The Buhari Administration and Self De-marketing

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With the plethora of inconsistent policy statements, Raheem Akingbolu reasons that the current administration needs to go back to the drawing board to fashion out a better strategy to project the government and its activities

The appointment of Mr. Lai Mohammed, a former image maker of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, as the minister of information at the inception of this administration last year was received with mix feelings. Many people raised eyebrows because of the strong perception that he might not be able to readjust his approach and while trying to sell his party during the electioneering campaigns. While his competence was not in doubt, his style of communication was a major concern for many people, including stakeholders within the ruling party. While they admitted that Mohammed did a good job as the publicity secretary of the party, when it was in opposition, they reckoned that managing the image of a government in power would be a different kettle of fish entirely. They have been proved right.

Another issue that attracted criticism was the appointment of two spokesmen for President Muhammed Buhari in the persons of Messrs Femi Adesina and Garba Sheu. Again, their competences were not in doubt but many observers feared that their efforts could be counterproductive. Those who share this belief can also be said to have been proved right, considering the manner in which they give conflict reactions to issues.

While as opposition party, APC was the one raising issues and putting the then ruling party on its toes, which often forced the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), to respond. The unpopularity of the ruling party then was a massive advantage for the APC. It allowed it to be an alternative people had been looking for. The tagline of its advertising campaign was catchy and instructive: change. It clicked and it became not only its tagline but its slogan. There was the need to change from the old ways of doing things; from ineptitude and a directionless social engineering. Then APC now added an icing on the cake: propaganda. APC succeeded in demonising the ruling party. It made allegations that bothered more on the ridiculous than on the sensible. It accused the then ruling party of planning to kill its leaders. It did not stop there. It also accused it of planning to freeze their account and rope them into the Boko Haram insurgency. APC also criticised the ruling party of not being able to stop the Boko Haram insurgency and also blamed it for poor power supply. Then the party started promising heaven and earth in all in an attempt to sell itself and communicate the fact that it was a better alternative to the floundering PDP. APC won and the narrative of communication changed. Or was it supposed to change.

Before the inauguration of the current administration, the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN) had in a letter to President Muhammadu Buhari, enumerated five areas they wanted the new administration to prioritise. In the letter, which was signed by the association’s president, Mr. Kelechi Nwosu, AAAN called for national reorientation project that would make the country build her civic pride that will make Nigerians drive, grow and build things made in Nigeria. Till date, one is not sure if any national reorientation project has been designed.

According to the letter signed by the president of AAAN, the association said: “We strongly believe there is an urgent need for national re-orientation. The current state of apathy, despondency and disconnect between the citizens and the government needs to be addressed. We therefore suggest a re-orientation project that will genuinely build Civic Pride and get Nigerians to believe in Nigeria and her assets. We desire to see Nigerians begin to appreciate and support Made-in-Nigeria products and brands,” the letter read.

The association went further to give government hint on how the project could be achieved. AAAN gladly offered to develop and produce a ‘Nigerian Pride and Unity campaign at no cost to government. It went on to state that if accepted, government would only be required to fund the exposure of the campaign in the mass media.
It was also suggested in the letter that government needs to develop a master plan to inspire innovation, enable industry, guarantee productivity and help build a progressive and competitive economy. According to AAAN, this will provide the opportunity to grow more dynamic and respected Nigerian brands.
And of course, they observed that Advertising, being a critical tool in this process cannot be pushed aside because it helps create choices that expand trade and fuel the economy and even the polity.

