Raheem Akingbolu reviews the communication strategies of the current administration in the last four years and reckons that it is far below average
From blame game to plethora of inconsistent policy statements, the current administration of President Muhammadu Buhari can be said to have bungled the opportunity to effectively communicate its achievements in the last four years.
While many observers blame the Minister of Information, a former spokesperson of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Mr. Lai Muhammed, for lacking necessary media and communications experience, it was believed in some quarters that his inability to draw a line between propaganda and news made the job difficult for Muhammed.
His appointment as the minister of information at the inception of this administration was received with mix feelings.
Many had raised eyebrows because of the strong perception that he might not be able to readjust his approach while trying to sell his party to the electorates prior to 2015 elections. 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 the opposition, they reckoned that managing the image of a government in power would be a different kettle of fish entirely.
With Muhammed’s allege failure in the last three and half years, those who opposed his appointment could be said to have been vindicated.
In the final analysis, many analysts have pointed out that till date, government’s position on Boko Haram activities, herdsmen killing and issues related to lopsidedness in service chiefs appointments, have not been communicated well to Nigerians.
Narrative of Arrogance…
At the inception of the administration, the APC had launched its communication as the ruling party through 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. With this, many observers 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…
Another turning point in the communication of the ruling party was when it turned to nothing but 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, some 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…
One major crisis that further exposed the administration’s communication failure was the fuel scarcity and biting economic hardships face by the citizenry at the early stage of the administration. While many thought it would provide the government good opportunity to change the narrative, the promoters of the government policy again bungled the opportunity. Though these situations were negatives indices, they could be turned into PR stunt that showed that government had been sensitive and shared in the pains of the people. The only top official that said anything about the fuel scarcity while it continued was the Minister of State for Petroleum, Ibe Kachikwu but again a party leader took him to the cleaners.
To many, this also showed that officials of government were not on the same page. Until the tail end of the crisis, no one explained what the problem was, rather, what people were seeing was communication laced with defiance. If the past administration was not blamed, the problem would be linked with saboteurs. In other words, in its communication, the current government didn’t appear as a body that was ready to take responsibility and explain what happened.
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, had 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 Bureau of Strategic Communications in Ekiti State, during the first term of Governor Kayode Fayemi.
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 said the next Buhari 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.
“Like the former Prime 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,” Akinyemi said.
A former President of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN), Mr. Funmi Onabolu is more detailed 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. We should all know and agree 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