By Yushau A. Shuaib
It is not about politics, product launch and cheap publicity. It is about image, reputation and editorial judgement. It is a choice between propaganda and public relations. Since information influences our attitudes to life, the kinds of message we receive from organizations and individuals to a large extent is of great concern to our livelihood.
Information comes in different forms. While information that is not subjected to manipulation can be positive and negative like electoral victory and earthquake or economic prosperity and financial scandal, other news are processed and manipulated by concerned interests to draw public attention. The result of some of the processed information may also be encouraging or off-putting. In an effort to maintain objectivity and balance stories, the press allows contenders and competitors in public and private sectors to express themselves freely. This genuine generosity to utilize the media platform is abused by charlatans who have little idea or lack experience on the ethics of public affairs and the operation of the press. The media is awash with individual egocentricity, personality clashes and commercialized reportage. Yet as good as some of the subjects may be, the truth is not easily decodable from the surface.
The desire to gain sympathy and acceptability of the target audience, for the sole purpose of winning patronage and support, make the roles of spokespersons, as intermediary, inevitable in any given society and corporate organization. While most spokespersons are expected to have undergone some training on ethics of mass communication or in the alternative acquire some experiences in public affairs and media practice, what we get from some of their activities are balderdash.
Cheap publicities that have lately and largely invoked public discourse are handiworks of propagandists who defend the indefensible acts through fabrication, intimidation and excessive exaggeration to manipulate public opinion. Propaganda which many are not willing to associate with even though rampant as the outputs of some spokespersons, is used to sell bad products, hoodwink the consumer and pollute the air in most uncharitable and wicked mien. It may not be necessary that one must acquire basic elementary knowledge of mass communication, decency in choice of language and action for the purpose of winning public support could have been better deployed to, at least, give credibility and respect to the spokespersons and their principals.
On the other hand, public relations is the most acceptable process of establishing and sustaining mutual and beneficial relationship with the general public by abiding to the strict code of professional practice. A PR practitioner gauges the public mood, conducts research and responds appropriately to issues in the most dignified and matured manner. A respected spokesperson, exemplified by trained public relations practitioners, gives sincere advice, undertakes genuine reconciliation and handles assignments professionally. He/she takes risk in defending his principal, organization and their programme/products with pride, conscious of the fact that there is tomorrow for men and women of honour.
The influence of propaganda in creating newsworthiness on its principals and opponents has pushed to the background development journalism that could have addressed our economic and industrial needs. There is little the editors and other news gatekeepers can do to ensure that what they receive is accurate, factual and authoritative information because of the official designations of the sources, though they can easily identify propagandists from public relations persons. It may also be of importance to note that naked propaganda, sometimes as comic relief and melodrama, sells the media because bad news is truly the news for readership appeal and commercial purposes.
It was in realization of importance of monitoring and regulating the practice and activities of masscommunicators that professional bodies are established to update members and new entrants on the rudiments, best practices and latest thinking in the field. The Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR) and Nigerian Press Council (NPC) were also established for that purpose. But unfortunately the NIPR, due to its internal wrangling which was recently resolved, has failed to assert its power to regulate, monitor and sanction quacks who give the profession a bad name. We must be impressed by the activities of other professional bodies that have effective internal mechanism to control influx of ill-qualified and inexperience persons into their folds like the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Institute of Chartered Accountant of Nigeria (ICAN), Nigeria Medical Association (NMA), Association of Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria APCON and Nigerian Guild of Editors. A credible professional body can reprimand chief executive officers of private enterprises and even heads of governmental organisations who flout the code of conducts of their respective offices. It happens in civilized world to serve as a deterrent.
The failure of relevant bodies to checkmate officers responsible for information dissemination is one of the great dilemmas the nation faces today. Instead of engaging on issues of development and beneficial to the society, what is churned out by expected spokespersons of public and private institutions are abusive language, libelous statements, threatening directives, intimidating harassment and childish expositions. It has gone to a situation that those that were highly respected but who find themselves as spokespersons, especially from the media and civil society, have like chameleons changed overnight in defending the indefensible as they refuse to advise their principals on the implications of their utterances and actions that are detrimental to public good. Most of them seem to be scared stiff to advise their bosses as they append their signatures on handouts in the name of press statements without bothering to digest the contents. Probably due to the survivalist instinct of chop-i-chop they shamelessly condone unethical, illegal and in some cases unconstitutional demeanors just to be relevant not minding the dent on their professional integrity and social responsibilty. Surprisingly such officers after leaving the office disown their bosses of being dictatorial.
While propagandists can engage in anything just to remain relevant, it is painful the constraints facing some genuine PR persons in discharging their duties. The PR professionals deserve our sympathy as they are mostly ignored or sacrificed for official exigency. The relevant professional bodies too like Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR), Association of Corporate Affairs Managers in Banks (ACAMB), Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) should ensure that their registered members are protected as they operate within the tenets and code of their bodies.
This article was originally published in Guardian February 26, Thisday February 26, Triumph February 27, Leadership February 27, Economic Confidential March, New Nigerian March 1, Sunday Trust March 4 and Sunday Champion March 2007