Jonathan, Levick and Nigeria’s Image Laundering

SHOW me someone who thinks Nigeria does not need an image makeover. From the remotest Nigerian village to the boardrooms of New York, the verdict is the same: Nigeria is a nation with enormous potentials but has an equally huge image problem. One of the few areas that Nigerians are in agreement is that Nigeria’s image urgently needs changing for it to attain its full potentials.

As if in response to that popular demand, the federal government, as reported in various news outlets in the past few months, went on the search for a public relations firm to handle a multi-million dollar contract to launder the image of the government and possibly that of Nigeria.

The disappointment that followed reports of the federal government’s hiring of a foreign public relations company has turned to an outrage. A form of social media war broke out against the government and the American firm, Levick, reportedly hired by government to do that job.

I am not familiar with the process that led to the hiring of Levick but I assume that a few things should have been put into consideration before hiring a competent firm to handle that understandably taxing job of transforming the image of Nigeria.

One key criterion should be recognition by government that the change Nigeria needs should be deep rather than cosmetic. The PR firm should, therefore, be familiar with those bitter, underlining truths about Nigeria (not stereotypes) and, above making profit, be willing and be brave to speak the truth to the authorities.

Another way of saying it is that Nigeria needs a public relations firm that understands Nigeria’s problems. While ready to carry out the cosmetic image makeover, the firm should be ready to press for action on fundamental problems like corruption, inadequate public policy making mechanisms and poor infrastructure. Although determined to play its role as a cosmetic surgeon, this chosen PR firm should be brave enough to tell the patients – the Nigerian government and people – in a language they understand that they need a heart surgery for the facelift to work.

You would think that this hiring process should be an opportunity for the government to trumpet how broad Nigeria’s potentials are. That can best be demonstrated by engaging a company that has deep Nigerian roots. I find it hard to believe that the government will campaign for local content in oil and gas, aviation and a wide range of contracts and businesses but waive that requirement in public relations.

In terms of local knowledge, it is not pretentious for Nigerian public relations professionals to claim that they are in the best position to do the job. This is especially so when the brief handed Levick is “to help change international and local media narrative.” The next best thing to officials’ proper articulation of government message to the local media is to hire a local PR firm that understands the issues and the mass media outlets.

It is evident that major multinational companies follow the same rule of the thumb when hiring communication and public affairs officials to work in Nigeria, West Africa and Africa. Experience of working in communication in Africa and living in the region are key requirements for applicants.
One argument could be that Nigerian PR firms have no capacity to carry out a campaign abroad. That cannot be farther from the truth. As far as I know, there are capable public relations firms in Nigeria with reputable overseas partners that can collaborate in “helping change international … media narrative.” By having Nigerian partners, those foreign PR firms have demonstrated interest in Nigeria. That is what Levick, the American PR firm, said to have been hired by government, is lacking.
Levick, in its own website, proudly lists 27 of its top management, among whom there is no single African America or one of the so-called minorities. How on earth did anyone come to the conclusion that this company can suddenly develop love for Africa, an African country or an African president to promote him?

Without being pretentious, few members of the management team have attributes and qualifications to work for the best Lagos-based PR consultancies. Some of them boast of empty career attributes that read: “garnered features in…” (meaning written a few feature articles), “quoted in …” (meaning interviewed in the press), “ranking member of…” Only a handful had any form of training in communications. Those attributes will not get anyone a middle level job in a major PR firm in Nigeria.

Accepted that Levick and such like organizations can carry out lobbying and public affairs work for Nigeria and the Nigeria government in the United States, they are not equipped to work in Nigeria. They do not know the language (literary and otherwise). As a result, they are not qualified to work on reforming the image of the government within Nigeria. A good PR firm should have acknowledged those handicaps.

Perhaps the non-diversity of Levick should have been enough warning to those who hired the firm. Or was the race of the management a plus in the eyes of those who recruited them? If that is not inferiority complex, I need to be told what it is. Please, Nigeria can do better.

For that needed change to happen, there has to be a change in strategy starting with the seat of government in Aso Rock. In football terms, the government concedes too many own goals. You do not need Levick to tell you what has become so obvious.

Secondly, “sorry” seems to be the hardest word for officials at all levels of government in Nigeria. As a result, the federal government, most especially, is found to be constantly on the defensive. A few things have changed recently, though. One example is the centralized, timely communication of information on terrorism. That communication is managed by Nigerians – not a foreign PR firm.

I do not know the working relationship between the president and his communication team. But what President Goodluck Jonathan needs, above a local or foreign PR consultant, is a top, tough, Nigerian communication expert who knows Nigeria and what Nigerians need. His office has to be there in Aso Rock.

Just as the President needs a security minder, he needs an image minder. That man or woman is not afraid to tell him the bitter truth about the state of things in Nigeria. He or she should be in the team working out the answers to those thorny issues and is able to effectively communicate government plans, actions and regrets when mistakes are made. The external consultant should share similar interests and connection with the President and Nigeria. Levick does not have those qualities. For the good of the President and Nigeria, cancel that contract. Now.

Akor, whose research is in international communications, public and foreign policy, wrote from Manchester, England.

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