A marketing and PR fiasco
Maxine Pamela Ometa McClean, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, stands out as a heavily criticized member of an equally heavily criticized Democratic Labour Party (DLP) regime led by an arguably unpopular Prime Minister Freundel Stuart.
Whenever her name pops up in everyday conversation, critics often express disappointment with her performance. It’s probably because she joined the Cabinet of the late David Thompson after the 2008 general election with a high rating, being a former management lecturer on Cave Hill and company director.
Her critics, including some diehard Dems, also ask what has she delivered in terms of tangible benefits to boost the island’s sagging economic fortunes and improve the overall quality of life to justify her frequent travels abroad related to her practice of international diplomacy.
Now, in her role as head of the committee coordinating activities to mark the island’s 50th anniversary of Independence, the good senator finds herself on the frontline of even harsher criticism over what many Barbadians see as a DLP celebration being financed with $7 million of taxpayers’ money. That is the perception out there and, whether the regime likes it or not, perception is reality.
There were two signs this week that suggest the regime may be buckling under the immense weight of unfavourable public opinion. The first came from McClean herself during an intervention on VOB’s Down to Brasstacks programme on Monday. The other came the following day via what can be appropriately called a “mea culpa” statement by Prime Minister Stuart.
Her voice noticeably cracking at times with emotion and acknowledging that “people are being very negative”, McClean bared her soul before the nation. “When I hear people say, ‘I don’t have anything to celebrate’, it grieves me. It doesn’t upset me, it grieves me,” she remarked. “We have a lot to celebrate and to talk about we could spend $7 million doing something else…, I sit and listen to some of this and it really grieves me.”
If words are a window to the soul, what an eye-opener of a statement it truly was. At a time when Government naturally would have wanted the Golden Jubilee to unite Barbadians in joy and celebration, the person in charge of organizing the festivities is lamenting how things have turned out. It was in sharp contrast with a few Sundays before when McClean called the same Brasstacks programme and sought to excoriate young host Corey Layne for alleged bias. She was roundly criticized afterwards by callers.
But what begins badly ends badly and that seems to be the unfortunate fate of the year-long celebrations which are now into the homestretch.
“I am a marketer by training and experience,” McClean was at pains to point out to Brasstacks host Dennis Johnson. That having been said, it is quite clear that the wrong marketing strategy was used to sell the celebrations. The criticism we are witnessing is clear testimony of a failure to attract the widest possible buy-in.
Instead of deciding how Barbadians wanted to celebrate the Golden Jubilee, the committee should have engaged the general public up front to hear suggestions and ideas, especially from the ordinary man and woman, to inform the design of the programme of activities. Effective marketing begins with a clear understanding of needs to inform decisions on how those needs can be met to the satisfaction of those whose buy-in is necessary.
People always buy what they want, not what someone else wants for them. Listening to Barbadians as I move around, no one really is against celebrating. However, given the trying economic times and the harsh policies of the Stuart Government which have left many struggling to make ends meet, the general preference, it seems, was for a modest celebration financed with a modest budget.
Responding to McClean’s concerns, Dennis Johnson provided what I thought was a most insightful analysis of the major underlying reasons why the celebrations have not attracted the kind of buy-in Government would have liked.
He said: “When people look around and they compare what they see around them and they look at their own circumstances, they make a different kind of assessment as to what is happening and they say, ‘I can’t be a part of this. Why are you spending on this? Why are you spending on that?’ And that is where some of the comments are coming from.
“Yes, you will have political comments, . . . but there are people who are saying, ‘I don’t see why I am celebrating, I don’t see why you want me to celebrate’ because of their circumstances and I think it is one of the things that has to be taken into consideration when the arguments are made.”
The Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP), which has been in Government for roughly half of the last 50 years, has complained about being excluded from the planning of the celebrations. Naturally, that would have dampened the enthusiasm of BLP supporters who collectively constitute a significant national stakeholder group that cannot be ignored.
Additionally, there is the potential turn-off effect of Prime Minister Stuart’s uncalled for remarks earlier this month that persons who have decided not to celebrate with Government, should be pitied.
“We must just feel sorry for them because it means that somehow their souls have been enveloped in a kind of darkness from which I think they need to be rescued,” he said.
However, in a surprise development in the House of Assembly on Tuesday in response to criticism over the $7 million being spent, Stuart said he was taking full responsibility. It was an amazing U-turn by a Government which has established a clear pattern of absolving itself of blame for almost everything that goes wrong under its watch.
“We will never again have an opportunity to celebrate a golden jubilee. . . . This is the moment and that is why we are doing it. So far as the funds allocated for the celebrations are concerned, I accept full responsibility for it,” he said during debate on a resolution congratulating Barbados on reaching 50.
However, what particularly caught my attention was Stuart’s statement that he was concerned, “ever since we decided to celebrate Barbados’ Golden Jubilee”, that there were persons who appeared “not to understand the importance of doing so”.
The comment underscored the need for an effective public relations campaign, anchored in persuasive messaging, to build public awareness and understanding within the context of the overall marketing of the celebrations to achieve the widest possible buy-in. The backlash we are observing points to a marketing and public relations fiasco.
I think a fundamental mistake by Government was not seizing this historic opportunity to involve Barbadians, especially our youth, in a strategic visioning exercise as the basis for crafting a development agenda for the next 50 years. Such an activity, open to one and all, would have facilitated serious brainstorming to produce a broad range of ideas and suggestions on how to secure a better future for Barbados.
More importantly, it would have signalled a new approach to governance that involves a meaningful partnership with the people in policy development. Such an activity could also have been the platform for forging a national consensus on development priorities, with bipartisan endorsement, to eliminate a lot of the partisan rancour which sometimes stands in the way of national progress.
We have missed a golden opportunity. Where there’s no vision anchored in effective leadership, the people perish.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and longstanding journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)