Mitigating Public Relations Disasters
By Tunde Asaju
In April 2018, I declared presidential spokesman, Femi Adesina as Buhari’s PR disaster. Following one of many diplomatic gaffes in which the president undersold the nation by declaring its youths as lazy, I suggested that the president should travel more with his PR managers. Of course, the insinuation is that all official travels are discussed, policies outlined by a crisis-management team. It was based on the premise that this government is not a disaster waiting to happen and that it was still redeemable. The jury is still out but one truly wishes that things have improved. The last couple of weeks have been very disastrous for the government and people of Nigeria. Some have insisted that people living outside should keep off local political events. However, bastards enjoy the hospitality of their hosts so much that they leave their leaking roofs to the rainstorm. Nigeria belongs to all of us who holds its citizenship.
The spate of detentions of people by overzealous security agents is embarrassing. There is absolutely enough security fish to fry for our law enforcement agents than expanding the column of dissent. During the week, Danlami Nmodu, another journalist was detained and released by DSS. Prior to that, a Punch report revealed that the DSS has returned to the era in which people disappear and languish in their dungeon for years without trial. Anyone saying that is good for democracy does not know what democracy entails.
In the heat of all that, President Muhammadu Buhari was in Egypt where announcing a new entry policy for anyone holding an African passport. On the surface, the policy looks good but Nigeria’s borders with its closest neighbours are still locked down. Instead of talking to the nation on the rationale for the lockdown, Customs officials say it has brought unprecedented revenue. At the same time, government wants to borrow to finance its upcoming projects (if not the next budget). Things are so bad that a Jigawa citizen wants his share of the budget in cash! The joke is on the government.
Then, the First Lady took her campaign against her husband’s uncle a notch further saying Garba Shehu has overstepped his bounds –euphemism for asking for his sack. Earlier, she had accused her husband’s hires of not doing enough to protect him. In the heat of the moment, a Punch editorial accusing government of full-fledged dictatorship split the president’s two spokespersons. Adesina’s retort was to call it expression of freedom of the press; but Garba Shehu believed to the contrary. Shehu’s long treatise on the editorial was – to put it mildly pretty embarrassing.
The press is not an arm of government. That’s why calling it the fourth estate is a misnomer. A free press is not one that’s free to do as it’s told. A trained PR person does not react to one ‘bad’ editorial with anger because the media does such a good job of covering and writing other ‘good’ editorials for which it does not get commendation or expect one.
The job of the media is to keep the people informed and to put the feet of those in government to the fire of critical criticism.
Our President, as usual went to Egypt without any of his spokespersons. His grounded spokespersons reacted knee-jerk to an editorial without a crisis management meeting to discuss the merits of a reaction. Evidently, it took orders from those who know nothing about information management. Only regimes act like that. A person suspected of goat theft should not be caught babysitting one behind his house.
The reaction of ‘the presidency’ to these events shows a dynamic organization without a disaster-management plan or the basic elements of crisis communication. This is why public relations roles should not be given to professional journalists. Professional jobs should be handled by professionals, no wannabes. The simple knowledge of journalism practice does not confer public relations expertise on a reporter or editor. It does not necessarily make the journalist a good PR manager.
Crisis communication is not taught well enough in most journalism schools. Knee-jerk approach to communications management always result in PR disasters. The crises of the past several weeks demonstrate the need for a crisis management plan in government. Such a plan states what is to be done during a crisis. How to meet and mitigate disasters; who constitutes members and who speaks out and at what time and through which medium.
A caveat is appropriate here – even the best crisis management communication effort fails if it is not built on trust, truth, respect for the rule of law and determination to admit failure and right wrongs. Hiding under the cloak of sovereignty against foreign peer review is like hoping that flies won’t buzz an adult with excrement on his pants. Once the body language of the leader at the centre seems autocratic, leaders at other levels of governance take the cue to unleash terror and recklessness on their critics.
Seeing how federations work in nations where we plagiarized democracy, it is disturbing that those who are supposed to be so engrossed with the rigours of governance have time to take on social media critics and occasional newswire bad copies. Good leaders do not take it personal; they have no obsession with controlling the narrative. That is what differentiates democracies from full-fledged dictatorships. With impactful governance criticism stands no chance of causing the dreaded revolution or social upheaval.
Things would start getting better when those employed to govern and their appointees know when their limits. The appointee credo is simple – if you feel like a square peg in a round hole, go find your hole before you are hoed out to dry with all your reputation.