How not to be a presidential spokesman

•President Muhammadu Buhari


By Demola Akinbola

In 2013, Arsenal offered £40,000,001 for Luis Suárez to trigger his Liverpool release clause. John W Henry, the 40% principal shareholder of Fenway Sports Group (FSG), owners of Liverpool Football Club, was so enraged that he fired a diatribe aimed at Arsene Wenger, the erstwhile Arsenal Manager: ‘What do you think they’re smoking over there at Emirates? The rhetorical question effectively ended Arsenal’s dream of signing Suarez. Henry’s umbrage was fuelled by the £1 Arsenal placed on top of its earlier rejected bid of £40,000.

We thought we had seen it all with Dr Reuben Abati’s quarrelsome and combative approach to public communication. But Femi Adesina may well be garlanded as the most quarrelsome and insulting presidential spokesperson if he continues to toe this path.

Dr Abati wrote severally using caustic language to respond to criticisms of the Goodluck Jonathan administration. Nigerian “Children of Anger”, published in 2012, was one of those articles in which he gleefully battered critics of his principal. Femi Adesina has continued that path writing articles and issuing press releases through which he deploys a lot of anger but little finesse or diplomacy in addressing contentious issues.

I said it when the PMB administration was in its infancy that the lack of creative and strategic public communication would be its undoing. Sadly, it has come to pass in a most unfortunate manner. The greatest “misfortune” that has befallen President Buhari’s administration is the absence of spokesmen who have a good grasp of the basics of Public Relations (Public Communication, Crisis Communication, and Stakeholder Engagement).

Femi Adesina has worked hard to build a weak reputation for himself and a negative perception of the PMB brand. Basic rules of stakeholder engagement such as civility, humility, and empathy are usually lacking in his communication.

Femi’s piece, “Enemy of the State” was another example of how not to manage a crisis. Hours before last week’s presidential broadcast, the social media was saturated with copies of the “draft” broadcast speech. Although the leaked copy reflected some factual inaccuracies when compared with the final copy broadcast by President Buhari, it was worrisome enough that a presidential broadcast speech leaked hours before it was meant to be broadcast.

While trying to absolve the Presidential media office of complicity, Femi wrote, inter alia: “There is a way we release information from the media office of the President. And the media knows it. If a presidential speech was to be given ahead, there would be an embargo on it for a particular time. The circulating copy bore no embargo, yet they fell for it. And got embarrassed by publishing inaccurate information. Serves them right, do you say? The final copy was released by 8:06pm, good enough time for a newspaper to still produce and get early to market for the next day”.

Okay, you could blame some media platforms (excluding The Podium Media) for rushing to press with the leaked copy without confirming with the media office. But, if there had been no leakage, would the media have feasted on wrong information? I am particularly miffed by the underlined portion of the above quote where Femi was gloating over the fact that some members of his primary constituency made the wrong call. Serves them right? Are you for real Mr Adesina?

The veiled reference to Editors, your professional colleagues, cannot be overlooked. Are these not the same people that have worked with you in the last five years to prop up the PMB presidency even when it was floundering, wobbling, and hanging fire? Are these not the people you will still work with till the end of this administration? Why arrogantly go about winning enemies for your principal and carrying on as if you are infallible? Femi could still have passed his message across without resorting to abuses and insults.

Again, he wrote: It was amusing to me to hear armchair critics blaming the media office of the President for the leakage. Ignorance. Why pontificate about what you do not know? They were on radio and television stations the next morning, magisterially shooting breeze. It was Dr Reuben Abati, immediate past media adviser to a president who gave some proper perspectives on how a presidential broadcast is originated and produced, and how it was improbable that the leakage came from the Presidency. The lesson? Seek information, get your facts right, before arriving at a conclusion, lest you look foolish and uninformed”.

Mr Adesina, all you needed to do, which you failed to do again in your subsequent article, was to calmly explain the process of producing a presidential broadcast speech and assure us that efforts were being made to unravel how the leakage happened. All that self-righteousness and self-glorification was unnecessary. You also did not need to insult people.

Yes, the media should get its facts right and always check with the relevant authorities before publishing. No arguments about that. But was Mr Adesina pointedly addressing someone or some people in the media with whom he has had issues? Otherwise, lest you look foolish and uninformed is a gutter language as far as public communication and brand management is concerned. Irrespective of how justified you are, there are some things you do not just say.

Diplomacy is an essential and inevitable component of stakeholder communication. The art of dealing with people in a sensitive and effective way is a sine qua non in the task of managing information. You were not appointed presidential adviser to browbeat critical analysts and assumed “enemies” of your principal with insulting words. Your job is to appeal to them and convince them.

On Sunday, February 2, 2003, the Idumagbo, Lagos branch of Prudent Bank (which later became the lead bank in the Skye Bank consortium. Skye Bank is now Polaris Bank) was rocked by an explosion. I was in Akure, Ondo state when I saw the news flash on CNN. In less than three hours, I was at the Victoria island Headquarters of the bank. I was then the Corporate Affairs Manager, and this was going to be a classic test. A crisis management team was immediately assembled by the MD/CEO, Mr Sola Akinfemiwa (OON).

Radio and Television stations were already feasting on the story, alluding to internal conspiracy and quoting “anonymous sources” that claimed to be aware that a fraud case was being investigated in the branch, and that the manager and his henchmen were at the branch on Saturday to plan the “accident”. We issued a statement the same day addressing all the key issues and stating the facts as we knew them as at the time of the incident.

We never called the media names and we never took offence at the legion of seemingly asinine insinuations that were flying all over the place. It was a simple statement that stated the facts, appealed for calm, assured depositors of the safety of their money, sought public understanding, and assured the police of our full cooperation in the ensuing investigations.

The bank was eventually vindicated by the outcome of the investigations which revealed that some of the explosives used to dig a well in the nearby house a day before went off and impacted the wall of the branch building.

Mr Adesina needs to learn more about the use of language in communication. He needs to learn more about the choice and deployment of words. You do not go about bandying words with your principal’s stakeholders simply because you can write. He needs to know that he is not just the megaphone of the PMB administration. He is supposed to be the bridge builder, brand advocate, reputation manager, crisis manager and chief engagement manager.

However, when the assumed bridge builder becomes the bridge destroyer; when the supposed crisis manager becomes crisis personified, and when the trouble shooter becomes the troublemaker, what do we do? We sigh and hope for a change of attitude. Not just that, we also need to tell him in unmistaken language.

Mr Adesina’s performance so far has reinforced the repeated call for well-trained and seasoned public relations (crisis management) professionals to be appointed to manage the presidential brand. Being an editor is good, but you need much more than Journalism knowledge and experience to effectively function as the Chief Stakeholder Manager of the number one citizen.

*Akinbola is publisher of Podium Media. This piece was originally published by the news portal on Monday, May 4, 2020.

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