By Paul Achar
The Uhuru Kenyatta Presidency has now reached the two year mark and though itâ€™s difficult to draw definitive conclusions on how the administration will eventually be viewed through the long arc of history, a key aspect observers have already made judgement on, is its communication efforts.
Some of the assessments are based on observations by practising communication specialists; academics or the general polemics of punditry made so common with the advent of social media, blogs and increased political programming on traditional media.
In 2013, Uhuru Kenyatta ran a successful insurgent campaign known for its disciplined Integrated Communications that deployed multiple fronts to push key messages successfully.
The campaignâ€™s combination of strategic and tactical communications was masterful; a first in Kenya and it helped that the candidate was a gifted orator with the ability to effectively change gears rhetorically when targeting various audiences and many commentators have pointed out his fine performance during the Presidential debates and the Victory address at Catholic University.
An eloquent President who could effectively use a teleprompter, supported by an equally effective communicator as his deputy had taken the helm and the new era held enormous promise for government communications.
Ironically the President who was viewed as the best communicating president Kenya has so far voted into office immediately seemed to have trouble mastering the communication possibilities of his office and struggled to deploy his communication abilities to drive his administrations agenda and counter messages from a shell shocked opposition struggling to recover from electoral defeat and barely coherent in its own messaging.
To be fair enough, the reality of campaign and governing communication is normally at odds, and from the start the Jubilee administration may have been boxed in while trying to solve the numerous problems left by the Kibaki Administration, but a better communication strategy would have helped.
President Uhuru would get no honeymoon and despite an overwhelming majority in both houses of parliament, he seemed to struggle to reconcile his agenda and communicate the same while deploying the persuasive powers of his office to strategically push ahead his initiatives without losing public goodwill. A good example was the Information and Communications Amendment Act of 2013; here was a government initiative that required him to engage in an illuminating policy explanation and frame the argument in a comprehensible way to gain public goodwill but he failed to rise to the occasion and the communication efforts were left to bumbling surrogates who seemed more keen to control the 24hr news cycle as opposed to understanding the overall strategy moving ahead.
The opposing forces ultimately combined to wrest the messaging control from the Presidentâ€™s team and State House was left to play a defensive role, with significant depletion of its â€œgoodwill capitalâ€ with the Kenyan people.
But it wasnâ€™t meant to be like this; not for a good communicator like President Kenyatta, why did he struggle to connect and explain his Policy agenda despite great personal charisma. One agenda aspect he seemed to successfully communicate was Foreign Policy.
During his inaugural address he had indicated a foreign policy shift to an Africa Centric one and in coming months he managed to coherently frame this Policy into a clearly understood agenda.
It seemed that when he drove the messaging himself it resonated with the public, but why then did the overall communication strategy if there was one, falter. A couple of factors may explain this, but to understand the reasons for this failure fully, itâ€™s good to go back to the formation of his communications unit upon assumption of office.
Strategic Communication within the context of governance can be defined as infusing communication efforts with a clear Policy agenda and master plan or the deliberate orchestrated use of channels of communication to move and influence policy or promote an administrationâ€™s agenda. It certainly seemed this was the intention of the President when he created a new outfit the â€œPresidential Strategic Communications Unit â€ (PSCU) to take the place of the Presidential Press Service (PPS).
To keen observers it heralded a President aware of the changed dynamics in public communication.
The PPS had been created during the typewriter era, where sending a fax to newsrooms and getting the Presidents message on the sole state broadcaster was adequate communication. 2013 was different; the modern media cacophony heralded both a promise and a challenge.
The promise was that the administration now had multiple channels to pass its messages, especially to the younger generation, the social media platforms of Twitter, Blogs, Facebook, Flickr and Scribd allowed content to directly get to citizens but the challenge then was contextualization of the content to various audiences and moving beyond just pushing messages but also creating a real-time credible feedback system within the PSCU.
The creation of the PSCU also introduced a new experiment for government communications in Kenya. Though the post- 2010 constitutional dispensation had at its core devolution and decentralization of various government functions and institutions the creation of the State House domiciled PSCU, sought to centralize government communications.
The challenge this new arrangement posed was how the new outfit would balance communication for the Presidency with that of other government departments.
Against this background, being strategic meant communicating the best Policy Messages, identifying the right channels, measured against well-considered Jubilee Administration goals. It meant the difference between doing communications stuff and doing the â€œcorrectâ€ communications stuff. What went wrong? Why did the PSCU, which the President mandated to guide his administrationâ€™s communication eventually engage in un-strategic Communication?
Yes the PSCU may have got a lot of social media hits and impressions but did the communication efforts accomplish concrete goals of highlighting the policy direction of the government, enhancing credibility, gaining goodwill for the administration and making citizens know what the administration stood for?
On a scale of 1-10, ten being best, I would rate the PSCUâ€™s strategic communication efforts at four.
The reasons for this low score on strategic communication for the government are premised on three factors. First is the experiment of centralizing government communications, secondly is the staffing composition of the initial Communications team and third is a strategy that overburdened the President and his Deputy by seemingly making them the sole messengers of the Jubilee message.
The experiment of centralizing government communications seems to have originated from a desire to maintain a tight leash on all communication especially when the process of transforming the Jubilee Manifesto into the governing agenda was underway.
Perhaps the thinking was that by creating a single communication engine room to drive all messaging using a top-bottom approach, the new government would avoid his predecessorâ€™s disjointed messaging mistakes, which were due at times to a lack of coordination between officials in Kibakiâ€™s State House and then government spokesperson Alfred Mutuaâ€™s office.
