The Trust Gap in Governance: Implications For PR Practitioners
By Cosmas Uzodinma – Chief Press Secretary to FCT Minister
“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” – Abraham Lincoln.
The couple was laid in the casket about to be buried. It was a most loathsome family that had plagued and ravaged the country for decades -the Bigot couple, Ethnicity and Religiosity. To be able to bring them where they were, Nigerians had to speak with one voice. On the ballot was a southern presidential candidate and a northern running mate. A Muslim-Muslim ticket, elected through a process umpired by a South Easterner and acclaimed to be the freest and fairest election conducted in Nigeria up until that time. It was June 12, 1993.
Nigerians were glued to their radio and television sets awaiting the formal announcement of the final result of the elections, which was already all too well known. What they heard instead was the broadcast of an annulment. The Bigot family, alas, was alive and well! The witch-doctors had quickly assembled a crack team of exorcists that administered a potent potion that resurrected them.
As Nigeria slid to the brink of tension, many Nigerians living outside their ethnic enclaves quickly hurled up their bag and baggage into available trucks and buses in search of peace havens. While vehicular traffic filled with beds and bedding, pots and pestles, jostled for space on the cluttered highways, the then Minister of Information – the Chief Public Relations Officer of the then government regaled Nigerians with tales of people going home for the annual New Yam Festival. He was reading from the playbook of Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Nazi propaganda spin doctor. Another big wedge had been driven into our nation’s Governance Communication landscape, creating a trust gap that has continued to widen.
But must we descend into the Goebellian valley in order to do this job as government reputation managers? Who should we be beholden to – the ruling class or the citizens?
So much comes to the table whenever the role of government reputation managers comes up for consideration. The performance of our representatives in Government Houses has left no trusted footpath. There seems to be a heavy burden of proof expected from them. Indeed, over the years, the roles of Public Relations firms in handling propaganda tended to erode the credibility of Public Relations.
I must recall the Jeff Koinange hoax in which he staged a charade of his purported kidnap by Niger Delta militants. There was an outcry by government through the reputation managers, but the media was simply not interested. Soon after, the cat was let out of the bag. Koinange had used money to procure a drama, spinning a yarn and a false narrative in which he was kidnapped and held hostage by a low-key retail Niger Delta militant group, which he went on to blow up in the Cable News Network (CNN). The news was an instant hit but not long after, the bubble burst, leading to the removal of Koinange from the Network.
There are other documented incidents of misstep that have plagued the profession and placed a heavy credibility burden upon both the practice and the media. The more citizens become aware of these negative developments the warier they are of PR. Today, the acronym PR tends to mean something lacking in substance, a spin or “alternative facts.” Materials from the stable of government reputation managers are often taken with a pinch of salt because of the perversity of Goebbelian principles based on the maxim that “lies told over and over again easily assume the form of truth”, which seems to drive government reputation management practices.
The mission for the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations today should include what should be done to bridge the trust gap between government and the citizens, since we are often the spokespersons for government. The citizens are better educated today. Even if they might have been fooled in the past, they cannot be fooled anymore. Truth, even though it travels slowly, will always catch up with falsehood.
When buildings collapse, engineers are held accountable. Lawyers and doctors are sanctioned for unethical practices. But who sanctions us when we err? When sentence against evil acts are delayed, says the Bible, mankind would always persist on the path of sin.
The Code of Ethics for PR practitioner s should be reviewed, publicized and backed with strong enforcement machinery. Upon registration, such documents should be handed out to members. Similarly, machinery must be put in motion to hold practitioners accountable for any false narrative. Materials emanating from the stable of public communications managers should be audited while stricter regulations and membership preconditions should be strengthened.
Social media has become a battleground for propaganda today and in war, all is fair. That should not be said of Public Relations professionals. Online media networks owned by accredited members or public relations firms should be accredited and listed on the NIPR website. That way, netizens – as the online community is known –
could be guided to where they can obtain trusted information on government or society. This would enable them to also report materials that are fake news or falsehood to the Institute for investigation and for sanction.
There is a high degree of confusion among various related professions. The lines are blurred about what is journalism, what is PR and what is advertising. Media partisanship has not helped matters. Gone are the days when media had unimpeachable reputation. They now take sides.
A failure in one is always attributed to the other. The citizens do not know who to believe anymore. Every time of crisis, however, also presents golden opportunities for a rising from the ashes of despair. NIPR should seize this moment of anomie to provide the needed solution. We must present the profession in clear unambiguous terms, with succinct practices templates and code of conducts.
Culled from PR Monthly, a publication of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations, NIPR, FCT Chapter. You can reach the Editor-in-Chief on: 08039652051, [email protected].