Public Relations (PR) is an essential function of any institution and government institutions are no exception.
Tasked with, inter alia, the monitoring and evaluation of media coverage, managing media relations, disseminating information to the public and formulating communication strategies, public relations officers (PROs) have a broad and significant mandate to fulfil.
PR is especially significant in the public sector where services are often described by the public as being bureaucratic, incompetent and lacking urgency. The importance of PR in the public sector is crucial as it serves as a communication tool for both the government agencies and the public.
The efficiency of public relations in government goes a long way in assisting offices, ministries and ministries (OMAs) with effective people-centred service delivery. Public relations in a democracy allows for the electorate to give feedback on services provided by government. Through this feedback, OMAs can improve service delivery.
Research conducted by this author, titled ‘Structuration and Public Relations Practice in the Namibian Public Sector’ for the fulfilment of a Master’s Degree in Media Studies (2017) ,sourced responses from members of the public about their thoughts on the PR environment in the Namibian public sector.
The findings unearthed that 23 percent of respondents singled out ministers as their primary source of information regarding government matters, while 12 percent stated that the prime minister was their main source of information. Interestingly, the president (16 percent) came in higher than PROs who were only selected by 8,2 percent of respondents as their source of information.
This can be attributed to President Hage Geingob’s regular press conferences at which he usually speaks himself and of course some news is sourced from speeches and policy documents. In spite of that, PROs need to be leading these figures, the public need to know who they are, they need to become more visible. The findings further indicated that 40 percent of respondents were not aware that OMAs had channels in place for people to seek redress in case they were unsatisfied about a service.
Official appeals and complaints systems in government are a foreign concept to many. The general public have a type of ‘’take what you get’’ view towards government service and this should not be the case, especially in a democracy.
Improving government PR
In order for government PR to thrive, a few barriers to the profession need to be dismantled. Firstly, government PROs need to undergo induction training to prepare them for what lies ahead.
This training is important because being employed by the government requires employees to acquaint themselves with certain laws and political protocol. Government needs to properly integrate the PROs into the system; however the PROs are encouraged to do their part by being more proactive and demonstrating a deeper interest in their jobs.
The above study found that 30 percent of respondents get their news about government in the newspaper, so PROs can use this to their advantage by writing press releases using the platform provided by newspapers in order to inform the public about their institutions.
PROs further need to form relationships with the media and other stakeholders, they also need to answer queries in a timely manner and avoid sending journalists and members of the public from pillar to post when they seek information.
Internal communication goes a long way in information dissemination and should not be disregarded; management is therefore encouraged to disclose information to PROs in order for them to disseminate correct information in a timely manner when it is required of them.
There are instances where information cannot be made public for security reasons, however this should not be seen as an excuse for keeping information that should otherwise be made public, private.
PROs should be well read on issues related to the institution they represent. They should further not shy away from certain responsibilities but instead embrace every opportunity as a chance to learn and improve. A certain executive director (previously called permanent secretary) who was a respondent in the research cited a lack of enthusiasm and initiative as factors that can hinder PROs from effectively carrying out their tasks.
* Aurelia David is PRO at the Office of the Ombudsman. She possesses a BA (Media Studies, Hons) and an MA in Media Studies from Unam. These are her personal views.