Why is the government’s communication strategy failing?

K. Kabilan

Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability Minister Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad says Pakatan Harapan must do better at communication, especially with regard to reaching he Malay community. – Facebook pic, April 11, 2024.

WHEN Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim announced his cabinet reshuffle last December, he said he was splitting the Communications and Digital Ministry to give a sharper focus on effective government communication.

“Effective communication with media and social media remains a critical challenge.

“Despite impressive policies, our communication efforts have not been satisfactory, necessitating a dedicated focus,” he had said.

In March, Finance Minister II Amir Hamzah Azizan acknowledged that the government must improve its communication before implementing any new tax measures to avoid any confusion.

He obviously wanted to avoid the pushback and criticism when the service tax was raised to 8% from 6% on March 1.

“Sometimes communications could be a little bit better, and we recognise that we should do a little bit more on that side,” Amir Hamzah had said.

And most recently, at the height of the “Allah” socks issue, Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability Minister Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, who is a PKR vice-president, said Pakatan Harapan must do better at communication, especially with regard to reaching the Malay community.

“We definitely need to do better in engaging with the press, with engaging social media, reaching out… if you’re talking about the Malay voters, how do you engage with the religious NGOs, with religious institutions, and not just (rely on) Jakim, TV Al Hijrah, and all that?

“You need to go beyond going to the madrasah, going to the pondok with the pendakwah bebas (independent preachers) and all that.

“How do you reach out? And I think we need to do better at that,” he said in an interview with Malaysiakini.

Nik Nazmi also admitted that opposition Perikatan Nasional had the upper hand when it came to social media messaging.

It is obvious that the government has some serious communication issues. The right messages are not reaching the people. And when they do, they could either be too late, are not reaching the right people, or the message is reactionary. Even before those messages arrive, the opposition has already got its narrative out on social media, spreadng widely to cause damage to the government.

What is the government doing wrong?

We do have a dedicated communications minister who also acts as the official government spokesperson. The minister also has an active social media presence. 

And then there are the community communications department (J-Kom), information department, state news agency Bernama and RTM).

All ministries have their own corporate communications department, and most ministers have their own social media. The government also has fact-checking websites and apps.

Government parties have their information heads.

Add to that the friendly players such as social media influencers, media, cyber troopers and other government agencies.

Despite having all this, the government admits it has a communication problem.

A quick look at some of these social media accounts will tell you why. Largely, the content here does not push the right messaging to reach the people accurately and effectively. They do not engage users nor address misinformation in real-time.

What we have instead is massive outlay of informational graphics (like what to do during a heatwave or how to return to hometowns safely for Hari Raya) or press releases from various ministries. Even journalists will have to look through these releases to find what is being said, what more the man on the street?

The government is usually busy debunking posts by the opposition and government critics, often labelling them as fake news or politically motivated. At times, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission will get into the act by asking posts to be removed or accounts suspended.

Even social media providers have been roped in to curtail criticism and what is deemed to be fake news.

So the strategy seems to be to only stop the spread of the opposition’s messaging but not effectively putting out the government’s narrative.

Building trust and credibility

The government has all the tools it needs to run an effective communication campaign. It just needs to prioritise transparency, accountability and engagement with the public. 

By being open about its policies and actions, responding to public concerns in a timely manner and soliciting feedback from citizens, the government can build trust and credibility with the public and counter negative news more effectively.

For starters, the government spokesman, or even the prime minister, must hold a weekly special press conference to update the public on decisions taken by the cabinet. These press conferences can also be used to correct the narrative and perception. It will also be a timely move to stop negative news about the government.

Communications must always be focused on the content of policy, not on image building for individual members of government. That means no more images of the prime minister or ministers on billboards or other forms of communications.

In the Netherlands, ministers are never visible in central government publicity. But in Malaysia, we see the faces of ministers and politicians appearing on government-sponsored rice packets and cooking oil bottles.

It must also be made absolutely clear that the government is the source of the information, which should be factual and straightforward in nature. There should not be information coming from a head of a sub-committee or a minister not relevant to the subject matter.

Any false or half-baked information from the government and its ministers will only erode trust in the government and fuel scepticism among the public.

Only by working together with citizens to combat misinformation can Malaysia build a more resilient and informed society. And for that to happen, the government will need to buck up. – April 11, 2024.

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