Political Communication & Govt. Reputation Management: When Will PR Consultants Stamp Their Relevance In Nigeria?
It was British researcher and renowned political communicator, Brian McNair who declared in 1998 that “No individual politician, or party, can be blamed for the fact that considerations of image and style are today as important to political success as the detail of policy, and none can be blamed for participating enthusiastically in the game as it is now played”
McNair was x-raying political figures and the role they play in the battle for image dominance in the media and the minds of the public. He identified the turf as two intersecting games: the struggle between politicians competing with each other for public support, and the continuing battle between politicians and the media to reshape the news. Things have not changed since then, but have rather intensified as the political space and the citizens become more politically conscious, especially with the emergence of 24- hour news channels and media which has made political advertising and communication almost as important as a set of policy ideas.
As the political space in Nigeria continues to heat up, the image of politicians is becoming paramount. The country is gradually moving closer to the 2023 elections after most of the candidates have emerged from the different political parties. Presently, contestants are planning their strategies while keeping an eye on their opponent’s strategies too as the electoral umpire has already flagged off the campaign season.
The campaign period of any election is the most exhausting for candidates but paradoxically, the most exciting for voters who can either be die-hard supporters or the undecided.
As one of the first steps, various presidential candidates have appointed those to anchor their media, public affairs, and strategic communication activities. For the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) Senator Dino Melaye and Dr. Daniel Bwala were appointed spokespersons for the upcoming 2023 presidential campaign.
Malaye, a two-time member of the National Assembly, is a politician and a member of the immediate-past 8th Senate, who represented Kogi West senatorial district. Bwala, on the other hand, is a legal practitioner, politician, and public affairs analyst. He hails from Borno State.
Later, three other persons Eta Uso, Abdulrashhed Shehu, and Demola Olanrewaju were appointed to join the team.
The press statement announcing their appointment read “Uso, an alumnus of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and a UK-trained Advanced Computing and Internet systems expert from the University of Wales, Bangor, is appointed as Special Assistant Digital Media Operations. He is a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Computer Society, United Kingdom, and Nigeria.
“Abdulrasheed, a professional media specialist with a proven track record of excellence – with a decade of experience on the job at various media firms, is appointed Special Assistant, Broadcast Media. He is a graduate of Mass Communications from ISM Adonai, Benin Republic and Masters in International Relations and Diplomacy, Maryam Abacha American University, and Masters in Journalism and Broadcasting at Girne American University, Cyprus.
“Another appointee as Special Assistant Digital Media Strategy, Olanrewaju, is a communications and public relations strategist with a background in Nigeria’s history and political ideologies, developed during his days as a Students Union Leader at the University of Ado Ekiti. He is involved in the startups of a number of businesses and brings media industry knowledge, digital media engagement, and creative writing skills to shape perceptions, craft narratives and messaging for individuals, businesses, and organisations”.
Bayo Onanuga, a former managing director of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), Dele Alake, a former commissioner of information in Lagos state, and Festus Keyamo, minister of state labour and employment, were the ones appointed to head the All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential campaign council.
While Onanuga was appointed director of media and publicity, Alake was announced as director of strategic communication. Festus Keyamo, lawyer and current minister of labour and employment, will serve as the spokesman of the campaign council.
Announcements from most other parties have also followed this trend. The Media and publicity team is led and dominated by lawyers, politicians, businessmen, and to a lesser extent broadcasters and journalists.
The big question is who is better equipped to manage political actors’ image in an era where they have to be seen as superstars, spotless, honest, intelligent, charismatic, and having good leadership qualities and abilities; an era where everything from family structure, dressing, ability to smile and connect with the feelings of the people and a host of other “small things” like “fresh air” count.
Should political institutions and governments at all tiers bring in Public Relations consultants to manage their image or should they make do with all kinds of personalities as they have been doing over the years? How possible can PR Consultants stamp their relevance in the public sector so that practitioners would no longer be ignored during such appointments?
