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SPREADING THE WORD

MUNICIPAL MEDIA RELATIONS


Governments and the media share an uneasy relationship. Municipalities should, however, be harnessing the media to assist in getting the right message to the right constituents. Shantalie Hewavisenti speaks to FERIAL HAFFAJEE and learns how this can be done.
Ferial Haffajee
PIC: SIMON

n this era of modern communication technology, citizens have increased access to the media and there are now more platforms from which stakeholders can scrutinise government activity. It is imperative that all levels of government invest their time and resources building a solid communication strategy that allows effective engagement with the constituents. Local leaders can use media to gauge public opinion. The media plays a major role in framing issues of public concern and in tracking public sentiment on government policies. If society takes action to demonstrate its passion towards a cause, it is likely to draw a considerable amount of press attention. Councillors should take the time to analyse stories reported in the media and take action accordingly. Furthermore, if the press exaggerate matters or report on an issue out of context, local authorities need to set the record straight in order to maintain control. Local leaders need to address their citizens and provide information about municipal activities, and the media is an ally in this sense. Presently, it seems that local authorities are not using the media to its full potential. Ferial Haffajee, editor in chief of the City Press newspaper, says: The metros communicate well, the districts a bit better, but in my experience the local councils are very poor. It would be good to hear from this important sector of government more often, especially with regards to good news stories. Haffajee elaborates on this point by saying: Very few government communicators, in general, understand how they can inuence the media by simple media literacy for example, getting to know section editors, using opinion pages and reporting the good news. Contrary to the popular narrative, we are dying for the good news. Municipal communicators need to acknowledge the strategic position of the media and to capitalise on this by building a good rapport with journalists.
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VOICE OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT ISSUE 3

Messages need to be clear and municipalities should be forthcoming with information. The relationship that a municipality has forged with the media becomes crucial in times of crisis, especially those that involve the legal or ethical standing of the governing body for instance, service delivery protests or allegations of corruption. From a media perspective, local governments approach to crisis communication is very poor, as Haffajee comments: I nd crisis communication to be either nonexistent or so defensive [as] to be painful. If a municipality has been effectively analysing press coverage, they may be able to preempt a crisis and act quickly. Maintaining a good reputation in the eyes of the stakeholders is an asset, as it helps ensure trust and respect from their constituents. Local government should be able to draw upon its media platform to defend itself and limit the extent of the damage to its reputation when under attack. The media thrives on damaging news and therefore local municipalities need to be equipped to counter this effectively, rapidly and with condence. A single municipal spokesperson should be designated to call a press conference and to inform parties of the facts surrounding an issue, not to mention what the municipality is doing to address a particular problem. Solutions to problems must be conveyed. The local governments media outreach should always be proactive. The media plays a big role in the way violent protests are covered. Reporters and editors need to ensure coverage doesnt trigger similar actions by glorifying, rather than criticising, acts of violence. In todays wired world, it is everyones responsibility, including that of the media, to help educate and raise awareness in an informed citizenry.

SOCIAL MEDIA IMPACTS MUNICIPALITIES

A new social media platform has emerged a platform where citizens throughout South Africa can report service delivery issues and pinpoint the exact location via Google maps. Mobilitate (www.mobilitate.co.za) then channels the complaint to the relevant municipality and provides feedback to the citizen until the issue has been resolved. Mobilitate was implemented to enhance current municipal ICT.