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Failure to communicate

A close inspection of our government’s strategic messaging attempts reveals a lack of clear strategy

By Imdad Hussain |
PUBLISHED May 28, 2021

It may come as a surprise, but schemes under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor seem to be making steady progress. Several road projects have been completed and paperwork for upgrading the ML-1 railway track seems to be moving along.

In the power sector, 5,000 megawatts have been added to the national grid after nine CPEC energy projects were recently completed. These include the Hub power plant recently inaugurated by Prime Minister Imran Khan. Another 13 power schemes, meanwhile, have seen significant progress as well.

But despite these gains, there is a general perception that work on CPEC schemes has run aground ever since the present government took over the reins. Similarly, the government, to its credit, has made several unprecedented achievements on the socio-economic front, but few in the country seem to be aware or think of them as a big deal. There is little to no information, for instance, on the universal health coverage in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Not seem to know of the large number of people who have benefited from the government’s Ehsaas programme as well.

What the people are, however, aware of is the government’s obsessive narrative, repeated on loop, focusing on the corruption charges against Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari. Meanwhle, much of their attention is drawn to the high rate of inflation, the devaluation of the rupee and the government’s ‘U-turns’ on myriad issues of importance.

This whole scenario speaks volumes about the lack of an effective communication strategy on part of the government and the ministries. By the looks of it, the government appears to have an army of spokespersons, assistants and media focal persons, often to convey messages on the same issues. But their actual statements often turn out to be contradictory and the situation has been made no easier due to frequent changes to the information team.

According to journalist and former Director News of Radio Pakistan Abdul Hadi Mayar, the basic issue with the government is that it overly relies on social media while ignoring mainstream media outlets within the government set up. “I believe the ministry of information is no longer as equipped enough to handle strategic communication as it once used to be.” According to certain analysts, the ministry has played a key role in defending the government and its soft image, so minimising its role could likely be a blunder.

On condition of anonymity, at least two senior officials at the ministry confirmed that several steps were taken to limit the role of the ministry, which has technical know-how as to how to deal with the issue of communication on the part of the government. For instance, the Institute of Regional Studies - a think tank for the ministry of information - was taken away and handed over to the foreign ministry. “This think tank was also essential for the ministry to deal with communication on a strategic level,” they added.

One of the officials said that the role of senior information officials was also limited as priorities of the incumbent government in this regard are different. He said that the government has now recruited a team of spokespersons on party basis so the ministry has little to do with the narrative or statements from the ministers and private spokespersons.

The cultural division was also part of the ministry but it was handed over to the education minister. “In fact the Prime Minister Imran Khan had explicitly said in a meeting with us that his government aspires for dissolving the whole ministry as in modern times, it is not needed,” the officials said.

Observers maintain that this thinking of Imran Khan to sideline media and the ministry of information is not serving his party or the government. Dr Syed Riffat Hussain, head of Department of Government and Public Policy at NUST, said the basic problem is that this government and its members give statements without homework and preparation. “Sometimes their statement doesn’t match policy of the country. Recently, a statement by the Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi on Kashmir and then withdrawal is a good example of a statement without preparation.”

A recent interview of Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi with CNN’s Bianna Golodryga is another example of lack of preparedness. He couldn’t respond satisfactorily over questions of anti-Semitism and had to retract his own statement. Probably, for this reason response to his interview was mixed, with many criticising him.

There is also a big question as to who conveys the message for the government on a particular issue. All ministers speak on certain issues at times, creating confusion rather than solidifying the government’s stance. Frequent change of information ministers and spokespersons also raise questions over the government ability to select the right people for communicating with the masses, observers point out. According to them, many have been appointed with vague terms of reference, such as in the case of Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Media Iftikhar Durrani and Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Media Affairs Yousaf Baig Mirza. Both were appointed around the same time and given eerily similar designations.

Analysts added that the government’s army of spokespersons, assistant and advisors have also remained focused on what its rivals Nawaz and Zardari did in the past, instead of highlighting what the government is doing now. They pointed out that at the strategic level, it is the state that sets the narrative and the individual role is minimal in this connection.

According to them, the government has seldom performed beyond rhetoric in the international arena on a number of issues, such as Islamophobia. Its ability to influence global perception seems to be non-existent.

Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies Director of Strategic Affairs Syed Mohammad Ali said that narrative is a function of the state. “The strategic narrative of any state must be shaped in accordance with a comprehensive assessment of international environment, geo-strategic compulsions, economic realities, public sentiments and national identities.” He added that in some instances, the policy is missing and only rhetoric messages are conveyed at international forums. As an example, he pointed out that the government’s Kashmir policy is still unclear.

Some observers pointed out that this lack of clarity in communication is not just costing Pakistan internationally but could limit the government’s chances of re-election. Many surveys over the last two years have revealed a growing sense of dissatisfaction among citizens due to rising inflation and unemployment. The success stories the government could have used to appeal to the common person’s sensibilities seem nowhere close to the limelight.

The government, observers noted, has also made limited attempts to contextualise and explain the present challenges the country is facing. For instance, the government has focused on how its projects in the construction sector will generate employment without sharing the caveat that such trickle-down effects take time. Many ministers, at the same time, appear to be in outright denial when it comes to inflation. “Every month, when people go shopping, they witness the ever increasing rates of commodities. But the Prime Minister and his team continue to claim that they have introduced public friendly policies and improved the economy. These are hollow claims and for common people, they are myths, not realities,” said Dr Riffat Hussain.

It is not just the wider masses that seem disillusioned with PTI. Surveys reveal a sense of dejection is gaining hold within the ruling party’s own support base. “He promised to bring about change by saying if the top leadership is on the right pathm then people in the hierarchy are compelled to be right,” said 29-year-old Peshawar resident Kamran, who voted for PTI in the last two elections. “Now PTI leaders tell us ‘what can a single leader do if no one in the team wants to work for is right’. We are seeing the exact opposite of what they promised us and now it all seems so hollow,” he added.

Suggesting corrective action the government could employ, analysts said the an empowered and functional information ministry is absolutely vital, as is an information minister that is seen as the government’s top spokesperson. “The government needs to show its trust in the information ministry and its affiliated departments and corporations to project and promote its stance, not just nationally but internationally as well,” said Samina Waqar, former Director General of Information Service Academy and later of Radio Pakistan. Over the years, political governments have started feeling that their party media cells can do the work that the information ministry does. This is a misperception as information officers are trained to cultivate media, give a narrative, write articles to promote govt policies and even do firefighting for respective ministries,” she pointed out.

According to Samina, the present government needs to increase its communication skills and strategy by recognising the importance of this ministry during this era of social and cyber warfare. “Soft power initiatives like culture, heritage and tourism must come under the ministry.” She also suggested that for the information ministry to function effectively, the Institute of Regional Studies must be returned to it. “By giving it to the foreign office, what has the government gained?” she asked. “No important or major research work has come forward to help the prime minister ease tensions with our neighbors and in the region.”