The PR or image management teams are supposed to be hidden instruments of political power. They help any political team or government achieve better communication with the mass and niche media. The PR advisers put out press releases; stage news conferences; coach and train their principals in the finer points of presentation; they are players, in the wings at every encounter with the media; they try to stay one step ahead of others in what the team needs and provide it in time to make the hourly and daily deadlines. Has this been the case in Nigeria?
Looking at the performances of some appointees in recent times reveal that this space is begging for the presence of seasoned public relations consultants.
Recently, during an interview on Channels TV, a popular television station in Lagos, APC Chief Spokesperson, Festus Keyamo said Nigerians are hungry and can’t wait to have a new leader who would satisfy their hunger.
When asked to discuss the APC’s campaign issues for the 2023 elections, Keyamo said, “Nigerians are hungry, they want to see how that hunger will be addressed, not how their Christian faith or Muslim faith will be addressed.
“They want to see our policies on agriculture and what Asiwaju has done before as governor of Lagos state, how he improved Lagos and how he will bring that kind of dexterity to Nigeria as a whole.
“That is what they want to see. How do we want to run the country? What do we want to tell Nigerians?”
No trained PR consultant with a defined strategy will fail to recognize that doing this is de-marketing his principal and the party he represents. What could be generating hunger except poor performance?
President Muhammadu Buhari and members of the Aso Rock cabal have called for the removal of Festus Keyamo as the spokesperson for the All Progressives Congress (APC)/Bola Ahmed Tinubu Presidential Campaign Council.
Little wonder a presidential source revealed that President Buhari and some members of the APC government are accusing Keyamo of always de-marketing the current administration despite being a serving minister.
Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha is reported to have insisted on his removal following the interview on Channels Television.
Still with such performances, the marginalization of public relations experts continues even after elections when appointments are made. For any political team or government that desires to grow the tenets of democracy, public relations (PR) should have a central role. This explains why older democracies in Europe and America, even from inception, were among the first establishments to need and practice public relations as a way of maintaining appropriate relationships with their citizens.
By definition, democratic governments should reflect public opinion and work best when the citizens are well-informed. There were lots of examples of what we now call public relations undertaken by the US Federal and local governments over 200 years ago, following the Civil War in the country. Publicity, promotional and informational campaigns were launched by various federal departments, as well as by cities and states. California, for instance, conducted extensive and expensive campaigns to attract new residents.
In Nigeria, Africa’s largest democracy, despite the fact that over seventy percent of the country’s resources are utilized to service the public sector, the situation is a sharp contrast to what is obtained globally. One appointment that was quite glaring in our recent past was the appointment of Dr. Doyin Okupe as the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Public Affairs and his performance in the course of actualizing his job role which he himself described as “ monitoring development both in the media and the nation, advising the Presidency and other relevant public organizations, interfacing between the Presidency and the public, engaging and enlightening the public, and particularly the opposition on the activities of the administration”. In his first few months on the saddle, the activities of this ebullient physician turn image maker generated so much debate and concern both in low tones within the government circles and in high tones among the general public.
Just as it was in the previous administrations, this line of appointment has continued unabated. In all efforts in the dissemination of information about the government’s programmes and activities, and in the engagement of members of the public on its policies, the effective and sincere use of trained public relations consultants have been quite minimal or virtually non-existent. Even when the filial affection the vast majority of the people initially had for the government of the day has been virtually cut off, there is no deliberate effort to seek the services of trained professionals and experts to revive it.
During electioneering when most developing democracies such as South Africa and Pakistan use PR consultants extensively, the case in Nigeria remains the opposite. In 2015 and 2019. we had very minimal utilization of public relations by political parties and candidates during the elections. There were very few structured political communication campaigns properly anchored by recognized Nigerian agencies. Very soon, we may hear that the two leading parties have signed foreign publicists to anchor their publicity activities in a country they have never done any research on. This is usually a show-off.
It is common knowledge in the country that major private sector players engaged public relations firms to provide strategic and tactical support to in-house teams. They include firms such as PZ Cussons, Nigerian Breweries, Cadbury Nigeria, Guinness, MTN, Etisalat, Airtel, and more.