Blame game as tool of narrative…

A Mass Communication lecturer at the Nigerian Institute of Journalsim, Mr. Jide Johnson told THISDAY that the ruling party did not seem to know that campaign was over even after the president had been sworn-in. He said the ruling party still believes that the best way to establish acceptability was by lacing its communication with anti-PDP narratives.
He said: “The ruling party elevated the art of blame game into a communication tool that must be deployed when responding to narrative of challenge and dissent. To them, the best way to remain popular was to constantly demonise the PDP and blame it for all the woes the nation has been facing since 1960. Besides, it used the narrative of corruption to further pummel an already flattened PDP. Disclosures upon disclosures of billions of naira, if not dollars, allegedly stolen by officials of the last administration initially helped the communication of APC. But one thing the party forgets is that just as it is blaming the PDP; people also need to see demonstrable evidence of change. If that is not there, then the blame game will soon reach the end of its life span. And that is exactly what happening now.

Narrative of Arrogance…

The APC launched its communication as the ruling party by launching the superiority of its ideas and also taking those of the ousted PDP to the cleaners. With a big flotilla of social media ship owners, its message resonated with a large chunk of the people. The demonisation of PDP continued while in actual sense, nothing was happening that could actually be communicated. The traditional first 100 days came and gone and when a score card was demanded, the government told the people that it did not promise anything within the first hundred days. Many observers have since dismissed the response as a bad communication strategy that did so much damage to the image of the party. It did not end there. In a strange change in the tone and fulcrum of communication, the president repudiated the document purportedly spelling out what his administration would achieve in the first 100 days. He said the document did not come from him or from any member of his campaign team.

When Language of Communication Demonises…

Then came a turning point in the communication of the ruling party: demonising critics. It all started when the debate about rule of law started. While many agreed that some accused persons have serious cases to answer going by the gravity of allegations against them, analysts also reckoned that any accused should have his or her day in court. Critics of the president’s decision on national television that the government would not obey court pronouncements ordering the release of Nnamdi Kanu and Sambo Dasuki on phone were lampooned to no end. “Corruption is fighting back” used to be the cliché from government and its supporters.

Samuel Ajayi, a journalist and communications consultant, said this was a very wrong approach in government communication. To him, classifying anyone criticising government as enemy of the state or sympathisers of alleged looters would always be counterproductive. He said such would always alienate some sections of the populace from participating in national discourse. He believed not every critics of the way the war on corruption is being fought is friend of alleged looters.

“It is a wrong narrative to say corruption is fighting back,” Ajayi explained. “First, those in government are not angels. That EFCC has not gone after them does not mean they too don’t have cases to answer. If you want people to buy to the anti-corruption crusade, then communication is key. A ‘we’-versus-‘them’ approach can never work. Labeling anyone that pleads caution as sympathiser of corrupt people can never be helpful to the narrative of communication.”

The president remains the number one salesman of any country. However, it is debatable if President Buhari has been a good salesman as far as his pronouncements outside the country are concerned. First, it is believed that it does not help good communication if the president is always in the habit of making major policy pronouncements outside the country. The president has done these more than five times. Pundits think this is a wrong communication strategy which shows that perhaps, the president does not have regard for local media channels.

Between defiance and deflection of responsibility…

The on-going fuel scarcity and biting economic hardships being face by the citizenry ordinarily should have provided the government good opportunity to change the narrative. While these situations are negatives indices, they could be turned into PR stunt that shows that government has been sensitive and shares in the pains of the people. The only top official that has said anything about the fuel scarcity was the Minister of State for Petroleum, Ibe Kachikwu. But one of the leaders of the party took him to the cleaners. To many, this also showed that officials of government were not on the same page. Besides, until the last one week, no one was even explaining what the problem is. Rather, what people are seeing is communication laced with defiance. If the past administration is not being blamed, then it is saboteurs. In other words, in its communication, the government is not ready to take responsibility and explain what it is doing to ameliorate the situation.

