Columns

Jamaica House press briefing bastardised

Ken Chaplin

Tuesday, February 21, 2012    

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The post-Cabinet press briefing has become bastardised. Introduced by PJ Patterson when he was prime minister, the press briefing was a useful means of communicating decisions of Cabinet and matters discussed at its meetings to the public mostly by the prime minister. Not all matters discussed were aired at the briefings. Some were of a confidential nature and it was not the right time to make these public.

During the tenure of the JLP government, the press briefings, presided over by Information Minister Daryl Vaz, were lively and journalists had a field day. He came well prepared with notes, announced what had taken place in Cabinet, and opened the floor to journalists who were free to ask about matters not discussed at the briefing.

Then came the Portia Simpson Miller administration. The format of these briefings has changed considerably. No longer do they convey information concerning Cabinet discussions. The trend now is for ministers to attend and make announcements. Making statements about their respective programmes at post-Cabinet press briefings detracts from the status of ministers and gives the impression that they are under the shadow of the prime minister.

Ministers should hold their press briefings or press conferences at their ministries. It is not possible for the prime minister to attend all post-Cabinet press briefings, but sometimes her presence is essential. What used to happen in the past, especially in the Patterson era, is that Cabinet would be adjourned and someone asked to preside, if he had a matter of tremendous national importance to announce. I attended a post-Cabinet briefing last week and most of the time was devoted to a long statement by Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips concerning the last government and the economy, which could have been made at the Ministry of Finance as Dr Omar Davies used to do.

I do not think that the government could have found a better minister of information than Sandrea Falconer, whose background as a journalist of professional integrity makes her suitable for the job. One hopes that politics or being close to politicians will not blemish her approach. The most effective form of communication is that based on credibility of the messenger and truth. The most ineffective form is that based on false propaganda.

Prime Minister's press secretary

A first-class media and communications consultant is now on his second stint as Press Secretary to Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller. Lincoln Robinson was press secretary to Simpson Miller in 2006-2007. He is the brother of Claude Robinson, the distinguished journalist who was press secretary to former Prime Minister Michael Manley. They are the only two brothers in Jamaica and the Caribbean who have occupied the position.

With over three decades' experience in communications, media, public information campaign management, corporate communications and project consultancy, Robinson brings considerable multi-sectoral relevance to the workplace. His wide experience includes executive assignments in the public and private sectors in Jamaica, other Caribbean territories and with international organisations such as the Commonwealth Secretariat, United Nations Population Fund, UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, Inter-press Service and the Pan American Health Organisation.

Among some of the other positions held by Robinson are director of communications and public relations in the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, communications adviser to the government of Papua New Guinea and Jamaica, community consultant to the government of St Lucia's Health sector reform programme. He has also served as part-time lecturer and coordinator of communication research methods course at the University of the West Indies. He has held several posts at the former Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation and has served as editor-in-chief of JAMPRESS, the former state news agency.

The position of press secretary to the prime minister is a straight public service appointment, and the holder of the post has to work closely with the prime minister.

He cannot participate in political work and issue releases and statements on behalf of political leaders or party. He can, however, attend party conferences when the prime minister is scheduled to speak because the prime minister makes major statements at these conferences of which the press secretary needs to be aware, for the record. This used to be called protective coverage. Fortunately for me, when I served at various periods as press secretary to prime ministers Hugh Shearer, Michael Manley, Edward Seaga and PJ Patterson, they all knew the parameters in which the press secretary should operate or not operate. I hope Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller will understand.

Manley was particularly careful that his press secretary should not be involved in any party political discussions or even present. I remember he was presiding at a meeting discussing a national issue. A representative brought up a political matter and Manley immediately apologised. I left the conference hall at Jamaica House and returned shortly after. Robinson and Falconer should make a good combination.

The press secretary is privy to state secrets and the information should not be revealed to anyone, including other leaders of the party and indeed ministers. Being press secretary to the prime minister is an exacting, difficult position and should be well paid. Trust is a virtue all press secretaries should have.

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