Nowadays, round the globe, every Government, whether at the central/federal or the state level, and every head of government or a Ministry/Department, without exception, has a high-level functionary appointed to take care of media relations.
In Britain, the Prime Minister’s/Cabinet Office alone has a Press Officer, a Press Secretary, a Broadcast Adviser, a Communications Director and a Strategic Communications Director.
The US has a tradition of keeping the media in good humour, going back to the early decades of the last century.
In fact, the idea of “managing the press” in the pejorative sense of “seducing” them to write well of the presidency and the Administration originated from there.
I was the US Congressional Fellow during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency and had the opportunity to watch at close quarters how his Press Secretary, Mac Kilduff, and Media Adviser, Bill Moyers, were instrumental in Johnson’s brilliant handling of the Press.
The current US President Barack Obama has set up an elaborately organised Office of Public Engagement (OPE), which he calls “the open front door to the White House” and the embodiment of his goal of making government “inclusive, transparent, accountable and responsible.”
It is meant to facilitate a “direct dialogue between the Administration and the American public, bringing new voices to the table”, whereby everyone living in the US can participate and keep tabs on the quality of governance.
The OPE is charged with ensuring that the issues impacting the nation’s “proud and diverse communities” and the people’s concerns are attended to promptly by the Administration, and suitable action taken by the appropriate bodies of the Federal Government.
Its focus is on making the Government accessible to its citizens, and improving public awareness and involvement in the work of the Administration.
One can divine the major role played by the OPE in Obama’s response to the tragic Oak Creek Sikh Temple shootout in the form of his poignantly worded public statement of grief, his touching gesture in flying the flags half-mast in the White House itself and his calls to the family of the slain president of the Temple and to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
India has not lagged behind in having officers designated as Press Advisors attached to every Ministry and Minister almost from Independence.
The posts were filled by legendary stalwarts such as Sharada Prasad, B.G.Verghese, Kuldip Nayar and Prem Shankar Jha. The latter-day appointees also have not been wanting in credentials and calibre.
Why then are the Prime Minister, his Cabinet colleagues and the Government as a whole, in the thick of public relations disasters on a scale never witnessed before?
Why is the Prime Minister, in particular, getting projected in such an abominably poor light, and the Government as a whole is coming through as effete, inept and corrupt? Does it mean that media advisors have not been doing their jobs properly and effectively?
Answers to these questions will have to take account of a complex set of factors. Politics in recent times has assumed a blatantly vicious and vilifying character, with little respect for observance of decencies and courtesies as used to be the case up to Indira Gandhi’s time.
Personal attacks, witch-hunting and character-assassination are becoming the norm. The quality of journalism itself, pertaining to both print and electronic media, has taken a nose-dive.
Most journalists are given to vitriolic denigration rather than being objective and fair-minded.
Media Advisors, especially the old-timers among them, cannot be blamed if they cannot simply cope with them.
One of the handicaps that media advisors face is that they are most of the time viewed as appendages and are not kept in the loop.
Not being abreast of developments themselves, they find it hard to keep the media on their side with backgrounders, selective scoops and informal and friendly chats.
Few Media Advisors are aware of their paramount duty to bring about an improvement in the functioning of the Ministry/Minister by being bold and frank in bringing to light any trenchant criticism likely to sully the Government’s image and suggesting a checklist of options to meet it.
I feel the time has come to have a Minister devoting him(her)self whole-time to media relations and providing the sign posts, benchmarks and ground rules for Media Advisors to follow.