Managing Public Communication in Polarised Democracy

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By Emeka Oparah

In the aftermath of the recent #EndSARS protests and the resultant riots, there have been interesting conversations around the way the government and the police managed the communication element from their end. This is not necessarily a post mortem or an appraisal of how those in-charge of communication discharged their duties under the circumstance. It is, however, an attempt to highlight the critical imperatives of managing information, engaging a diverse population and checking the pulse of the people and using the outcome to plan communication in government and indeed the public service.

Public communication is essentially similar to corporate communication except that the motive is not necessarily profit or likeability. It requires the same level of understanding of the target audience, their expectations, the available tools for communicating with them, clear objectives and regular feedback. Communication without feedback is incomplete even wasted. Public communication, therefore, can be loosely defined as a process of strategic, deliberate, planned, targeted, timed and measurable information to create mutual understanding between government and the public, provide information, clarification and promote buy-in of the public into government actions and inactions.

In a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-faith, diversified (read highly polarized) society like Nigeria, managing public communication is, and ought to be, a daunting task. It is not a one-way stimulus-response or hypodermic needle communication situation. Even so, we are not globally recognized as one of the countries where the people obey traffic lights! It is important to note that perception or rather the way people receive communication are biased by either their ethnic or religious orientation. Typically, education and exposure as well as peer groups or other associations have the tendency to influence the way people perceive communication. In Nigeria, ethnicity and religion are, perhaps, the most moderating impact on communication. It must be stated that the current economic realities of the country have all but destroyed any semblance of tranquility amongst the populace especially the youth population, which is in clear majority at about 60% of the population. Add to these, the burgeoning effect of New Media or Social Media, which, for now is uncontrolled (or uncontrollable) and has totally democratized free speech as much as it has democratized recklessness. Therefore, there are certain imperatives of communication peculiar to such an audience under such circumstances, which can only be ignored at great costs and peril. I will address them in no particular order.

Professionalism: For so long, there has been an argument over the appropriateness of putting round pegs in square holes with regards to the appointment of government spokesmen and indeed those responsible for managing public communication. The juror may still be out but it is neither debatable nor a subject of any conjecture that the best men and women should always be appointed to critical positions in government. Much as government appointments reflect party loyalty and support, the best thing would be to fit round pegs in round holes. The culture of appointing journalists to public communications positions has, generally speaking, proved counterproductive over the years. This is not to say journalists are not good. Far be it from me any such suggestion. What I mean is that journalists, by the training, are reporters or chroniclers of news. They are not always imbued with the knowledge and skills of strategic thinking and planning required for such positions. Yes, they may be famous and connected in the media, but the job is not only about media relations or publicity. It goes beyond those operational activities to the more strategic and certainly more demanding tasks of developing strategies and advising the government or the boss not only about what to say or do but when and how to say or do them in order to foster better awareness, understanding and cooperation of the public. The time has come for political leaders, especially presidents and governors and others in key positions to think deeply about this. Even the private sector is not immune to this malady. I propose the job specification and person specification of the positions are clearly defined and professional recruiters engaged to hire the right fit.

Credibility: Perhaps one of the most crucial elements of a good message is not only the credibility of the message but also the credibility of the messenger. There is a tendency to disbelieve certain communications from government spokespeople because they already have a damaged reputation (from past events) or the people are generally incredulous of the government. In such situations and indeed in all cases, government spokespeople should recuse themselves from opinionating on socio-political issues. They should restrict themselves to stating the government’s position because their commentary will confer a toga of unbelievability on the issue at hand. This happens so often in Nigeria, where you see government spokespeople penning opinion articles, making social media posts or even appearing on radio and television to express their opinions on issues. It is ok for them to make the posts, write the statements and appear on broadcast media to clarify government’s positions totally shorn of their personal opinions. Often, their opinions are taken as the government’s position which may not necessarily be so and end up creating more disaffection between the government and the people. One strategy which works well is the use of third-party advocacy or pseudonyms to drive home government agenda or position. It significantly removes the veil of bias or perception of bias.

Authenticity: Like credibility, authenticity reinforces a message or communication. When people perceive the messenger and the message as genuine, they tend to believe more and show more understanding. On the contrary, if the public believes the information provided is always politically motivated or defensive of the government and government people, even in the face of contradictory evidence, the people will become incredulous and the communication will fail. Don’t forget, the objective of any communication is to seek understanding by providing information and clarification. So, genuineness or sincerity is extremely important in winning the people to the side of the government. It becomes worse when even those who normally would support the government begin to feel alienated or underwhelmed by government communication.

