By Uche Nnadozie
One of the most difficult jobs in the world is that of a spokesperson. Be it in public or private sector, the demands are the same. Going further, it doesn’t matter whether it is in a developing or developed economy. The job is tedious. I can imagine what Sean Spicer is passing through now in the hands of both the media and his boss, President Donald Trump. Spicer is the White House Press Secretary. Surely, the role of a spokesperson is viewed as a high profile one. The spokesperson is seen among the public as the first and last person that sees the boss. Or to a lesser the degree, the right kind of person that understands the mind frame of his or her principal. Brethren, it is not always that way.
I can bet, working in Nigeria is already a tough job. Although, it is said in some quarters that Nigerians don’t like to pay full attention to their duties, every spokesperson works more than every other staff; even more than the boss. Not even security aides work as hard. Media aides work 24-hours and more. In Nigerian public establishment, there are various nomenclatures used to describe spokespersons: media aide, media assistant, special assistant on media, special adviser on media and publicity and such other titles. To be sure, the presidency has raised the position of spokesperson a step higher to an enviable one. This began during the administration of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua when Segun Adeniyi was named special adviser. Hitherto, the highest title was senior special assistant. That was when Remi Oyo was President Olusegun Obasanjo’s spokesperson.
Before the return of democracy in 1999, spokespersons at the states and national levels were called chief press secretaries. I actually prefer that. However, with the elevation of presidential spokespersons to special advisers, they now have to sit in council during meetings unlike special assistants who stand and peeps into the council chambers during Federal Executive council’s deliberations. With such elevation and recognition came responsibilities. Just like in everyday public relations practice where it took time for policy makers to accept the primacy of public relations in policy making and implementation, Nigerian politicians have also accepted the importance of public relations in the art of governance.
But trouble is, has public relations aides to president for example understood how to do their jobs in a more effective way? Never mind the thorns and bumps that lay along the way! It is even more difficult where you have as boss, a personality like President Muhammadu Buhari who to all intents and purposes, is media shy. Not just media shy, but guard his personal life with utmost jealousy. It is this state that brought about the nightmare for Femi Adesina, Garba Shehu and the president’s other media aides. One may argue though that being media shy the president should have hired a more persuasive public speaker than a Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu, who are basically great writers. In the case of Adesina, he is more of a satirist in which case, it will compound his pubic speaking abilities- more so, where he is not known to be a good public debater or TV personality.
Sunday’s “breaking news” that President Buhari spoke with Adesina is the height of the dilemma these spokespersons have had to contend with since their boss left the country on medical leave. How such short telephone call became so important underlines the weaknesses of being a spokesperson. The president had spoken and seen many politicians before then. It took the whole of 32 days for him to realise that he needed to communicate with his media aides. That is something! Whereas it is these same aides that the public relies on to get certified information about the president. In fact, any information about the holidaying president from other sources is treated with kid’s gloves. It is until Adesina or Shehu speaks that the people will take such information seriously. Because that is their job!
So when presidential aide through his Facebook page wrote: “At exactly 2:43pm today, Saturday, February 25, 2017, my phone rang. Who was at the other end? Tunde Sabiu, personal assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari. ‘Hold on for Mr. President,’ Tunde said. Then came (sic) the President who said: ‘Femi, how are you?’ (He calls me Adesina most times, but today (Sunday), he opted for Femi). I screamed.’ Mr President, I have missed you. How are you sir? He first laughed. That familiar laugh. Then he said: ‘I am still resting. Thank you for holding out against mischief makers.’ I said it was my duty, the very least I could do, adding how happy I was to speak with him. ‘How is your family?”
This is a classical example of quandary. So it means most of the information passed around by these media aides were conjectures prior to the call. Not that conjecture is not practiced by public relations or media aides but while speaking for a president, it is critical to get your facts right. This is so because, most presidential actions, inactions, speeches, etc are normally archived. Such archived materials form the basis for historical research. Care must thus be taken to communicate fast, truthful and in a planned manner to achieve pre-conceived impact. In this age of the internet and more specifically, social media, there should be no lag between event and articulation of such event for the consuming public. The public relations practitioner’s one hour down time has been overtaken by events. The social media is a- per second down time. That means no time. PR managers must harness the requisite tools to battle fake news, mischief makers and propagandists who populate blogosphere.
Otherwise, these mischief makers will seize the narrative. And in a politically combustible environment like Nigeria, any delay as result of President Buhari’s media nonchalance or his aide’s weaknesses will dash their traducers with weapons of mass destruction. Both the president and his handlers must open up more. Then the media aides must re-train to pass better cooked information out there. And this goes to state governors too.