How to Redeem Nigeria’s Battered Image

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Popularly called the “Action Chairman,” the newly re-elected Chairman of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR) Abuja Chapter, Mr. Ohaeri Osondu granted an interview to the Spokesperson’s Digest. A Staff Officer, Media Relations with the Corps Public Education Office at the national headquarters of the Federal Road Safety Corps Abuja, Osondu discusses our Nigeria can redeem its image from negatve perceptions among others..

Q: What in your opinion is responsible for Nigeria’s battered image abroad, and how can PR help in redeeming the image?
ANS: We cannot put it directly that our image as a country is battered but rather, it is common knowledge that Nigeria experiences public perception issues over time within global circles, on account, perhaps, of the activities of an insignificant number of compatriots and we in the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations are disturbed over this trend. For us in the NIPR, goodwill, responsible performance and integrity remain the critical planks on which the image of an organization, a community, a state or a country can thrive. One of the primary challenges faced by developing countries especially Nigeria, stems from the breakdown of understanding between the government and the masses. There is crisis of confidence and public misconception of the intent of the public officers to deliver on good governance. Relationship between the government and the governed is severely undermined by distrust of the government and pervasive lack of faith in national institutions. Some Nigerians also nurse a profound skepticism and negativism about the intentions of their political leaders and about the capacity of institutions to deliver on the promise of democracy. This scenario gives room to more cynics in the country and throws up numerous challenges for a public relations practitioner to bridge the gap of understanding between the government and the governed . We now have people who are prematurely disappointed about the future. People who are less interested in any meaningful government initiative and even question the outcome of some processes such as the population census. People who are not positively disposed to any reforms such as the deregulation of the oil industry, Privatization and fuel subsidy, even in the face of obvious benefits.

Q; How could that be address from professional perspectives?
ANS: For us in the NIPR, an audit on the attitude and perception of Nigerians to government policy formulations indicate indifference and apathy, with attendant negative impact on numerous government initiatives towards national growth. This underscores why there are challenges to collective drive for nation building. Under the present circumstances, Public Relations remains a distinctive management function which helps to establish and maintain mutual lines of communication, understanding, acceptance and cooperation between the Nigerian government and the civil populace. It involves the management of problems of public opinion, defines and emphasizes the responsibility of government to serve the public interest; helps government to keep abreast of and effectively use change, serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends, and uses research and sound and ethical communication techniques as its principal tool to engender good governance.

Q: What are the major challenges that should be addressed?
ANS: As far as the average Nigerian is concerned, our problems have been identified to include bribery and corruption, unemployment, poor infrastructure development, over dependence on the oil sector for federal income and revenue, poor work ethics, increasing citizens dissatisfaction and disaffection with the government political structure and politicians, corporate large scale organizational irresponsibility, neglect of the non-oil productive manufacturing sectors, fake and substandard goods and service, over dependence on imported goods, poorly regulated capital and financial market, tribal, ethnic and religious squabbles, poverty and hunger, poor maintenance culture and most recently, security issues which has placed Nigeria on the international landscape since April this year for the wrong reasons, due to the abduction of school girls. Self doubt seems to have eaten into the average Nigerian’s psyche despite enormous achievements and no nation can succeed with a cynical and negative populace because it takes informed optimism to progress.

Q: So what should be the major focus on the campaign to redeem the image of the country?
ANS: It is instructive to state that Nigeria needs total re-branding in order to encourage the Nigerian people to buy into the new Nigerian project and this is a public relation-driven process. The “Heart of Africa” project was a major effort by the government to reinvent our image and correct the very grave misrepresentation of our country and people by the Western media. We believe that in terms of reforms, there is a lot going on in Nigeria. We have a very rich culture, the warmest people on earth and we have a land that if we are to develop to our full potential, could become a major tourist destination in the world. Look at the recent rebasing of our economy and its positive outcomes, yet some Nigerians remain skeptical about our present economic status due to same factor of disbelief. It is high time we created a conducive environment for public relations practitioners in the public and private sectors to actively contribute their quota to national growth. Government should also integrate the public relations and communication components into any policy in order to attract optimal public buy-in. Psychologists and sociologists should be integrated into this arrangement with public relations practitioners as a co-ordinators and regulators of this collective process to achieve attitudinal turn around among the populace. Interestingly, the Federal Government has taken initial steps by nominating the NIPR among other professional bodies to the on-going national conference. This was not the case in the past. Numerous public-engaging events can be put together with specific deliverables such as the recent PR Week which we organized in the FCT with the Minister of Information Mr. Labaran Maku as special guest. The high point of this event was a public relations parliament involving Heads of Public Relations Department in the public sector and private PR practitioners, to holistically review certain burning national issues through an interactive process likened to a normal parliamentary setting and came out with practical and possible resolutions. This year’s edition resulted to positive outcomes and we hope to sustain this initiative.