Regularity: One of the important aspects of communication is constant engagement. Government must always talk to the people. A situation where the people on their own call on the government to talk to them is not good. And what is not good is bad. Government should be perspicacious enough to know when to talk to the people. Beyond the talk, it is also important who does the talking. There are times the President or Governor or whoever should be the one talking to the people. Of course, it is not always the president or governor who should be on radio or television. After all that is why we have government spokespeople. But there are occasions which demand the big man should have the sense of occasion to address an important issue personally. This also happens in the corporate world, where the CEOs occasionally meet with all employees to address important issues. As a matter of fact, most serious-minded organizations have quarterly or half-yearly CEO-Staff meetings on their communication calendar. In the case of the government, there should be platforms including publications, radio and TV as well as social media to regularly update the people on government programmes and indeed what is generally happening in the country. One of the bane of governments and their spokespeople is the tendency to be reactive rather than proactive and strategic in their communication.

Timing: Closely related to regularity or frequency is timing. In communication, it could be all about the timing-when the message was delivered. You do not allow a burning issue to fester before talking about it or doing something about it. By the way, communication is not all about making a speech or writing an article or letter but, even more importantly, doing something. Action, they say, speaks louder than words. So, taking action timeously or addressing the public quickly can make a difference between a crisis and a matter resolved. I must also state before moving on to the next point that there are also times, silence is the best answer. It is not every issue that must be addressed or responded to. Some are best avoided or ignored or dealt with at a more auspicious time. It requires the competence, the knowledge, the skills and experience of the communication managers to advise the government having taken all other things into consideration.

Quality: In everything in life, quality is important and does play a crucial role in acceptability or lack of it. A situation where a statement emanating from the government or worse still a presidential speech is fraught with typographical or factual inexactitudes is unpardonable and can seriously injure or erode credibility and authority. This point dials back to my first point, which is the appointment of professionals into government communications roles. People with requisite qualifications, knowledge and experience will ensure high standards. Of course, mistakes are human but it must not be a regular occurrence.

Sensitivity: It is emotionally intelligent to exercise due diligence when communicating with people of diverse ethnic and religious persuasions. In such a potentially polarised and combustible environment, a wrong communication can inflame negative passions and lead to a crisis. It is intelligent to constantly gauge the mood of the country and read the feelings of the people before talking to them or taking actions. As the old saying goes, always look before you leap. In other words, think before you talk or act. In a country where every action or inaction is viewed from the jaundiced perspectives or ethnicity or religion, it is a tough task to communicate effectively. Therefore, those responsible for engaging the people must always take a listen to what the prevailing opinions are and exercise reasonable circumspection to avoiding achieving the opposite objectives.

Body language: It was Senator Rochas Okorocha (of all people) who recently said, in the aftermath of the #EndSARS protests, that “Our lifestyle is provoking Nigerian youths”. He was right. In communication, there is something called “Gap Analysis”, which measures the difference between what is said and what is done. It is absolutely contradictory to tell the people the economy is in jeopardy while you are living openly large. This leads to acute dissonance. If your body language (non-verbal communication) is not aligned with your communication, you will most definitely lose credibility and lose the people. This is a fundamental failure in public communication and politicians are often guilty of this misalignment. It takes a strong leadership sometimes to rein in the wayward tendencies of public officials. Flying chartered flights and private jets when the policy is business or economy class for public servants is not only derogatory to the sensibilities of the people but could incite dislike or hatred and possible protests.

Research: I need not here dilate on the excellences of research or feedback in government communication. The leader must have a listening ear. Government’s Communications managers must put in place mechanisms and explore every available avenue to obtain feedback from the people. Research can be informal or formal. There are reputable agencies who deliver image studies to reveal how the people perceive the government, government officials and government policies and programmes. Of course, there are other numerous informal platforms like the media, social media and town halls, where representatives of the people speak directly to government officials. There is one platform the government doesn’t seem to be exploring or utilising enough: traditional institutions. Most of the time, traditional rulers are treated like effigies to grace government events and that’s all. Being so close to the people at the grassroots level, traditional rulers can be used to listen to the people and also talk to them, especially where the traditional authority is credible and authentic.

At the end of the day, it boils down to leadership and professionalism. The leader must understand and appreciate the role and essence of communication and those responsible for communication must be professional in discharging their responsibilities with clearly defined objectives. Government communication is serious business, which must be taken as seriously as other aspects of government business. Government must keep the people informed all the time and the people must be made to know, understand and buy into what their government is doing. Effective communication with the attendant feedback is the handshake government must have with the people as it seeks to deliver its electoral promises and build a stronger country.

Emeka Oparah, a communication practitioner, writes from Lagos.