I thank my stars that I have no friend in government. Long ago, I realized that a friend in government is a friend lost. More often than not, when people make the transition from the newsroom into governance, they lose their head, take their credibility with it and screw things up badly. Thankfully, the local public is a forgiving lot. If the media person is able to raise their social status higher while in government, people soon forgive their shortcomings and focus on the perks.
I believe that the first casualty of a failing government is its mishandling of public opinion. Even where you have the popularity to rig elections, you need public opinion in your favour to succeed. It was not just for promising to do things and dragging his foot that set Buhari up for the monumental failure awaiting his second attempt at governance, it is the professional incompetence that comes with the arrogance of his media handlers.
I have no idea who coined the term ‘wailers’ to describe the malcontents of the locust years, but it is certain that they started howling as they used Zacky Adzee-style torch to glean for APC failures as soon as they lost the elections. Buhari’s asset declaration brouhaha was the first sign of trouble. When Femi Adesina used the term ‘wailer’ to describe these malcontents, it was evident he did not understand the difference between his editorial position at The Sun and the role of presidential spokesman. He got loads of barmy comments showing why a presidential spokesperson should shed the toga of a public commentator when describing critics.
Before then, Garba Shehu had done very poorly on the asset declaration issue. Last week, Femi Adesina became a preacherman still using the wailer tag on his social media timeline. He seemed to have forgotten that he is not preaching to the choir, but to everyone under the influence of his megaphone. A good spokesperson takes self out of the message for clarity and ambiguity. Making the transition from the critic with liberty to the hireling with a duty are two parallel lines loaded with watts of trouble. The critic’s image is positive voltage; it must be clear and separate from his person or his past role. His new job is negative; it must be mellow as the moon. He must know how to join both without creating a spark or risk an inferno.
In my considered opinion, if Adesina thinks that working for Buhari is lower than his last editorial position, that was his personal choice. When the multimillion unemployed people who were promised N5,000 per month but denied speak of hunger, it is not their choice. It should not be compared to Adesina’s fasting duty as an evident lay preacher; that fasting is a choice; the hunger in the land is not. Unfortunately, Bayo Onanuga, has fallen into the same trap and stirred a hornet nest of anger.
Shehu’s messages in the media sounds like the scolding of a head-teacher to his pupils or the order of an editor to a rookie reporter. He tends to talk down at the people he is meant to inform and bring along. It is dangerous; especially for a government fast falling out of favour with a population whose pregnant expectation led to revolutionary protest votes now lamenting that the promises were a lemon.
The publics of the digital age is more informed, more perceptive and indeed more analytical in the age of social media than those who lived through the dark world of press releases. Managing information for a complex country like ours requires being perceptively proactive and intelligently reactive. You must engage more measuredly to get the people on your side. It is said that the Internet neither forgives nor forget; it is not the Internet that does not forgive or forget, it is the people who consume what it stores in bites and regurgitates at the touch of a button. It is the spontaneous analysis of experts and idiots outside mainstream media.
This is why I keep arguing that it takes more than a degree in mass communication or journalism to handle the present-day complexity of information management. Journalists think they have it; they know how to process information but not necessarily how to handle it. Information management is a public relations practitioners’ playground. They play a dual role when pushing out information – consciously borrowing the language of communicators but considerate enough most times to accurately project the reaction of their publics. The journalist as communicator is often exuberantly eager to push out a rejoinder where the communicator would lightly ignore or target the appropriate time. Sometimes, the communicator goes ahead of an event or an issue to soften the ground where the journalist pushes to make the raw facts available.
There is help for those who make the transformation between communication and public relations practice. Before they fritter the last iota of goodwill left in the land for Buhari, here’s hoping that they know where to get that help and effectively utilize it.