2019 General Elections: Between Politicians, PR Experts And The Way Forward

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By Tunji Faleye

Introduction

The 2019 General Elections has once again brought to the front burner the crave for foreign Public Relations firms by Nigerians politicians to carry out their communication services in spite of  abundant professionals in the country.  Like 2015, it is indeed sad that politicians and their political parties failed again to engage any indigenous PR firm, sending wrong signal that government’s  campaign on local content policy is just a mere lip-service initiative.

Over the years, Perception Management and Public Relations subsector of the integrated marketing communication industry has been experiencing low patronage by politicians during electioneering.  2019 is not different. Save for few individuals, (not PR firm) who are in charge of communication services of Sanwo-Olu, gubernatorial candidate of All Progressives Congress (APC) in Lagos, many of the Perception Management and PR firms have the same old song to sing.

This continual neglect of the nation’s PR professionals by the politicians has made practitioners to frown at the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, for contracting a top US lobbyist, Brian Balland for $90,000 (N31.5 million) per month, as communications consultants for the party’s 2019 election communication services.

It will also be recalled that practitioners berated APC in 2015 after the party engaged AKPD Message and Media, a United States-based public relations and public affairs consultancy firm which is co-founded by Mr. David Axelrod, ex-President Barack Obama’s campaign strategist and a former White House Advisor.  Sadly, unconfirmed report has it that despite criticism that followed that action in 2015, the party was said to have engaged a foreign PR agency preferably from either The United States or South Africa for 2019 elections, which Mallam Lanre Isa-Onilu, Publicity Secretary of the APC could not confirmed whether the party or Buhari’s Campaign Organisation engages a foreign firm for its PR and communication services.

Reasons For Engaging Foreign PR Firms

Many have held the opinion that why political parties and politicians are often afraid of giving their communication services to indigenous Perception Management and PR professionals is because of the level of competence in handling such task, and the leakage of their communication materials to opposition parties. According to them, this is why political parties that can afford the humongous amount hire foreign communication experts and best PR firm overseas, especially those who had been tested and saddled with the responsibilities of being in charge of communication services of major political parties around the world.

Criticism

However, this argument does not make any sense to practitioners who believe that politicians and political parties have to adhere to the provisions of the laws guiding the Nigerian marketing communication practice, which prescribes the protection and patronage of Nigerian businesses.

They believe that politicians and political parties stand to gain a lot when they engage indigenous perception managers and PR consultants to be in charge of their communications materials.

For instance, Chief Obafemi Awolowo of Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) Great Nnamdi Azikiwe, Zik of Africa, of Nigerian Peoples Party, (NPP) and Sarduana of Sokoto , Sir, Ahmadu Bello of the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) didn’t contract any foreign PR firms before they became heroes in the country and the continent as a whole.

Obviously, the situation is not the same today, as politicians and political parties take delight in engaging foreign PR firms, a situation that John Ehiguese, President of Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria, PRCAN, once condemned, reiterating that PR professionals are well-trained and experienced consultants, who can handle political campaigns and communication services of any political party in the country. Ehiguese added that Nigerian perception managers and PR consultants have the wherewithal to discharge quality services to politicians and political parties because they understand the terrains more than their foreign counterparts.

In his word: “The best PR is local, and political communication is country-specific. Local issues will invariably drive the campaigns, and certified local professionals, who live and do business in the country, are in the best position to understand the issues, as well as the local nuances and peculiarities of our media.”

Journalists Vs PR Experts

Apart from engaging foreign firms, politicians and political parties also engaged nonprofessionals who do not understand the complexities of perception management and public relations business. According to Anthony Elikene, anipr, Senior Consultant, Brandfit PR & Events, this account for why fake news is used as a weapon against politicians and political parties.

sJournalists are always in the public domain and their news stories go with by-lines making them easily noticed by politicians who erroneously engage them for public relations duties such as communications strategist, spokespersons and other PR titles.

“Public Relations practitioners don’t use by-line even when they develop content except in cases where it is an article by a PR person on an individual capacity or it is a press statement which necessitates an official sign-off.

“So, the behind the scene functions of the PR professional is the reason politicians work with journalists instead of public relations experts who are trained for the job.”

He added, “Take for instance, the many exchanges of weaponized words by spokespersons of political parties is a testimony to the lack of professionalism.  When a party, either APC or PDP is criticized over a project, the response to that criticism is often highly nuclearized and this has led to the overheating of the polity.

“What a PR professional like me would have done if you claim my client, a political party or politician, lied about ongoing work on a project is to invite news editors, reporters covering politics, photojournalists, digital media and other relevant media to a visit at the location, and if it’s out of the state you turn it to a retreat for the media, let the media see for themselves and result of that visit will be in every news platform the following day.

“That way, I have responded without using words, I have responded effectively without overheating the polity and this would ensure the public is not confused with many lies out there.

However, Elikene said,  today it’s all about who tells the most accepted lie, and Nigerians are divided across which lie to believe and which one not to. He added that now a days when ethnicity has also been weaponized just like religion, people are condemned to find or make weapons themselves.

Using PR To Boost Politician’s Image

Regardless of the politicians’ lukewarm attitude to Public Relations, practitioners still have a lot to do to make them understand the efficacy of PR to the success of any party.

Tolulope Olorundero, Managing Consultant, Mosro Communications said, “The use of various public relations tools will enable politicians win the heart of the electorate long before the election period. Also, strategic stakeholders management from the time election is won till the next cycle will significantly reduce marketing spend, making campaign promises more believable, and ultimately endear the politicians to the people.”

For Anthony Elikene, some of the ways politicians can also use PR to boost their image is to engage in issue-based communication because PR is built on a solid foundation of verifiable facts and not fiction, not propaganda. So, for politicians who wants to build their brands, they should engage a trained PR professional who can build their reputation from scratch using issue-based communication.

He said PR will help position and reposition politician from obscurity to a great brand that will be admired for years to come.

According to him, PR uses strategy based methods which involves that PR plans ahead and is equipped to envisage reactions to any policy it proposes. As an early warner, PR can determine when and how to disseminate a policy, information and target the right audience.

He added further, “PR has the capacity to plan ahead on how to manage unwanted occurrence like the consistent harassment by party members during campaigns.’’

Worthy of note is the fact that PR can enable the politician tap into the goodwill of his constituency by deliberately highlighting his positive achievements and ensuring he engages in CSR and other non-profit activities which will benefit the grassroots.  According to Elikene, while it is also interesting to note that everything is not about money, politicians should make it a habit to always have budget for public relations. He advised that instead of giving money to political tugs to cause crisis and dent their image during campaign, enough fund should be earmarked for PR in order to boost their chance of winning during election.

In conclusion, industry watchers say, one of the ways practitioners can make Perception Management and PR relevant to politicians is for them to also join one political party or the other. 

Patrick Ngwu, a public relations expert said, “The best PR is the one you do for yourself. A good understanding of PR is a good skill to be a successful politicians. It’s time for PR practitioners to become parts time politicians and even contest election or manage political parties.” According to him, this will enable them to have influence in the political circle.

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