The government feels it can't support media houses that don't return the favour.

Like other large corporate bodies, the government is a massive spender. In fact, most wealthy Kenyans have had the pleasure of doing substantial business with the public sector. With a current budget of Ksh1.7 trillion, the government is what a hive is to bees, or carcass to vultures. Government procurement has spawned what in Kenyan parlance has become known as tenderpreneurs.

Of course, this spending includes a massive advertising budget for services, and even the odd product, that the government offers taxpayers for sale. In addition to media buying in both the Press and broadcast stations, events like roadshows, trade fairs and exhibitions, both locally and abroad, also form a big part of government expenditure on publicity. This is the reason event management was created as part of the Presidential Strategic Communication Unit, catering specifically for presidential functions.

Though none admits it, there is a symbiotic relationship between the media and the government. While the government feels that the media has a moral obligation to support it in its onerous responsibilities, the media are of the view that, oftentimes, the government is up to no good. This clash of ideologies informs the perennial love-hate relationship between the two.

And, it seems, the government finally decided to call the media’s bluff through a 2014 Cabinet proposal to centralise its advertising. This action had been suggested earlier in 2013 by the National Treasury, which recommended that the bulk of public sector advertising (PSA) be web-based, ostensibly as an austerity measure to reduce burgeoning public expenditure. In addition to maximising use of the internet, the government recommended the development of policy guidelines and sectoral standards in PSA.

The government cannot state the exact amount of money it spends on advertising annually. A survey by the Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) in 2013 showed that it spends over Ksh2.7 billion on print media alone, with outdoor campaigns, roadshows and electronic media constituting about Ksh7 billion.

This is the scenario that led to formation of the Government Advertising Agency (GAA) in 2014, as a unit within the ICT Ministry. Subsequently, the agency started operations in July 2015, with the aim of solving the major challenges facing government advertising as a whole. These challenges included wasteful expenditures, lack of both an advertising policy and standards, and hidden advertising costs.

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According to the January, 2014 Cabinet Memorandum that established GAA, the agency was envisaged as a one-stop shop for all government and campaign services. The agency is expected to inform citizens and foreigners alike on the initiatives, policies, programmes and achievements of government through the most appropriate and effective media.

But it is only in recent months that the reality of government undertaking its own advertisements has hit media houses. First, the government has made private media buyers and advertising agencies redundant, as far as PSA is concerned. This has been occasioned by GAA’s publishing of “MyGov.”, a fully-fledged weekly newspaper inserted in all the major dailies every Tuesday for a fee. The paper carries government leaning editorial content and adverts running into tens of millions. The argument seems to be that the government cannot keep “supporting” a hostile media with direct advertisements.

Even broadcasters have been affected by the directive.

I recently met the GAA Director at his Nairobi’s Teleposta Towers office on 11th floor for a chat. I had read his bio, so I was confident that he is a competent communication expert. Mr Ngari Gituku is a senior public servant seconded to GAA from State House. We discussed several issues concerning government advertising, and those appertaining to his fairly new position.

What emerged from our discussion is that, going forward, the government will do its own ads. He noted that PSA was moving away from the previous approach of using expenditure, rather than coverage, circulation and reach as measures of effectiveness of communication. He says GAA is set to revolutionalise how the government communicates to its stakeholders, arguing that digital media today reaches almost every audience.

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But it is only now that the agency is getting its act together. Before Gituku took office, GAA was riddled with accusations of unprofessionalism, incompetence and gross mismanagement. Indeed, he owned up to these previous shortcomings, telling me that he had just signed off half a billion shillings in bills owed to the media, dating back to 2015.

Honestly, the media has started feeling the pinch. One major media house this year laid off several senior staff, ostensibly to restructure the business towards convergence. This is just half the story. I would add that a big chunk of advertising revenue has been taken away, and it is now time to tame the wage bill. Clearly, the Government has pulled the rag from under the media’s feet.

[crp]

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