Q: How would you rate the performance of government agencies responsible for maintaining relationship between the government and the governed?
ANS: Statutorily, the Ministry of Information is the chief image-maker and chief spokesperson of the government. Other relevant agencies such as the National Orientation Agency also work in the same direction to positively sell government policies, initiatives and implementations, to Nigerians. These agencies have the responsibility to educate the Nigerian public, educate relevant stakeholders. It is their duty to explain the government’s position on certain issues and embark on enlightenment programmes, while also campaigning for government policies and programmes. Ironically, many years of seeming “unfulfilled promises” tend to impede the numerous efforts made by the Information Ministry, the NOA and other relevant bodies to effectively carry the populace along on government’s intent. As earlier stated, government needs to address the cynicism which has crept into the psyche of the average Nigerian through the strategies mentioned earlier. We strongly believe that the Nigerian project is a collective project hence all hands must be on deck. The media should also redirect its energy to report those issues that will promote public goodwill towards the government and not issues that will lead to disintegration. The political class should desist from politicizing certain issues such as the recent abduction of the Chibok school girls and the insurgency which has placed the nation on a shaky plank at the moment. The scenario is even most worrisome when some persons use media platforms to doubt government sincerity of purpose towards the release of those girls who represent the future of our country. Some people even doubt if the abduction took place. These are some of the issues that tend to becloud government agencies to deliver on their mandate of conscientizing the Nigerian populace effectively. Beyond that, we will appreciate a situation where pro-active measures are adopted in our public awareness efforts than allow a crisis to unfold before applying remedial measures.

Q: Public Relation officers attached to top government functionaries sometimes shield their principals from public scrutiny, do you think this is good for our nascent democracy?
ANS: For us in the NIPR, we strongly uphold the ethics and norms for PR practice as expounded in Act 16 of 1990. We are guided by the principle that effective public relations should not be an attempt to “pull the wool” over the eyes of our numerous publics by shielding our principal from public scrutiny but to positively engage its publics through responsible performance and sincerity of purpose, anchored on integrity and to remove all forms of prejudice and misunderstanding based on ignorant of the facts. Good PR practice should not be seen as a smoke screen to cover the negative tendencies emanating from an organization but to put issues as they are through effective public engagement. To further buttress this, Nigerians will probably perceive a government agency in a positive light not only due to its excellent PR techniques but as an agency that can be trusted due to many years of consistent performance.

Q: Can you give example to buttress your argument?
ANS: A clear example is the NAFDAC and the fight against fake drugs and the FRSC which posted an 82% reduction in road crashes for two and half decades (1988 to 2011). Even the formation of the Forum of Spokespersons on Security and Response Agencies (FOSSRA) under the Office of the National Security Adviser, which is chaired by Major General Chris Olukolade has proved that sustained and effective communication strategies go a long way to clear misconception and provide platform for sincere message which the citizens understand. That is consistent responsible performance at work. Any noticeable unprofessional PR practice can be traced to the activities of “quacks” which refers to people who are not duely registered and accredited as PR members because they do not operate within the ambits of PR regulations. This trend informs why the present dispensation of the NIPR under the leadership of Dr Rotimi Oladele has initiated several reforms to reverse this unpleasant trend. A robust structure is already in place in this direction. First of all, we will tame and rehabilitate quacks and the willing ones will be assimilated. Then when the unwilling ones who fail to utilize the window of opportunity opened to them, would be sanctioned, prosecuted and dealt with. We have a committee at the national level called advocacy, enforcement and compliance committee. This committee is made up of formidable practitioners from Military, Paramilitary, Police, Civil Service, as well as private sector. For example, we can give the grace of 90 or 180 days as the case may be as window of opportunity for retraining. There is difference between experience and expertise, thus both must blend to have credible practice. So there are different stages of assimilation, accommodation, as well as rehabilitation, integration and professionalism. There will also be enlightenment programmes. After that, the entire window is shut, then we go to prosecution which is enforcement and compliance. That is when we work with the office of the Attorney- General of the Federation and of the states to invoke the Act 16 of 1990 which gave NIPR the regulatory authority to protect public relations in Nigeria.

Q: How can we rebrand Nigeria?
ANS: As stated earlier, the rebranding process is a team work but government should fire the first salvo through adequate public engagement with sincerity of purpose and ensure that during the implementation stage, round pegs are not put in squared holes.

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