Britain example
In an essay written to evaluate David Cameron as Prime Minister of Britain, by Kevin Theakston, a Professor of British Government at the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds and Head of School, it was stated that there was wide agreement that Cameron excels at the public communication aspects of political leadership. According to the university teacher, Cameroon was highly accomplished at the frontman aspect of being prime minister and he appeared to be the government’s most effective communicator. He said Cameron was more like Blair than like Brown or Major in terms of media savvy, presentation skills, and knowing how to handle the media to sell and promote himself and his policies, and to reach out, connect with and persuade the wider public.
“He is good on television, and accomplished and statesmanlike at big set-piece occasions. Cameron is very good at appearing ‘prime-ministerial’. He is also quick on his feet, sharp, confident and effective in the gladiatorial jousts at PMQs. Sometimes, however, Ed Miliband and other Labour frontbenchers have been able to get under his skin and unsettle him, leading to suggestions that he can seem to lose his temper in the House and come across as an aggressive ‘Flashman’ figure,”

Need for public communication unit

Looking at this appraisal and style of policy making by Mr. Cameroon, one is tempted to ask if President Buhari has a policy. In his reaction to this poser, the Publicity Secretary of the Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria (PRCAN), Mr. Israel Jaiye Opayemi, argued that Buhari administration has policy but lack necessary strategies to communicate the policy.
“In my view, the administration has good policies but perhaps the missing link is lack of good strategies to communicate the policy. I think government needs a separate public communication department that would be run by experts. To achieve this, it may be necessary to look beyond the party and recruit those who are experts in public communication.
This was also the position of a former Head of Corporate Communications of the Skye Bank Plc, Mr. Kayode Akinyemi, who later served as the Director General of the then newly created Bureau of Strategic Communications in Ekiti State, while the current Minister of Solid Minerals was the governor of the state. Fayemi had created the office to conceptualise and coordinate the communications initiatives of the government and promote the 8-point agenda of his administration.

In an interview with THISDAY, Akinyemi urged the current administration might need to do the same. According to him, having such office will enable government to have a team that would conceptualise and coordinate the communications initiatives of the government.

Looking back, that Fayemi lost his reelection in 2014 notwithstanding, pundits have consistently argued that his administration maintained a credible image throughout, especially in the eyes of people with discerning minds within and outside Ekiti. However, the communication strategy and the former governor’s high media rating failed because the people at the grassroots could not connect with the administration’s long term programmes and initiatives that would have probably rescue the people and put Ekiti in the world’s record.

Like the former minister of Britain, who promoted a more collective cabinet government style of policy-making and decision making, Buhari will be able to build a strong team and trust his colleagues to get on with the job if well cut-out communications strategies are put in place. The imperatives and dynamics of coalition was said to have helped David Cameroon’s leadership to define the sort of role he can and needed to play as prime minister.
A former President of AAAN, Mr. Funmi Onabolu is more detailed and direct in his recommendation for the government when he spoke to THISDAY. According to him, government desperately needs the services of Marketing Communication practitioners to communicate its policies.

“In nation rebuilding, Nigeria desperately needs to look for specialists for the solution to nation rebuilding. Advertising shape lives, cultures and opinions. If government understands that, why is it not using it? For instance, federal government can make heads and other members of agencies and ministries realised the need for the service of marketing communication professionals. After this a pitch that cut across all the parastatals and ministries could be called to determine the ideal campaign for a particular programme.
“Aside the need for the use of professionals, government ought to be one of the biggest patrons of the advertising industry. Government does not use professionals and as such does not communicate properly. Take for instance, the government of the UK spends about $300 million pounds on advertising in 2015. If I may ask, what are they communicating? You will be amazed at the level at which they are communicating. It has a lot to do with the budget deficit, role in Afghanistan, referendum. I believe if government communicates, particularly with respect to what happens in the ministries and parastatals by using the experts, it would not be difficult for the citizen to understand the intentions of government. In the areas such as increase in tariff, corruption, diversification of the economy, government needs to engage expert for citizen to have a buy in. You must know that change communication is not only about activities of government alone, it also has a lot to do in attracting investments especially in the area of tourism. We must not forget that economies are not driven by the number of Dangotes but the growth of SMEs. This can only be achieved if we allow professionals to drive the communication,” Onabolu said.