Govt's strategic media cell spreads its wings

Published November 2, 2015
The 15-member cell, headed by Maryam Nawaz, is being expanded to cope with an increased workload.—AP/File
The 15-member cell, headed by Maryam Nawaz, is being expanded to cope with an increased workload.—AP/File

ISLAMABAD: Within a year of its inception, the federal government has decided to expand the operations of the little-known Strategic Media Communication Cell (SMCC), operating out of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Set up with the special approval of the PM as part of the information ministry late last year, the SMCC has since evolved into a powerful unit, working under the watchful eye of Maryam Nawaz Sharif, PML-N sources told Dawn.

Initially, the SMCC was provided with a staff of 15 people and a budgetary allocation of Rs20 million for the current financial year.

But only recently, the information ministry sought the PM’s approval to increase the number of SMCC employees to 38. With this increase in staff, the cell requires another Rs20 million to meet operating costs.

“Since the cell’s inception, it has been the lead government vehicle that intervenes in [the] social and conventional media to project government’s point of view in a subtle and effective manner. With the expansion of its mandated function, SMCC’s present human resources have now become insufficient to carry on the workload in efficient and productive manner, therefore, needed to expand substantially in the best national interest,” said an official note circulated among government departments, such as establishment and finance divisions.

Headed by Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the 15-member cell is being expanded to cope with an increased workload

The SMCC was ostensibly created last year to tap the electronic as well as social media, “as it had turned into the most dynamic form of interactive media in modern times and a powerful means to access information.” The minds behind this cell also argued, “Since the role of social media in affecting public opinion has increased, it is [of great] importance for all sectors, including government.”

Every now and then, the government runs media campaigns aimed at polio eradication, energy conservation, school enrolment, environmental issues, viral diseases, anti-terrorism and matters relating to IDPs. “The SMCC will make such campaigns more efficient in terms of their cost effectiveness,” the working paper says.

The document highlights the fact that “bulk media-buying in different channels is a way to reach more [people] at diminished costs. This course is being adopted in the private sector when organisations buy air-time in advance through advertising agencies [to occupy] space for their campaigns at lower rates. The government can also benefit from this and save public money.”

This cell is mandated with preparing the annual media campaigns for social welfare projects, in consultation with various government and public sector organisations and will arrange bulk media buying on behalf of the government, according to the original SMCC summary approved by the PM.

But Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed has a different view altogether. For him, the SMCC, which he said was still in its formative stages, would act as a bridge “between the academia and governmental policy making”.

“Unfortunately, successive governments have failed to benefit from the research and development for actual policy making in government departments being carried out at the university level,” he said, adding that the SMCC would eventually evolve into a think-tank, helping the government in different areas.

But, in off-the-record discussions, several government officials privy to the SMCC’s operations told Dawn the cell had actually taken over functions from the information ministry. As explained in its original summary, the SMCC was given the mandate to create favourable public opinion for the government by preparing special media campaigns.

“Nowadays, we have a standard operating procedure; whatever is decided at the SMCC level -- be it the release of advertisements, buying media airtime, or holding press conferences on certain issues -- we have no option but to implement the decision,” said a government official.

Perhaps by coincidence, the SMCC came into being last year after Ms Maryam Nawaz Sharif was told to resign as chairperson of the PM’s youth loan programme by the Lahore High Court.

An insider told Dawn that the cell’s entire staff had been recruited on her recommendation, even though some of its key members held academic qualifications irrelevant to communications.

Published in Dawn, November 2nd, 2015

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