Communications strategy

AGAINST all odds, this government may yet complete its term in office — a historic achievement in the Pakistani context.

But the history of its tenure will be penned as a series of missed opportunities: the failure to implement tax reform; the failure to tackle the blasphemy laws following Salmaan Taseer’s assassination; the failure to course-correct US-Pakistan relations, thereby proving that civilians have the capacity to manage foreign policy; the failure to address the energy crisis.

To this list, I’d add yet another missed opportunity, less dramatic than those listed above but no less important in the long run: the failure to develop an effective communications strategy.

Last week, this paper reported that the Prime Minister’s Polio Eradication Cell has requested the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governor to convince the Pakistani Taliban to lift a ban on polio vaccination in North Waziristan. The Taliban have made lifting the polio ban conditional on the cessation of drone strikes. Given that public health is at stake — and that it’s no secret that the Taliban have established their writ across the tribal agency — the government’s move is desperate, but necessary.

But where is the official communications strategy that would highlight the inhumanity of a militant group that is willing to deprive children of a crucial vaccination? Here is a clear example that the TTP is more interested in furthering its own agenda than ensuring public welfare. The fact that vaccinators themselves are at high risk in Taliban-controlled areas reiterates that the group’s violence is indiscriminate and harsh — the antithesis of the Islamic values they claim to uphold.

A communications strategy that criticises the Taliban’s stance and tactics is the need of the hour: while it may not help vaccination-deprived children in North Waziristan, it may stem militant recruitment elsewhere across Pakistan. After all, the Taliban and their affiliated militant groups have fanned across Pakistan and are taking advantage of soaring anti-Americanism and a prevailing sense of uncertainty to recruit youngsters from varied socioeconomic backgrounds.

This is not the first time that this government has missed the opportunity to create a strong counter-narrative against violent extremism. Who can forget how Maulana Radio’s FM broadcasts across Swat — uninterrupted by the authorities for years — primed the local population for the Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat Muhammadi takeover?

Learning from Swat, late US special envoy Richard Holbrooke began warning Pakistan in 2009 that it could not fight the war against terrorism without first winning the media war. Rather than articulate clear and consistent messaging against militant groups, the government stood by while the mainstream airwaves were hijacked by extremist viewpoints.

Of course, extremism is not the only point on which the government has failed to develop a clear communications strategy: many of the abovementioned failures stemmed from the authorities’ inability to clarify a stance on an issue and make a compelling case for why certain policies should be implemented (whether with regard to economic reform, missing persons, blasphemy laws, US-Pakistan relations, India’s MFN status, population control, mounting sectarian attacks … the list is endless).

In fact, while we’re on the topic, the lack of a good communications strategy to undermine rumours that polio vaccination is a foreign ruse to sterilise Muslims is nothing less than a tragedy — over 200,000 Pakistani children have missed their polio drops in the past two years and 198 cases were reported in 2011, the highest for any country in the world.

The failure to invest in powerful communications strategies seems even more irresponsible given that our elected officials are no strangers to the power of PR. In recent years, politicians from across the spectrum have used the mainstream media as a convenient pulpit through which to air and amplify their views. But the incoherent rants we’ve become accustomed to seeing on air don’t count as a communications strategy.

In current formats, politicians use media appearances to raise their individual profiles and trigger political storms. Their time on air is about being argumentative rather than developing and sustaining a coherent argument around a relevant issue; it’s about reactive politicking rather than proactive, issue-based politics.

Media consultants will likely retort that this government has no communications strategies because it has no coherent policies that need articulating. But this process can work both ways: by developing the infrastructure and protocols to deliver an effective message, the government will create the onus to have an unambiguous stance on major policy issues.

To be clear, the only reason this government has not invested in communications strategies is because, despite the hue and cry about democracy, the concept of consensus-building among the public remains alien. The impetus to earn legitimacy for political action by winning public support — in other words, representative politics — does not yet exist.

And now, it may be too late. After ‘anchorgate’, which exposed the nefarious nexus of media and politics, mainstream outlets looking to rehabilitate their reputations will be wary of running anything that seems like government propaganda, even if it is issue-based and in the public interest. Moreover, the public will be less likely to trust any such content and will wonder instead about whose agenda it is serving.

Election years are a good time for political parties to brush up on their communications strategy skills. But as recent developments have shown, the upcoming elections will be contested in an environment of intrigue, conspiracy and underhanded power plays; rather than issue-based policies, campaigns will comprise of accusations, victimisation narratives and legal loopholes.

‘We deserve to rule because they didn’t want us to rule’ is hardly the stuff of great communications strategies. Sadly, to address Pakistan’s real problems, any government will have to get the public on board with issues such as tax reform, population control and tolerance. Without clear communications, good governance is almost impossible.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

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