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Tolu Ogunlesi: A PR Guide For Nigeria

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News broke last week that the Nigerian government this month signed a $1.2m contract with an American public relations and communications firm, Levick, to influence the “international and local media narrative” surrounding the government’s handling of the case of the abducted girls of Chibok. It does finally seem that the government is now scrambling to put out the raging fires that have been consuming its international reputation since the middle of April. Levick has since started work, and it makes sense to believe that the Goodluck Jonathan op-ed that appeared in theWashington Post at the weekend is early evidence of the impact of its engagement.

Congratulations and best wishes to Levick, merely the latest in a long line of Western image consultants that Nigerian governments have been known to routinely engage for miracle-working purposes.

What follows is some free advice to the Nigerian government (and perhaps, Levick, as well) regarding the matter of Nigeria’s international “image” and “narrative.”

Let’s kick off at the most important point, the top. The head of the fish, where, as the Chinese would like us to believe, the fish starts to rot.

A country’s leader is one of its biggest advertisements. You can’t have a President who comes across as unremarkable and expect to convincingly sell your country to the world as a remarkable one. Even more than Nigeria, Jonathan needs a rewritten narrative. This has to start with his comportment in front of international audiences – media, investors, business executives. His handlers need to reinvent him in this regard.

I recently attended a series of events at which the President was a special guest (in front of audiences of business executives and the media), and, I would be lying if I said his performance wasn’t a near-disaster. I spent most of my time cringing. He kept saying really embarrassing things like: “I’m here to listen to the experts”; “You people are the experts”; “I’m a politician, you people are the professionals.” If those were attempts at self-deprecation, they failed woefully, conveying instead a strong perception of cluelessness.

One other unsatisfying habit of the President that I’ve noticed is the one in which he unsubtly deflects responsibility for all of Nigeria’s problems to the international community. Ask him about anything: terrorism, oil theft, light weapons, climate change, and the answer is guaranteed to be the same: “Nigeria is not the only country suffering, it is an international phenomenon that affects everyone; we are calling on the international community to assist us.”

No doubt, there is a place for that sort of argument, but no serious leader should make that a signature line. Whoever coached the President to resort to that weak and disingenuous line should own up now, and apologise to Nigerians.

I’m not saying the President has to be a Barack Obama, or suddenly be forced to develop an eloquence or charisma beyond his capacity. No. I realise that there are not many people in the world born to mesmerise audiences and TV cameras. Most of us will never be at our best in public performances. But the least one would expect from the President of Nigeria would be a clear grasp of important issues affecting the country, in a way that produces insight; as well as a quickness with illuminating statistics and data. Nigerians and the world demand more of their President than the “America will know” and “Dangote told me” logic.

I have observed that save for a handful of exceptions, Nigerian government officials generally share one remarkable quality: the ability to speak at length without saying anything remotely insightful or interesting. I’ve seen this happen again and again, and it’s occurred to me that a government that is interested in maintaining or securing a good international image should do a better job in this regard.

There is also the small matter of the Internet. I often like to argue that pre-Internet presidents had it much easier trying to control narratives and dissemination of content. Now, things have changed, and the Internet has turned many citizens into fairly powerful purveyors of opinion. By sheer force of will, ordinary Nigerians armed with mobile phones and immobile frustrations are able to powerfully (and in a manner approximating reality) shape their country’s international narratives in a way no media or PR behemoth could possibly hope to counter.

Meanwhile, our government is still busy working according to old scripts, hiring PR consultants whose efforts are either not needed, or doomed, from the beginning, to end in failure; or paying armies of nothing-to-lose youth to engage in daft, faceless propaganda and trolling on the Internet.

I found it puzzling when I heard that the Nigerian government once engaged a consultant to help arrange interviews for the President with international news media like the Cable News Network. I don’t care much for any argument that suggests that’s how it’s done in other countries. It does seem to me that Nigeria is not the sort of country that should be struggling to have its President appear on any international news medium worthy of attention. The CNN and the rest should be the ones angling for Nigerian presidential attention, not the other way round. An email from a Nigerian presidential aide who understands the worth of his country should be enough to get an exclusive interview for his boss anywhere in the world. Anything else would be demeaning; suggesting that our fate is in the hands of an unserious government.

To prove itself serious that government urgently needs to demonstrate that it understands the fundamental rule of image management: That actions speak loudest. That you may write a million New York Times articles declaring how pained you are by the fate of the missing girls, but what will really count is what people see when they look at your actions. And what do they see? A First Lady who accuses defenceless citizens of trying to embarrass her husband by making noise about missing girls. A President who didn’t think it made sense to speak to his country on the matter until weeks after the incident, and who openly regards every critic – regardless of the issue: fuel subsidy or abducted girls or whistleblowing about oil revenues – as a mischief maker sponsored by an opposition party.

In closing, let me make it clear that I have nothing against consultants; I am myself often one. I understand the roles of consultants in bringing outside expertise to make a difference; it’s a standard management template deployed widely across business and government spheres. But things need to be sensibly done. Consultants should generally be depended upon to work with and support ‘management’ to bring improvements to organisational processes, not to fill yawning gaps arising from a deliberate and persistent abdication of duty by management.

One seriously hopes these American narrative-shapers have some understanding of Nigeria beyond Wikipaedia and government messaging. One also takes it for granted that they know that the people who actually have the power to shape the Nigerian narrative are the ones who employed them. One American publication quotes a Levick topshot as saying that, “there’s got to be a way to amplify what President Jonathan is saying and doing to find these girls because over here in America, we’re not hearing much about his effort.”

I wonder how willing the consultant might be to concede to this argument: that perhaps the world is not hearing much about any efforts to rescue the girls because there are really no serious efforts going on.

But knowing a bit about the world of high stakes consulting, such a reason would be too banal, and insufficiently ‘best-practice’; and any explanations that cannot be rendered as a 300-page chart-studded PowerPoint presentations would not be worth considering.

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Article written by Tolu Ogunlesi, On twitter @toluogunlesi and Culled from his PUNCH.

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