It seemed this approach failed to consider that perhaps separating Presidential Communication and Government Communication may have been a more efficient approach.
By 2013 the existing government communication structures were anchored in the Directorate of Communications within the Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology, this unit already had in its staffing well-trained and experienced communication officers seconded to all government Ministries with considerable leeway on information management and dissemination.
The process of creating a centralized strategic communication unit would become a major disrupter but also expose the new unit to the herculean task of trying to seamlessly manage State House communication (a heavy task in itself) and that of the other government departments.
The effect of this changes meant that communication officers in government ministries were somewhat disempowered, not only did they have to await directions from an overstretched PSCU on what to communicate but they also had to align their existing communication strategies to the overall Jubilee agenda, a process which would take over a year for some, and eternity for others!
The PSCU was immediately overwhelmed; it had to synchronise the Communication Strategies of the previous 40 Ministries under the Kibaki Administration with the 18 Departments created by President Uhuru and generate an overall governing communication strategy while handling the day-to-day communication for the Presidency and all the 18 Government ministries.
It required coordination and goodwill from the now almost defunct Directorate of Communications; goodwill seemed non-existent as rumors of turf feuds between the PSCU team, which was seen as overbearing and the Directorate of Communications staff became the worst kept secret among practising communication professionals.
The result was a communication approach that was heavy on tactical communications, with an eye on the day-to-day, keen on creating a good image, but failing to connect these efforts with the bigger picture to citizens. The barrage of crisis facing the nation and an emboldened opposition effectively boxed the PSCU into a perpetual crisis communications mode.
Secondly the staffing of the Centralized Communications Unit could have been an impediment to its ability to strategically communicate.
As a specialty â€œcommunicationsâ€ is a broad field that encompasses professionals who design strategy (Communication Strategists), people who study the interplay of strategy, messaging and audiences (researchers, academics), persons who create news or strive to push the crafted information to audiences (Public relations officials, Information officials) and the people who deliver the information to the audience (Journalists, Speakers, Online citizen journalists).
The initial composition of the PSCU was top heavy with former journalists and limited on the other professionals required to ensure the wheel of strategic communications rolls seamlessly.
Some of the journalists hired by the President were certainly World-Class professionals. The Head of the unit, Mr. Manoah Esipisu, was a communication professional whose career had traversed the newsroom and management and in his team were very capable associates coming from the successful Jubilee Campaign.
A leading Professor in the field of Strategic Communication Guerrero- Castroâ€™s definition of strategic communication best explains why this team performed dismally on strategy.
This is what he had to say about strategic communication: â€œ Strategic Communication is not marketing, Public Relations, Business, Advertising, Journalism, Psychology, Sociology, or social communication. But Strategic Communication selects, leads, integrates, coordinates, activates and executes the resources of these disciplines.â€
The problem with PSCU, lay in the latter part of his explanation; the coordination and execution by the PSCU. The Ad Hoc or â€œseat of the pantsâ€ communications could be attributed to the former journalists.
The cranking out of press releases, social media posts and blogs that sought to control the 24-hr news cycle and ensure media coverage may have felt productive but without the strategic master plan it appeared to many analysts as mis-allocated effort.
Naturally, Journalists based on their training and background can become too focused on media impressions (e.g. how many features ran on the newspapers, Tv or Radio) instead of overall concrete outcomes (e.g. how many Government Policyâ€™s actually got successfully implemented) and communicating the same beyond the immediate news cycle.
The Third aspect is the initial over-reliance by the communications team on the President and his Deputy as the drivers of the administrationâ€™s communication.
During the 2013 campaign, candidate Uhuru and his running mate William Ruto were able to carry the burden of messaging effectively, perhaps with the singular focus on getting elected they kept to the strategy. The burdens of governing upon assumption of office may have bore heavily on the newly elected President and his Deputy.
As 2013 rolled by and ushered in 2014, it must have become evident that the Presidents charisma and rhetorical abilities had its limits. Governing required an ability to focus on different issues at any given minute and realistically it was not possible for him to communicate on all these issues.
By continuing to anchor the administrationâ€™s communication efforts around the President, the communication team neglected a key approach in governance communications; which is about drawing from the different institutional resources of government to create a team of message surrogates to push the administrationâ€™s agenda.
By placing the weight of communicating entirely on the president and his deputy, the communications team lost the chance to consistently push policy messaging onto the mainstream by shifting the communication burden onto the policy implementers in this case the Cabinet Secretaries and other officials.
Cabinet Secretaries could have been effective surrogates in many instances and by failing to equip and develop them into effective messengers someone had dropped the ball. The lack of effective surrogates was revealed periodically when the role of communicating the administrationâ€™s policyâ€™s was outsourced to elected politicians from the Presidents party, quite an un-strategic move considering the increasingly soured public mood against Members of Parliament.
The Jubilee Administration is now approaching the halfway mark; is it possible to hit the communications reset button? It is of national interest that the administration regains it communications groove.
It is time to rethink the experiment of centralized government communication; it may also be time to shake-up the entire communication architecture of the Uhuru administration.
The President can deploy his elevated Megaphone and be the driving force of strategic communication for his administration but his communications team must move beyond the 24 Hr news cycle communication to a more comprehensive approach which anchors itâ€™s efforts on the bigger picture.
Effective governance is also about masterfully deploying strategic communication.
Read of more of Paul Achar’s opinion pieces on his BLOG here