Despite visible giant strides of the Nigerian private sector in the use of professional PR consultants, the efforts of Nigeria’s public sector have always been focused primarily on information dissemination rather than communication management. Right from the country’s Independence to date, efforts have centered on converting erstwhile lawyers, doctors, and journalists to media advisers or publicists. Very minimal steps are taken to utilize the vast knowledge and experience of PR consultants. Could it be that succeeding political leaders have been deriving any advantage from using just a handful of appointed media advisers as against trained PR consultants, or it is just an issue of convenience or sheer ignorance?
Speaking on this issue a few years ago. Vincent Oyo a seasoned PR practitioner, said that the development is coming from the prevalent faulty system in the country that destroys professionalism. His words: “Majority of our politicians are not interested in building long-term goodwill which is critical for a successful political career. A PR agency worth its salt and interested in this area of reputation management will think along these lines and therefore will shun the fire brigade approach. Unfortunately, our politicians lack the discipline of working with a PR agency. They will scorn a media training or crisis management programme, be extremely late to strategy sessions, or may not attend at all, and would trade all of that off with the distribution of rice, salt, and pepper to the masses. Fortunately for them, that fits into our environment in which the public are not able to ask the hard questions of our politicians on governance and their promises. So a ‘good’ media relations whitewash becomes handy because it’s cheap and is usually sufficient to make politicians look good in the eyes of the public”.
However, speaking at the 2021 Brandcomfest held at D’Podium Event centre some months ago, Isreal Opeyemi, Chief Strategist of Chain Reaction Africa feels most PR consultants have failed to deliver beyond involvement in media amplifications. “As the PR man in the system, you should make yourself so relevant that your principal will never spend a day without talking to you. He should not go for any serious meeting without talking to you because of your strategic offerings- preparing him, pointing out real challenges, and equipping him. The problem is that PR people have been so laid back over the years. They forget that principally they are consultants and should act in that perspective very well. The next question is: in terms of strategy, what else do we need to bring to the table, how do we differentiate ourselves, and where does strategy come or start from in our PR engagements?”
It is obvious that unlike any kind of Media Adviser, the PR practitioner or consultant has or is expected to have a rounded understanding of the subject of public engagement based on principles of research, evaluation, planning, action, and evaluation.
However, most experts agree that as the public increasingly demands accountability and a stronger say in the affairs of institutions that affect them, stakeholder relations would continue to grow in importance, and institutions, including the public sector, image handlers in government would have no other option but to organise themselves adequately. This would mean engaging professionals to render specific services.
One Special Adviser on Media from a state government in the South who strongly pleaded anonymity said “Most of our governments understanding of communication have to do with crises and attacking opponents; response depends on the nature of the underlying crisis and the way you respond will show whether you want to keep your job or leave without notice. This is the climate we operate; your main challenge is to reel out propaganda stuff after another. It’s not our fault but a systemic issue”.
Citing Mark Twain who wrote over a century ago that “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” He stresses that while we may not necessarily be talking about “lies” in the proper sense of that word, in the world of the Internet and the 500-channel cable package, which beams potentially dozens of 24-hour news channels into homes across the country, a regime can find itself playing catch-up with a mischaracterization or poor issue framing before it even finds its shoes.
Yet another Media Assistant who also insisted on remaining anonymous described his job schedule as “something short of an errand boy. The job of a SA media is one of the most thankless jobs in government circles, you won’t sleep and you will be constantly on the move with hardly any time to think and compose yourself. Your Excellency can call you at 3 am in the morning and shout at you that you are still sleeping at this time. This is why they are more comfortable hiring journalists whose lifestyles fit perfectly with what the governors and politicians need. No PR consultant worth its salt will work like this because it’s not professional. A PR professional will be more concerned with strategy and decency but there is no decency in Nigerian politics”.
He stressed further, “We are not averse to the hiring of PR consultants by our principals,” one of them said, “in fact, we welcome it because communication is supposed to be a team effort, no one individual knows it all, and to call for help should not be seen as acknowledging failure, it is not. But how soon would governments at all levels realize that even in public communications, professionalism should be taken seriously?