All over the world, smart politicians play to the gallery. And they do so with their cameramen in tow in an elaborate scheme that is now part of the game. Politicians carry babies in the market place. They pump fists with plumbers. They pose with books even when they are not reading. And they do chores that ordinarily they don’t do at home, in order to appear like the man next door.
While Nigerian politicians have also learnt those tricks, there is little or no imagination in some of the things they do for the camera: They buy and eat roasted corn or groundnuts by the roadside; they ride on Okada; they share in drinking ‘agbo jedi’ with motor park touts. Ordinarily, these are not bad in themselves, as monotonous as they seem. However, the real challenge is that when golden opportunities for impactful public relations come, they simply bungle it because they just don’t understand the power of strategic gestures.
Take a look at the iconic photograph on top of this page. It was one of those unscripted moments: a little boy with no shoes, standing by a mud house sees a governor passing by from a distance. From his vehicle, the governor gestures with a “Victory” thumbs-up popularised by Winston Churchill or “peace sign” as it is often described. The boy returns the gesture. In that brief moment, a virtual connection is established between the governor and the little boy; as one perhaps reflects on the past while the other dreams about the future. It was a moment frozen in time which perhaps explains why Arthur Brisbane, a 20th century Australian newspaper editor, said most memorably that a picture is “worth a thousand words.”
Yet as iconic as that photograph is, it is also very delicate due to the unequal relationship between the two characters joined in a fateful but distant embrace. Handling, therefore, can make a lot of difference. After all, as Elliot Erwitt would argue, photography has little to do with the things you see but “everything to do with how you see them.” A good product carelessly mismanaged could be a public relations disaster. I am sure the Osun State Governor, Mr Rauf Aregbesola and his media handlers would by now know what I am talking about.
In sending out the above photograph from Aregbesola’s Twitter handle last Saturday, the governor’s handlers (I doubt if he did it himself) borrowed a quote from the 19th century Russian writer and philosopher, Fyodor Dostoyevsky: “The soul is healed by being with children.” It was a most inappropriate quote for which Aregbesola received instant rebukes from the ever-attentive Twitter users, especially since there was no suggestion that the governor actually came down to meet the boy.
While some of the comments were abusive, as you would expect in the Nigeria of today, a few of the respondents also spoke to the core of the issue. Two stand out for me. The first is of course interpretative and it doesn’t matter whether or not we agree with it: “He (the little boy) is not waving because he likes you. That is a call for help. Too bad you can’t discern.” The second hits at the choice of quote: “Being with children” you say? He is like a half mile away from you on foot and you are in a bus driving by. That’s not ‘being with children’”.
First, I must commend the photographer for producing the kind of photograph that wins awards. By his spontaneous and evidently genuine gesture, as captured on camera, Aregbesola was breaching a divide between him and that little boy in a manner that transcended boundaries and class. Had he waited to take a photograph with the boy to accompany the one from the vehicle, it would have been a public relations coup.
Now to the question: Should the governor have come down from his vehicle to greet the boy? May be; maybe not. But that is not the point. The real challenge is in the quote which did not fit the occasion since whoever came up with it lacked the imagination that produced the photograph in the first place. The person ought to have looked beyond the governor to make the little boy the object of his imagination. But since he didn’t, he exposed the governor to merciless social media trolls and his political traducers.
There are obvious lessons to learn. According to Ms Kiku Adatto, a Scholar in Residence at Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center, the Internet age and the advent of a 24-hour news cycle, “have heightened the demand for arresting images” while politicians and their handlers “know all too well the power of pictures to persuade — and to destroy.” Flattering camera angles and carefully-staged backdrops, as Adatto explains in her book, “Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op”, can enhance the profile of a politician while “a gaffe caught on camera (or worse, on video) can be devastating fodder for ridicule in the endless video loops of cable news and YouTube…”
What the foregoing says most eloquently is the importance of the media team to any politician and public official as Reuben Abati pointed out in his piece on Tuesday, “Buhari’s Reunion with His Media Team” and Louis Odion amplified in his of yesterday, “The art of managing the truth”. Although looking at the same issue from different angles, both spoke to the elaborate photographic sessions being organized for President Muhammadu Buhari in London, the most effective of which was the latest one involving his media team, even with all its flaws. Considering that the fight for turf in the Villa can be very vicious, I can hazard a guess as to why the media team was excluded from accessing their principal for such a long time: ‘security reason’!
What most Nigerian politicians and public official fail to understand is that by feeling less guarded and more spontaneous in their actions, it becomes very easy to connect with their various publics. Citizens almost always demand in their leader a personal touch which can only happen if they shed all inhibitions and directly engage the people. But because our leaders, at all levels, allow themselves to be caged by security operatives who believe they know everything, media handlers have to constantly contend with all manner of busybodies in trying to do their job. This is a general story that you find from Abuja to all the 36 states.
All said, as good as posing for photographs and posting them out may be, making a difference in the lives of the people is far more enduring and that unfortunately is where majority of our politicians fail. In most of the states of the federation today, for instance, the common story is that of misplaced priorities. One Governor is building Mosques in a state where majority of his people are notoriously poor after another had tried to replicate the Roman Catholic St. Peter’s Basilica in his State Government House. Yet another is erecting a multibillion Naira governor’s lodge in Lagos so that he can have a “befitting place to meet foreign investors” while many others are either building airports or some bogus secretariats. The question remains: how do such projects, which are no better than monuments to waste, translate into more jobs for the poor who are now only good for wheelbarrows?
Nothing exemplifies the level of deprivation in the country than the fact that many of our young citizens are still willing to embark on death trips across the Sahara desert in the futile bids to cross to Europe for the ‘greener pastures’ that are not even available over there, assuming they succeed in their desperate journey. The pervading state of hopelessness across the country therefore calls for concerted efforts by all the stakeholders who must understand that we are in a very precarious situation.
Meanwhile, thanks to a more professional information management, Nigerians now know that President Buhari (whose placid dining table photographs we have had to endure in recent weeks) can actually talk and walk unaided. Yet that still has not addressed the question that Nigerians (majority of who live below poverty line) elected him to take care of our welfare. But since Nigerians find humour in their challenges, that perhaps also explains the “baffling Naija facts” that are now in circulation: PHCN offices run on generator; Chairman of Okada Union drives an SUV; the MD of Techno uses an i-phone; Police now lock-chain generators within their barracks to prevent theft and the President of Nigeria resides in London!
2017 Teens Conference
Cheating does not pay. Back in the days, that was usually a topic for an essay or a debate in secondary school. Given what I have learnt in almost one a half decades as a teacher in Teens church, such a topic would now sound very hollow in a milieu where examination malpractices have been deodorized into a positive word: Cooperation!
To therefore rebuild our society, we must begin to inculcate in our young people the values of diligence and honest living. That is the basis of the RCCG (TEAP Zone) Abuja Teens Career Conference which started last year while the second edition is scheduled for next week Saturday, 26th August. With the theme, “Life is a Stage”, the invited speakers are veteran actor, Mr Richard Mofe Damijo (RMD); former Education Minister, Mrs Oby Ezekwesili; former Kaduna State Health Commissioner, Mrs Charity Shekari and the host, Pastor Eva Azodoh, a medical doctor (consultant urologist) and retired army colonel.
In bringing accomplished professionals and role models in the society to share their stories, we want the teenagers to learn how to find purpose for their own lives as well as how to avoid the distractions that could prevent them from achieving such purpose. Attendance at this conference—usually a day of fun with music, food and drinks—is free but interested participants need to visit www.rccgteapteens.org to register. Enquiries can also be sent to email@example.com.