Political Communication in Rebuilding Trust in Leadership and Institutions

There is a widely shared understanding that Sri Lanka is going through a crisis of leadership. But it has become a buzzword of sorts and people have a hard time expanding on what that crisis exactly entails.

There is a widely shared understanding that Sri Lanka is going through a crisis of leadership. But it has become a buzzword of sorts and people have a hard time expanding on what that crisis exactly entails ; they are aware, though, that we have an exceptionally terrible case of bad leaders. But is that actually  the end of the story? Do we have bad leaders and if yes, is that the crux of the crisis at hand? And therefore, if we can find ‘good leaders’, will the crisis end? Unfortunately, at this point the current crisis goes deeper than that, it is not a crisis of leaders, it’s a crisis of trust, both in leaders and because of the spillover effect, in institutions. In the eyes of the public there is little that separates the two, no matter how independent the institutions may be; the view is that political leaders run state institutions whose morality, naturally, is determined by the people who run them. And there is the question of whether truly independent institutions can be sustainable in the long term in a political system of corrupt leaders : the unfortunate fact is that a lack of trust from the public heavily impacts their ability to be so.

Trust is the foundation of a strong and stable society, and without it, the relationship between the government and the citizens of Sri Lanka has become incredibly fragile. The situation is so dire that it has gone beyond the usual grave cynicism Sri Lankans always had towards the government. It is imperative that political leaders must prioritize trust-building as their topmost priority. While building strong institutions is undoubtedly important, the fact of the matter is no matter how strong the institutions are, the public must have trust in them to avoid institutional decay. Creating a state institution with the best mechanisms for securing its independence with the best of intentions will be met with resounding calls from the public of “here,we go again!”. Addressing the lack of trust in institutions requires proactive efforts to rebuild and strengthen the relationship between the institutions and the public. This process involves increasing transparency, promoting accountability, and actively addressing issues that contribute to distrust, such as corruption or and in Sri Lanka, the said lack of trust in political leaders.

Political leadership can and should play a crucial role in building trust among people. Here listed are some strategies to begin with.

Firstly, open communication is a vital aspect of building trust. Political leaders should strive to communicate with the people in a clear and consistent manner. This should be done through regularly addressing the public, whether through speeches, press conferences, or online platforms. By providing constant informative updates, leaders can establish a sense of transparency and credibility, which leads to enhanced trust among the people. When citizens feel informed and included in the decision-making process, they are more likely to trust their political leaders. One major step to be taken here is establishing a tradition of debate among policy makers and especially contenders for positions like the presidency. Political leaders must be in touch with the current social zeitgeist of the country, and they need to make the people feel as if they are in the same level of society and not in a different wavelength. Simply, they shouldn’t appear out of touch or outdated. While maintaining an in-touch persona is important, it is even more critical that the policies that political leaders support should reflect this. For example, a politician who wants to build trust and maintain credibility in the year 2023 cannot be seen supporting a policy to completely ban social media.

But a major thing any politician has to remember is not to overly commit to creating such an image and risking the label of “artificial”. There are several qualities the young generations and the internet (which is a vital battlefield in any politician’s quest for trust and legitimacy in the modern age) love in official figures; displaying unfailing intelligence, simplicity etc. What ranks at the top is authenticity. Asking someone to be authentic might seem like a platitude, but many politicians do not seem to understand that the authenticity that the current generations require is a certain type of authenticity. To understand this, the modern politician or at least a skilled public relations person behind them, should understand the prevailing ethos of the internet and one aspect of that is the pushback against “fake” things. Partly as a reaction to the claims of “everything you see in the internet/social media is fake”, the people have a strong adverse reaction to anything perceived as fake or made up. It is absolutely crucial that a politician does not come across  like a product tailor made to appeal to the widest audience possible. Attempting authenticity through traditional public relations is anathema to the modern, young public which is one of the reasons for the widespread negative reactions to traditional campaign advertisements in non-traditional media.

Political communication must be a two-way street. In other words, just as political leaders should signal to the public that they are speaking openly to them, they should demonstrate that they are listening to the people as well. This will involve engaging in community dialogues, meeting with different groups, town hall meetings, citizen committees, consultations and actively seeking input from citizens. By creating opportunities for citizen participation and involving them in decision-making processes, leaders can enhance trust.  When people feel that their voices are heard and their interests are valued, trust is built. This sort of political culture must be built in Sri Lanka where currently, these sorts of meetings are primarily and, for a lot of politicians, only done during campaign season.  This sort of inclusivity also means addressing the needs and concerns of marginalized communities and ensuring they are not left behind. When people feel valued and included, trust is solidified.

Secondly, political leadership must demonstrate that they prioritize accountability. Here, because of the sea of rhetoric already put out there by several incoming governments promising ‘accountability’ and the notable lack of results in this regard, just strong rhetoric will not suffice. It is essential for leaders to take responsibility for their actions and be held accountable for the promises they make during their campaign. This can involve regularly reviewing and updating the progress of various initiatives and programs. By ensuring transparency in decision-making processes and being open about the challenges faced, leaders can demonstrate their commitment to their constituents. When people see that their leaders are willing to admit their mistakes and work towards rectifying them, trust is strengthened. But in the treacherous world of politics, it is not even enough to take actions for accountability for wrongdoing in institutions. Political leaders pursuing genuine accountability must be ready to counter disinformation and propaganda about the steps they take; for example, genuine steps to improve accountability might be discredited as “political revenge’’ often by the people in the institution itself!

Building trust also requires maintaining integrity and ethical conduct. Future Political leaders must lead by example and adhere to the highest standards of honesty and morality. This means avoiding corruption, nepotism, and any form of unethical behavior. Leaders should ensure that their actions align with their words, and they should demonstrate a consistency in their principles and values. It is necessary that political leaders create a reputation for this by clearly, actively and cleverly demonstrating these qualities to the public. But they should avoid doing so in an overt and traditional manner which will often be branded as propaganda. When citizens observe integrity in their leaders, they are more likely to have faith and trust in their abilities to lead.

In conclusion, political leadership can play a critical role in building trust amongst people. Open communication, accountability, integrity, and inclusiveness are key strategies that leaders must adopt to foster trust. When citizens observe these qualities in their leaders, they are more likely to have faith in the institutions and the system and develop a strong bond of trust. But it is important to remember that building trust is a continuous process that requires consistent effort and genuine commitment from political leaders to create a strong and stable society; we cannot have the all too familiar Sri Lankan-ism of having an incredibly strong start but letting the effort fizzle as time goes on.

Daham Jayarathna
Daham Jayarathna
Daham Jayarathna is an independent researcher and writer talking about propaganda and its history, evolutions, and utilization. He currently works at the Bandaranaike Academy for Leadership and Public Policy. You can contact him through Dahamj[at]balpp.com