June 10, 2015 By Oswald Hanciles
“Liberia has an international problem. Ebola has marred the image and identity of our country shoddily. The virus has shaken the country to its core. It has become a nuisance to our democratic governance process and remarkable GDP growth, which was trumpeted just a few short months ago as one of the ten fastest growing economies in the world. Regrettably, Ebola has trashed and stained that progressive record and image of Liberia by defining the country as a place of contagious epidemic, marked by devastation, annihilation and death….”, by Francis Nyepon: Author, Policy Analyst, Environmentalist & Entrepreneur; The Perspective, Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., November, 19, 2014
Ebola and ‘rebel wars’ do not recognize political boundaries
Where there is “Liberia” in that introductory quotation, change to “Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone”, and it would fit perfectly. We have to do forward thinking in the three Mano River Union countries. We have to think out of the box. We have to escape the slavish and colonialist trap of the artificial political boundaries that separate the three countries. This is the intrinsic message of the Ebola War on all three countries – diseases, like the ‘rebel war’ that ravaged Sierra Leone and Liberia for over a decade in the 1990s, do not recognize man-made political boundaries. A couple of month ago, as presidents Ernest Bai Koroma, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and Alpha Conde were at a post-Ebola meeting with European/American donors in Brussels, they decided on a single spokesperson and collectively call for a ‘Post Ebola Marshall Plan’. It does make survival sense that in the rebranding effort of the three countries they stand united – and make their ‘worm-like’ economic and political strength into, at least, a ‘pygmy-strength’. Rebranding any African sub-Saharan country is a monumental task at any given time.
Africa is still perceived as the land of disease, wars, and unsolvable poverty
The general perception of ‘Africa’ that is etched in the minds of most of the people in the West is that of a land of schizophrenic rebels or murderous junta crazily murdering their citizenry and wantonly engaged in an orgy of sickening rape, looting, and arson; a continent of diseased and beggarly people incapable of taking care of themselves and can only be saved by the ‘White Messiah’; a permanently poor continent. It has changed just a tiny bit over the past fifteen years – with the New Scramble for Africa’s mineral wealth, and Chinese surge in investments. When the Ebola War was at its peak last year, all the major media in the world descended on the three West African countries like the vultures most of the international media are when it comes to Africa – and, every single hour, day after day, they sensationalized and glamourized the gruesome and nauseous Ebola deaths, and made prognosis of MILLIONS OF EBOLA death. And, almost always, a single American or European life would be worth hours of daily coverage – but, the thousands of African lives given only a blip on their news radar. As the Ebola ebbed, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea have almost literally disappeared from the major media. The media exposure helped in raising urgently-needed funds; but, paradoxically, it has reinforced, etched further in stone, that stereotype of, that prejudice of, Africa as a place of scary diseases. Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea have been battered in the international media. If one can put a cost to this, it would go into hundreds of billions of dollars. It is not a question of what should we do about this; it is a question when can we take action, and how?
A leaf from the post-Rwanda book on public relations
We could take a leaf from Rwanda. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda in which about a million people were butchered in horrific circumstances in a nine month period is one of the most nauseous and brutal in human history. Rwanda’s government has been aggressively and imaginatively determined to wipe out the word “genocide” from the consciousness of the world when mention is made of “Rwanda” – and to turn attention to the meteoric rise in the country’s economy, and, the reality that the country capital is one of the ‘cleanest in the world’. Largely, the Rwandan government has succeeded – the majority of foreign media reports on Rwanda over the past ten years are that of a country that is a ‘model of development…economic miracle in Africa….’. Over the past ten years, the Rwandan government has been hyper-sensitive to negative mention of Rwanda in the foreign media. One and off, journalists from the West would be made to make field trips to Rwanda to see what is happening – to counter negative foreign media reports.
This would turn out to be doubt-edged swords – for once journalists take up such an offer, their neutrality would be questioned, and, their credibility as well – thus, they risk being robbed of the potency of their stories, as the Rwandan government would want. This raises the question: can a country with a few niggling issues in human rights, corruption, and bad governance… be rebranded? Or is it bound to end in some of ridicule?
