By Ikem Okuhu
It seems, from every available evidence, that the rapid growth of public relations practice in Nigeria did not affect Public Communications; if anything, Public Relations appears to have totally left Public Communications behind in its growth and influence on business and social relations. Whether we are looking at those managing governors and presidents, or we are looking at the ones handling the police and the armed forces, or even their counterparts from the press units of ministries and agencies, a uniform thread of sorry stories run through them all.
I often pity two of my senior colleagues in Aso Rock. In truth, and this is based on my own personal experiences, there is not much Femi Adeshina and Garba Shehu can really do differently than what they are doing at the moment, except perhaps throw in the towel. Did I even say this? Well, there is quite a bit they could do differently, if they had been able to distance themselves well enough from the immediate expectations of their employers.
Femi Adeshina has been quite unfortunate. I say this because I have known him for quite a number of years. A gentleman, soft-spoken and very loyal, he would do anything for anyone he calls his friend. “Kulikuli”, as I call him (from his email ID of those days) wasn’t such a quarrelsome person. But it seems his present brief has forced a new persona to be created out of him; when you hear him speak these days, you get the impression you are listening to a very angry man. How would anyone forget that he was the person who described opposition politicians as “wailing wailers,” a moniker that has stuck with the country’s social media warriors, and which has successfully helped delineate the country into two bitterly conflicting politico-social demographics – the Wailers and the Hailers.
The demands of Adesina’s type of job leave you with very difficult options, and this challenge is not peculiar to Nigeria alone. The huge turnover of presidential spokespersons under the immediate past United States President, Donald Trump, bears evidence of just how tough that job is. In four years, Trump had four White House spokespersons, namely; Sean Spicer, Sarah Sanders, Stephanie Grisham, and Kayleigh McEnany. That was like one spokesperson every 12 months!
These professionals suffered, not really because they did not know the job well enough but because, as Spicer noted in an interview, that there became a negative default narrative against the president such that whatever he did was first viewed from what he should have done rather than from an objective assessment of the present.
I reckon that the President Buhari narrative in Nigeria has long gone this default negative way to the point where no matter what he does, most people would not be impressed and instead, would find ways to strengthen the negative stereotype. A recent example happened in the third week of June 2021 when he had gone to Borno State to meet with troops fighting insurgency in the north east as well as commission some projects delivered by the Borno State governor, Babagana Zulum. But rather than report the projects commissioned by a governor or even his conversation with the troops, Sahara Reporters made huge headlines with a story of how the governor spent N550 million to prevent the crowd from booing Mr. President during the visit.
That is just how badly deteriorated the rhetoric about the president had become. To get by and at least be seen to be doing their jobs, Adeshina and Shehu appear to have been forced into their own default combative psychological state of mind. Some statements often credited to these gentlemen convey cold-blooded reclusion from the realities of the everyday Nigerian and I can bet that at certain moments of calm, these men would wonder whether they actually made those scathingly uncivil statements.
Public Relations has really grown in Nigeria. But this does not seem to have reflected on Public Communications and I am not saying this because of only Femi Adeshina and Garba Shehu. The sin is evenly spread across all strata of government communications. For instance, on Channels Television the other day, Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State began a response to a question about his perceived poor performance in office with the untidy response of, “they are entitled to their opinion.” What this meant was that he did not owe his people any explanations. And I saw some people in his government infusing even more caustic arrogance in what they concocted as his defence.
Elementary PR classes marked the development of the profession through a number of eras: the “Let the Public Be Informed” era and the “Let the Public Be Educated” era, a period that appears to have even outlived its values already. The truth is that, reading the psychographic modelling in marketing, the world of Public Relations had long already entered a new epoch where there are no “publics” as we used to know. We now have individual stakeholders in the marketplace as against a vast sea of undefined, or at best of times, poorly defined publics requiring the attention of the brand. What this means is that, rather than “informing” or “educating” the public, the demands of the present marketplace would be to “Let the Public be Engaged.”
The wider world of PR appears to have reasonably been embracing this new reality. But rather than improve, it seems that, at the level of government communications, a strange and abhorrible detour has been made back to the pre-1906 attitude of corporations and government when the leading thinking was, “Let the Public Be Damned.”
Everything our government spokespersons do and say point to this obnoxious regression into the dark days when the government and the leaders of the people didn’t care, one way or the other, what the people thought of them and their policies. And to be fair, it did not just begin with the President Buhari administration. At the peak of his own misreading of the crystal ball, former President Goodluck Jonathan was also famously reported to have blurted the four-letter words of, “I don’t give a damn” at a press meeting. And when the minders of President Buhari share pictures where the president was picking his teeth, the same message is what they are sending across.
There seems to be a queer occupational arrogance among our government spokespersons; an entitled mindset that seems to be suggesting that “it is the duty of the public to understand us”. But this garrison mindset is not the successful PR manager’s approach. You do not talk to your publics much the same way a military commander talks to a community of conquered people being advised on how to make the best out of forceful occupation. In fact, that religious meekness of “turning the other cheek” appears to have been fashioned for PR practitioners most specifically, the other addition being the expectation of them to not just not return any slap, but to find the most creative, persuasive and convincing ways to trade a potential slap for a warm embrace.
I am not saying this is easy. In a country where favourable headlines are courted and counted, the tendency to deploy strong-voice tactics to shoot down dissent is always compelling. Add this to the never-ending perception of PR and reputation management as a job that can be performed by anyone who can scribble press statements and bark at press conferences and you have a ready template for disastrous government communications.
Between June 2018 and December 2019, I had the misfortune to experience first-hand, the crushing stumbling blocks to public communication in my home state, Enugu. My principal, Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, had his own unique way of managing the media and each time he wanted to bully us, he would brag about his Master’s Degree in Public Relations. It got to a point where he would even dictate a “press release” from his phone to us. I think I was the only rebel who didn’t write.
Until our political leaders begin to admit that they are not omniscient and accept the importance of professional PR contributions to the business of public administration and public figure reputation management, the handshake between the government and the people would continue to be elusive. Public communication requires specialist strategic thinking. It has become even more critical in these days of consumer individualism, fueled chiefly by the private worlds and walls provided by social media.
The rule is: even if you do not feel so, pretend as if the views of the public matter to you. What it does is that it gives a sense of connection to the people: it makes them feel a part of you; an extension of you, if that will make you feel good. Because our leaders are, by the processes that brought them into office, not responsible to the people, their spokespersons often further project this relationship, personifying their principals in the way they interact with the public. I have always maintained that it is possible to serve a government official without digging in the mud. Everybody must not believe you. But then, everybody should be made to go away, believing that, even though you couldn’t convince some of them, you didn’t bruise them with unkind words.
Finally, if that job looks like it was at variance with your beliefs; if you reasonably see your principal in that descent into the ridiculous, nothing stops you from taking a walk. Sean Spicer, Sarah Sanders and Stephanie Grisham all did under Trump. I did too. You will not die if you do.
Okuhu, a former Special Assistant to Governor Ugwuanyi of Enugu State, is a journalist, author, farm entrepreneur, whose most recent book is ‘Pitch: Debunking Marketing’s Strongest Myths’
Frontpage October 31, 2019