President Weah, VP Howard-Taylor with members of the CDC’s cabinet
History has proven that dictators, tyrants, warlords, drug dealers and gangs’ leaders have all failed, time and again, to defeat the press, and the reason is simple: the pen is mightier than the sword. This means the power of the pen is universal and immortal. It also means the peaceful acts of writing can have stronger effects than violence. It also means words can solve disputes more effectively than force.
We cannot develop Liberia, and, our beloved president His Excellency George Manneh Weah and his Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) coalition government cannot succeed if it chooses to have an adversarial relationship with the press. On the other hand, Liberia cannot develop or move forward if the Liberian media refuses or intentionally chooses to paint a dark picture of the country to the outside world. Therefore, both the Liberian government and the Liberian press need each other while honestly discharging their duties and carrying out their core responsibilities.
Global analysts have agreed, in principle, that in a democracy, and more specifically in emerging democracies and troubled nations like Liberia, the role of the press is two-fold: to inform the public and, more importantly, to act as a watchdog on government activities.
Paraphrasing Ben Bradlee, former editor-in-chief of the Washington Post newspaper, the current relationship between the Weah’s CDC government and the Liberian press is adversarial, if not confrontational. As Bradly would say, “You will never get a Liberian reporter to say that the relationship with the government is good. Because if he or she did, he or she would probably be lying, or the government would be treating him too well. But the government doesn’t have to treat reporters all that well. They just must stay out of the way.
When the government stays out of the way of the press by doing the right things and building improved relationships with the press corps, the press too has a duty and responsibility that it must fulfill with honesty and integrity because whatever the press does impact many issues, concerns and interests including investors and donors’ confidence, consumers confidence as well as political, social and economic stability.
There is a reason why the United States and other developed and democratic nations thrive: They respect the press. Their supporters don’t gang up against the press or reporters on social media just because they disagree with specific news reports, commentaries or analytical articles. This should be the work of the Press Secretary and/or the Minister of Information to either provide clarity or seek to foster a better relationship with the media.
In the United States, they have the Bill of Rights, which grants specific political privileges to U.S. citizens. One important segment of the Bill of Rights, known as the First Amendment, protects the freedom of the press from all unwarranted attacks because it is the right thing to do. The first amendment states––among other things — that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
So, instead of raging on about “fake news,” or “bad news” or “truth-telling news” President Weah, the CDC coalition government and its supporters would do well to patiently read the news stories that are published and understand the press as well as focus on building the character of the key actors in the administration.
Jim Dougherty, in his series, “Communication’s Best Practices” outlined Christopher Penn’s views of the press and political authority. According to Dougherty, Penn, in describing the ‘concept of slow public relations’, explains that the goal is “to create as much of a relationship and value with media contacts up front.” Penn says, “create as much of a relationship and value with media,” he did not say attack the media, because to do so would be futile, foolish and a waste of time.
To build such relationships, civilized and experienced politicians and governments develop, establish and support seasoned public relations teams outside of government that, in turn, work with the media while simultaneously promoting the image and character of the government and its principals.
The days of having inexperienced and loud-mouth government’s public affairs spokespersons or political operatives lambasting the media are over and behind us, especially in the age of global social media. Equally, the days of intimidating, harassing, threatening, detaining, beating and even killing journalists with impunity are also over and behind us, because today’s international justice is more vigilant and universal and can go after anyone irrespective of their status, wealth, power and influence.
The truth is, everyone, including most, if not all members of the Liberian media, wants President Weah and the CDC’s government to succeed and surely, he might likely succeed if he and the CDC’s coalition do what is right and/or necessary. On that note, here is my advice and/or recommendations for President Weah and the CDC’s government in fostering a good relationship with the Liberian media.
- Be readers/distributors of media work ––President Weah and his members of the CDC’s coalition government must become readers/distributors of the work of journalists and the press because what they write is somehow a piece of advice, directly and indirectly.
- Be respectful of journalist’s time and work––This means when journalists ask serious and probing questions, as Penn says, “Be cognizant of the journalist’s job…. Journalists are busy, so get to the point. Don’t waste their time harassing them with long pitches or begging”
- Interact on social media––Today, the level of accessibility that social media and online presence offers is unprecedented. The fact that Twitter and other social media platforms are used so widely by journalists is important for any government and its PR professional to direct and lead the daily news narrative.
- Interact face-to-face (if possible) ––The President and his key policy and public affairs principals elevate their game on this aspect. As Penn says, “Journalists are people, and many of them have average or above average social skills. This means they tend not to form lasting bonds via email.” It means developing interpersonal skills helps a government and politicians in having a common ground.
- Stay Positive or Cool– Instead of getting angry and threating, the principals and supporters of the CDC’s coalition government need to stay positive or remain cool. Dan Siegal of Spokepoint offers a very straightforward but crucial part of building rapport with journalists: be positive. He says that the benefit to being positive is that it increases the likelihood of your relationship to continue: “It can be frustrating when reporters write negative stories about your clients, particularly if they are inaccurate. But getting angry or retaliating will only compound the damage,” according to Siegal. This is a very important advice for the CDC administration.
- Make your resources known and available––President Weah and the CDC’s government should support the Liberian media, especially the Press Union of Liberia so that it can train and develop its membership through accurate reporting, news analysis, and responsible journalism. According to media experts, one of the most popular responses to the question of how to build relationships with journalists is to help them do their job better. This doesn’t mean pushing an irrelevant pitch.
Finally, the government must have a system of centralizing its official communications with the media and the public. Apart from the Minister of Information Honorable Lenn Eugene Nagbe and the Press Secretary Mr. Sam Mannah or their designees, officials of government in non-related capacities should have no business speaking on media and communications issues, especially when they lack knowledge of the issues. All it does is it makes the government look very terrible in a situation that is already bad. This is one main reason why the Weah administration, instead of just relying on party’s faithful, loyalists, friends and coalition partners, needs to do all it can to engage and bring in competent individuals with the requisite experience and qualifications to help in moving Liberia forward. After all, this is about Liberia and President Weah’s legacy. Nothing else!