Leading off the annual debate on the Government’s Estimates Of Revenue And Expenditure in the House of Assembly on Monday morning, Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs Chris Sinckler drew attention to a damaging rumour which, he said, had influenced an undisclosed number of public servants to opt for early retirement.
The rumour, which has been making the rounds for several weeks, spoke of a plan by the Freundel Stuart Government, in the prevailing context of austerity, to begin taxing gratuities and pensions as a new revenue-raising measure. The hasty exodus of public servants, having qualified for retirement after serving 33 1/3 years was clearly intended to circumvent the rumoured plan.
Mr Sinckler told the House the measure had never been contemplated and would never be as long as he was Minister of Finance.
“What is troubling to me as a minister and, I know, to Cabinet and the parliamentary group in Government . . . is this insidious attempt by some within our community . . . to constantly conjure up and manufacture rumours and lies aimed primarily at destabilizing Barbados,” he said.
What this unfortunate episode has brought to the fore is the failure of the Stuart Government’s communication strategy –– or lack thereof. Communication deficiencies are evident not only among internal audiences within Government itself, as this particular case with public servants shows, but also among the external, which include the news media, other national stakeholder groups and the citizenry at large.
Despite repeated calls from across the social spectrum for the Prime Minister, in particular, to engage Barbadians in a meaningful conversation on key issues, the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) Government’s response has been to say precious little, or maintain a stony silence, which many Barbadians view as contemptuous. A good example is the DLP’s repeated refusal to send a representative to discuss important issues on widely listened to radio talk shows.
Whenever there is an information or knowledge vacuum resulting from poor communication, such as what the Stuart administration has created in Barbados, it provides fertile ground for the development and spread of rumours. If people are seeking information, but it is not forthcoming from the persons in a position to make it available, the natural human tendency is to engage in speculation, which can easily fuel the rumour mill.
The best way to fight rumour-mongering is through effective communication. Ironically, it seems Mr Sinckler himself inadvertently contributed to the rumour getting out of hand because of his failure to set the record straight when he
heard it initially. Dismissing a rumour, which was his response, never causes it to go away.
It has to be dealt with decisively, especially if it has the potential to create problems. Hopefully, Mr Sinckler has learned a valuable lesson from this experience.
From a public relations perspective, a rumour may be categorized in some instances as a risk issue, which has the potential to develop into a crisis. The correct response, therefore, is to attempt to nip the problem in the bud.
Further evidence that the Stuart Government’s approach to communication has failed is seen in Mr Sinckler’s own admission that rumour-mongering is causing discomfort not only for himself but other DLP Cabinet and parliamentary colleagues. His use of the word “troubling” to describe their experience says it all.
If the Stuart Government had an effective communication strategy in place, it would be in a position to confront any rumour with confidence instead of having to react in a knee-jerk fashion. A tried and tested formula exists for dealing with rumours, based on the application of certain rules.
The first rule emphasizes the importance of communication, especially in conditions of adversity where distrust is likely to be high, as is currently the case in Barbados. In such circumstances, communication should be aimed at keeping everyone informed so that he or she knows what is going on and does not have to engage in speculation.
Being open, honest and transparent is another rule. Ironically, a credibility issue, which stems from a view among some Barbadians that they cannot believe a word the Stuart Government says, is compounding the problem as it relates to rumour-mongering. Government has only itself to blame after promising to do one thing and then proceeding to do the exact opposite, especially in relation to safeguarding public sector jobs and continued free university education.
None other than Mr Sinckler assured Barbadians before the last election that Government jobs were safe. Having subsequently ordered the termination of 3,000 Government workers, does he now expect public servants to readily believe him when he says that gratuities and pensions will not be taxed?
As the saying goes, once bitten, twice shy.
Hopefully, the Government will engage in some soul-searching and attempt to make amends. It may be a bit late, given the damage already done to its credibility, but then again, as another saying goes, it is better late than never.