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Managing government’s information in social media age

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Adedayo

While the Dr. Festus Adedayo’s appointment debacle as media aide to Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, raged on social media and in beer parlours, social commentator and writer Mr. Kalu Uduma put a memorable spin to the entire saga. Uduma’s critical perspective underpins what many professionals across disciplines have always raised about the spectre of media practitioners accepting the role of spokespersons to government functionaries, both at the state and federal levels, and big corporations.

As the Fourth Estate of the Realm, whose responsibility it is to keep government on its toes so it could be accountable to the people, when they agree to serve as spokespersons or image-makers some kind of anomaly begins to creep in. The fad of serving on the other side of the social divide ostensibly subverts their gatekeeper role and necessarily pits these media professionals against the people for whom they are to hold government and its functionaries accountable.

In what he terms ‘Adedayo: the clear realities’ on his Facebook post, Uduma sums up the appointment saga in the following light, as it affects the entire media landscape, Nigeria’s depressing social conditions, and the psychological orientation it has thrown up.

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According to Uduma, “The Buhari regime doesn’t want pressmen. It wants praise men. Those that don’t praise are forced to bow. Lawan bowing (to pressure from his party) shows an apparent lack of strong character and conviction. A lack of strong will. The Lawan Senate will be an effigy, controlled from behind. To see political appointments not as service but sumptuous dinner generates an unquestioning and servile society. No society survives without the critic. The hysteria against Adedayo’s appointment is part of Buhari’s hammer on the critical media. It rewards uncritical followers.

“Why would self-respecting journalists pick political offers or other offers outside mainstream media? Why do journalists now see the job as a means, not the end of their career? Answer – they have impoverished the media. Hunger rules the newsroom. It’s to weaken the media. Media owners are part of government. That’s why Adedayo will delete his critical tweets to escape hunger. The media must be rescued. It must empower its men to speak fearlessly.”

Also, the recent example of Mr. Habeeb Aruna as Chief Press Secretary to the former governor of Lagos State, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode, is striking enough. Many accused Aruna of not doing enough as the governor’s personal spokesperson to highlight his principal’s achievements to force the hands of acclaimed Lagos godfather and his minions to back-down from stopping his second term bid. Aruna is not alone. Presidential spokespersons at Aso Rock Villa, Messrs Garba Shehu and Femi Adesina, are also guilty of seemingly not understanding their job profile and selling their boss short. The press releases they dish out are largely reactionary to events and bad news regarding their principal who many describe as a bad brand.

Practically the same scenario cuts across the entire political landscape where media men and women run shop as chief press secretaries or media aids to politically exposed persons or even in corporations as corporate communication managers. As journalists these men and women are trained to be critical of their environments, to report what is good and bad, but mostly what is bad with a view to making society better and according to established norms.

However, society, government, and organizations largely run counter to such norms in quest of profit or other considerations that violate society’s wellbeing. It is why news is sometimes described as ‘unearthing or revealing what is being hidden.’ Governments and organizations all over the world are adept at hiding things that portray them in bad light. Therefore for media men or women whose duty it is to unearth or reveal what is being hidden to now team up with government and organizations means society will be the worse for it.

But beyond these, information management as specialised art is sometimes not in the purview of the men and women who operate newsrooms as journalists. And so whether as press secretary, commissioner or minister of information, some argue, the job description does not quite fit the role of a media man or woman. It is why public relations professionals say Adesina, Adedayo, Garba, and Aruna and their fellow media journeymen and women in these sensitive positions lack the requisite knowledge to package and sell their principals well as good brands to their target audiences across board effectively. They say media men or women are either too critical or reactionary by virtue of their training and end up making a mess of things instead.

Corporate brand consultant and director of White Dove Ltd, Mr. Ken Ebbi, firmly believes media jobs should be given to public relations professionals, saying managing information from media perspective is flat as there are many trappings that have to be touched.

“At best even if you hire a media person in terms of reach, he himself has to be managed by a PR person, or at worse, also hire a PR person to work with him,” Ebbi noted. “We are talking about what the international community (in the case of Mr. President) thinks about your country. You couldn’t just do or say whatever you want without consequences. You should have a PR expert at the helm of affairs and then a media person. It’s important you control the channel.

“There should be holistic plan guiding brand direction where you are going. Sometimes, you are trying to reconcile what Shehu and Adesina are saying on the same subject. Quite vehemently, we should not have a media person at the helms of affairs in government information management. This anomaly became obvious starting from Dr. Rueben Abati’s era, although he (Abati) ascribed the mess to spiritual interference.”

But Editorial Board chairman of The Nation newspaper, poet, and novelist, Mr. Sam Omatseye, vehemently opposes Ebbi, saying the political environment is a very dynamic space that requires what is akin to the chaotic newsroom and its crazy deadlines that only a media man can handle. A PR man cannot handle it as he is used to holding strategic sessions before coming up with solutions, by which time his principal would have been swept out of office.

According to Omatseye, “The PR man is not in the newspaper, TV or radio and so does not know the daily grind of the business. He is in the business of looking at the client and advising ways to go. But handling a politician is a very dynamic thing that happens every day like the newsroom deadline. Deadline is not something a PR man appreciates; he can’t keep up with the quicksand of politics.

“A journalist has great knowledge about politics and the psychology of politicians. He also has 24-hours sense of duty that a PR man does not have. Image-making is total package for a PR man, but he doesn’t have the reach and dynamism the political space demands. So, my instinct is to pick the journalist; he works on the spur of the moment. He knows the day-to-day grind of the job, but it may take a PR man a lot of time to think up a strategy and by which time the damage has been done.

“Our politicians are accidents waiting to happen, and they happen quickly; only the journalist can keep up, not the PR man. The best form of PR is not to lie; the point is to tell the truth, but to tell it cleverly. PR man is not in the task of thinking on his feet, which a journalist does very well.”

However, a university don believes managing information is beyond journalistic expertise and argues that PR professionals may be best suited for government’s media aids’ jobs. Dr. Daniel Ekhareafor of Department of Mass Communication, University of Benin, Benin City, further argues that the right job schedule for managing government’s information should be strategic communication. But he laments that such programme is not so strong in Nigeria at the moment.

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“Those who have interest in strategic communication are best suited for the information management job,” he said via telephone from Ekenwa Campus, Benin City. “It (strategic communication) is best on how to market ideas. So, PR (practitioners) is best suited. Are you not surprised that information managers for government tell obvious lies? A PR person may not be good in public speaking or oratory, but he knows what to do. Politicians also can be strategic and get academic or individuals who are known over time to do the job. Being a regular columnist or writing in newspapers does not mean being able to manage information.

“In marketing communication, you cannot market a bad brand; a product markets itself. Our politicians haven’t done a good job of marketing themselves.”

Ekhareafor advocates putting square pegs in square holes instead of the other way round, which appears to be case at the moment. Like Ebbi, Ekhareafor advises government officials to be mindful of passing obvious lies as propaganda, saying, instead they “can keep strategic silence”. He also recommends crash information management courses for politicians so they know what to say or not say at particular moments.

Ebbi also canvases effective social media expertise by managers of government information, which he finds deficient among handlers at the moment. He says the current crop of media handlers is essentially analogue in outlook and lacking social media skills and tools to do the job well.

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