How to manage communication around national crises: A memo to President Jonathan and his spokespersons

Posted by Lolu Akinwunmi | 9 May 2014 | 3,682 times

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With a bit of amusement, I have watched presidential spokesmen labour doggedly in trying to convince everyone that the president cares, is effective, compassionate, is working and is on top of the Boko Haram crises. They have, of course, had to speak against a deluge of startling editorials from The Punch, Guardian, The Nation, The New York Times, etc. CNN has been especially vociferous and caustic in its utter condemnation of not just the President, but his government and the nation. It would seem that the kidnapping of the girls has presented a robust opportunity for the assault.

But, seriously, it need not have gotten this bad, and I limit myself to the management of the communication post the abduction of the girls. I don’t want to express an opinion on whether the government has been in self denial (cf Wole Soyinka), needs to empower the poor (cf Koffi Anan), is inept (cf APC Spokesman) etc. I want to express an opinion on what the communication advisers and handlers of the President ought to have him do during crisis situations. I write purely professionally as a communications person.

It is very frustrating that for reasons the rest of us will never know, the President is never allowed to respond timeously. I hate to refer to other countries like the US, UK, even Malaysia. But the trend in Nigeria has always been very late response on serious national issues. Take the US. Anytime a gun man commits atrocities and people are wounded or killed, or some national issue breaks, the US President is addressing the nation on prime channels within hours. See what happened in Malaysia as well. Their leader was out on prime time within hours of the disappearance of the plane, speaking to the people and the international community. See even in far away Australia where their Prime Minister was on TV everyday because Australians were on the flight. The most critical moment when people want to see the response of their leader and hear from him is that period right after any calamity.

What happened in Nigeria? The President was not allowed to speak publicly until he addressed the press conference a few days ago, nearly three weeks after the kidnapping. It was three weeks too late! This has, of course, coloured the event. Even though we have been assured that he has been busy behind the scene working hard to bring the girls back (and I believe this), the impression has been created that he was not doing anything. Why? Because no proof of his activities was communicated to us, his people! All of the international media, including Christine Anampour, made so much noise about this. It certainly would have been very good for GEJ if within an hour or two of the kidnapping he was shown in the Villa, sleeves rolled without the bowler hat, expressing his pains, and assuring us something was being done immediately. He could then make a list of immediate steps that had been taken and were being taken. It would also help if throughout that week, he appeared with a few minutes of update. It’s also a lot about the body language.

Consider the issue of the former Aviation Minister, Stella Oduah, a few months ago. The response was too late and the message uncoordinated. Only one source should have been allowed to make public statements and the message should have been consistent. First, there was denial, then a parastatal under her was fingered as ordering the cars, then someone said she ordered them for visiting dignitaries, etc. The President should have spoken within a few hours of the story breaking, assure the nation he was immediately setting up an enquiry and assuring everyone that everything would be done to resolve the matter as quickly and as fairly to all parties as possible. This would have taken the wind out of the sail of those bent on making gain out of the event.

The issue is, when such pronouncements don’t come at all or come late, a vacuum is created during a critical moment when people want information. And because nature abhors vacuum, rumours and innuendoes and lies occupy the position that facts and figures ought to be. The government then has to scramble trying to deny and at the same time communicating the facts. Usually it is too late; enough damage would have been done! What you then have is a case of presidential spokespeople responding, being on the defensive and being seen as bullies and just spin doctors.

But it is not too late to make amends. While I do not pray for crises, the handlers of the President must ensure that he is proactive, responds timeously, is equipped with enough facts and figures on the situation, is provided with information on palliative steps and is persuaded to keep talking to the people. It will help him. It will help us all.

Lolu Akinwunmi (shown in photo), who first published this piece on his Facebook wall, is CEO of Prima Garnet and Chairman of the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON). He writes from Lagos.

Source: News Express

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