places. But that kind of propaganda did not makethat regime any popular.  

President Mahinda Rajapaksa also had a similar streak, which became manifest during his second term. Awe-inspiring cutouts with his pictures on them were erected in many parts of the country. He ensured that he was always in the news by saying and doing things that attracted media attention. His propagandists also worked hard, but failed to maintain his government’s approval ratings. He and his party lost power in 2015.

Communication in a sophisticated world

Mass communication has come a long way, and social media and smart phones have opened up a new information universe. People are better informed than they were a few decades ago, and are capable of seeing through political propaganda which they treat with utter contempt.

Governments have awakened to the emerging challenges on the ever-widening communication landscape, but their responses have not been sophisticated enough to go down with an informed public. They have resorted to offensive action such as employing social media hit men to target their political enemies, or promote their agendas via the Internet. The methods they employare rather primitive and therefore ineffective.

Politicians, who use social media tools, inflict more damage on themselves than on others. A minister’seconomy class selfie taken en route to Japan and posted on Twitter recently serves as an example. It was a textbook case of a propaganda disaster.

In today’s information-empowered society, effective communication plays a pivotal role in governance, and should take precedence over political propaganda if a government is to build public trust, and ally doubts in people’s minds so that situations like the one brought about by the above-mentioned Gazette on commodity levy will not arise.  






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