Tim Pendry, who heads TPPR, a reputation management consultancy, says governments rebranding of a country is “feasible”, but, with a proviso: “government needs to make some credible changes, otherwise it will indeed just look like whitewash…” He warned against the impulse of most African governments to fly in expensive foreign media consultants to do their rebranding for them – for such foreign consultants would have only a superficial understanding of the political and sociological dynamics of a country they seek to rebrand.
“The consultant may put a bunch of eager youngsters into the capital on full expenses, answerable to some busy and distracted Head of Office for the President, who typically has neither the time nor understanding to question critically what is being done nor whether it is cost-effective,” Pendry says.
“Part of this has to do with the fact that often the client country’s administration has little understanding of, modern PR methods. The internal bureaucracy is confused because it has no experience of such methods and the ‘image’ activity is not integrated properly with political decision-making. It is not efficient and is filled with internal contradictions. …”, Pendry postulates.
Quality Public Relations Should not be Spin, or Propaganda
What that means is that if a country’s health system is in shambles, no matter how much millions of dollars is paid to foreign consultants to whitewash a country, it would be like using fake currency – it would bounce ultimately. If a country is ridden with systemic corruption, a government has to make compromises to confront and reduce such corruption, not try to hire spin doctors to convince the world there is no corruption. There has to be a paradigm shift as regards what communication is all about, and who can best do it.
There must be thorough research of issues, of persons involved in key areas, and, the recruitment of top quality writers and broadcast media personnel to do PR for government. In the three Mano River Union countries, there is generally a perception among the politicians that communication is ‘easy’, and ‘anybody who has the courage to write in a newspaper’ becomes a ‘journalist’, and ‘all journalists are the same’. There must be a conscious effort in the three countries to choose the best among the best of their citizenry to do research, to ‘cook’ marketable stories that are credible, and to strategically place them. This would call for significant infusion of funds – not the crumbs of the government budget that are currently being thrown ‘under the table’ at scraggly journalists.
One thing which often overlooked in all three countries is the linking of ‘intelligence’ with ‘communication’. Maybe, we would appreciate the need for ‘intelligence’ if we change our communication language to that of ‘war’, then we would realize that unceasingly in the negative portrayal of Africa in the global media there is ‘war’ being waged on Africa. All three countries should stop the ‘civil war’ within their borders which passes off as partisan politics – and, if need be, for specific purposes, take advantage of those journalists who may not necessarily always be flattering of a government in power.
Taking advantage of the ilk of George Khoryama
Take Gissi man, Kailahun-born, George Khoryama. He worked in Liberia for over thirty years, and was one time Editor-in-Chief of the government New Liberian newspaper. Back home over the past twenty years, the prolific and incisive Khoryama has won journalistic awards organized by the US Embassy in Freetown. In Liberia, there is Prof. Lamini Waritay, who was information minister in the President Amos Sawyer government of the 1990s. Waritay did his secondary to university schooling in Sierra Leone, before returning home to Liberia where, at 26, was the youngest ever Editor-in-Chief of a government newspaper; twice being elected as President of the Press Union of Liberia, and a professor of mass communication in the mass communication department of the University of Liberia. There are people like Waritay and Khoryama among our three countries that can be useful in doing potent communication on the three countries. That includes this humble writer. I lived in Liberia for twelve years. I started cutting my teeth as a journalist, as a reporter in the Daily Observer newspaper in Liberia in 1981, and did editorial and spot cartoons for the newspaper. By 1989, I was the brain, co-founder, and Editor for the environment/development magazine in Liberia, GREENLOVE. There are many Sierra Leoneans for whom Conakry is as much home as Freetown. It is time that the presidents in all three countries harness the intellectual powers of such people – and veer away from just randomly taking just anybody to deal with sub-regional issues.
The task of re-branding the three countries would be Herculean. The competitive politics in all three countries should get the leadership to realize that without massive funding from ‘outside’ it would be extremely difficult to ginger up their economies fast enough to ensure the sustainability of their governments battered in the Ebola War.