There’s an old saying: “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”! This is supposed to mean that any publicity is better than none at all, but this is a problem for organisations whose modus vivendi is advocacy. For, when the whole point of producing analyses and empirical reports, the issue about publicity is that the findings and conclusions get across to the reader accurately.
Now, I guess that the whole problem revolves around this term “accuracy”, and what this means to the reader.
Let me illustrate this with an example from RAU’s history, and I am not trying to point fingers of blame here. In 2012, RAU produced a report for the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) on the political violence experienced by teachers during the 2008 elections. The findings, at least as RAU and PTUZ saw it, was that a very large number of teachers (50%) had experienced either violence or intimidation during the elections.
Even more startling (an important) was that of this group, 50% had this experience at school during working hours. Now, this meant that this event was witnessed by school children, and given that most rural schools are PRIMARY SCHOOLS, this meant that young children were being exposed to political violence. And surely, we thought that this is not good for children’s development, and definitely is not what parents want to see happening at their children’s schools.
Now, in the preamble to the main report, we pointed out that this was probably not a good thing and might have been reason why so many teachers had left teaching and even the country. Obviously economics might also have had something to do with the exodus, but certainly, money aside, teachers would not be enthusiastic about being targets for political violence.
Well, the report was picked up by the press, but the issue that caught the eye of the writer was not the main findings, but the minimal issue, and the headline, and the text, trumpeted: RAU says 20,000 teachers have left the country, or words to that effect. Not untrue, and based on what the Minister of Education, David Coltart had been saying.
This began a furore over the statistics, with some of government claiming this was a misrepresentation, and the report got lost.
No-one is suggesting that the press should not write what they think is the main story, and highlight what they think is the important finding. What would have the story been if the reporter had picked up the phone, and asked for the producers to give a little comment on the report? We can only speculate.
They might have learned that the important message is that children should not be exposed to violence, that schools should be places of safety, and might even have picked up on the notion that exposure to violence has serious consequences: it can lead not only to psychological disturbance in children, but may also be the basis of children becoming violent themselves.
So, what is my point?
It is actually very simple. When writing an article based on a report, call the author and writing a column or article might be so much easier and informative. Even more than this, people that do research, write reports, and do so to influence public opinion, actually want to talk about the findings: they will appreciate being contacted, and more than pleased to talk through the methods and the findings.
With cell phones and skype, communication has never been easier. Please pick up the phone!