By Yushau A. Shuaib
A Few years ago, a seemingly harmless piece of information was leaked to the press on the reappointment of some public officers into the board of the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC). As the spokesperson of the organization, I got wind of the development from media sources. Instead of encouraging them to use it, I passionately pleaded that they should kindly drop it. My reason was predicated on the fact that previously, similar sensitive information leaked to the press and resulted in the overturning of the decision. In some cases such “exclusives” published before official pronouncements, have dashed the hope of potential beneficiaries – an example is the case of media reports of the purported reappointment of Suleiman Ndanusa as Director General of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and also appointment of Oby Ezekwesili as Director-General of the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE). The news reports might have been true, but the two officers could not realize the ambitions even if they did not lobby for them.
Some of the editors whom I contacted and who in turn obliged my appeal included Segun Adeniyi, Editor of Thisday and his deputy Tunde Rahman, Yusuf Ali of the Punch newspapers and Ahmed Shekarau of the Daily Trust. But a radical finance correspondent, Yinka Akintunde insisted on the publication. As it turned out, some weeks afterwards, the story appeared in some media outfits. Surprisingly I was summoned by the then Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Ubong Ufot Ekaette over the rumour in the press. With a clear conscience, I exonerated myself before the SGF (after all, I was not in the Presidency). I informed him that though it is not professional for PROs to attempt to kill a story, I took the risk for the fear that fifth columnists are always on the prowl within and outside any system to play some pranks. The SGF was magnanimous enough to accept my explanation without instructions for my redeployment to ‘Siberia’ or a quiescent posting or indeed, any punishment, considering how appointments of top public officers had often been terminated on unfounded and flimsy excuses from the moles gambit of politics in the service. It took more than a month after the incident when the list was officially released that confirmed authenticity of the leaked story.
This brief case study is a pointer to the delicate responsibilities of spokespersons and editors and also on their mutual relationships. Whilst an editor can easily have unfettered access to top management and confidential information, a lucky spokesperson may likely have only the listening ears of the boss and not necessarily the information required for the job; while editors enjoy the right to express their opinions on any issue through editorials and columns, the spokesperson has some restrictions on the kind of official information he can divulge to the public; while an editor is highly revered and respected by the society, the spokesperson is seen as an errand boy that only speaks the voices of his masters; while public officers can ill afford to mess with any editor, the same officers maltreat their spokespersons as if they were spies; while editors are seen as fighting for the public interest, the spokespersons are portrayed as protecting only the interest of their principals or organizations.
Recently, some editors have found themselves in the public service as spokespersons. Top on the list is Olusegun Adeniyi, a celebrated editor and columnist with Thisday newspapers, who has been appointed as the Special Adviser to President Umar Musa Yar’ Adua on Communication. Many other members in the Fourth Estate of the Realm have accepted invitations to practice public relations in the public service come in nomenclatures such as Personal Assistant (PA)/ Special Assistant (SA), Senior Special Assistant (SSA)/Special Adviser, Chief Press Secretary (CPS)/ Director of Press (DPR) etc. They include: Funke Egbomode of Independent Newspapers who is now with the Speaker of the House of Representatives; Paul Mumeh formerly of Daily Times now with the Senate President, Mrs. Ajayi Gbadebo formerly with the Punch now in the Office of the SGF. At the states level too we have Chuks Ugwoke of the Vanguard called to service in the cabinet of Enugu State, Abdullahi Bego of Daily Trust is now with Governor of Yobe State, Usoro Usoro of the Sun now with the Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Mansur Lawal of the New Nigerian now with the Governor of Gombe State, Segun Olatunji of the Nigerian Tribune is now with the Governor of Ekiti State, Ahmed Tahir of the Leadership now with the government of Benue State, Adagbo Onoja of the Nation is now with Governor of Jigawa State, Hakeem Bello of the National Interest and Idowu Ajakaye of the Guardian now with the government of Lagos State. In fact, the list is quite endless.
The rate by which media practitioners join the public service lately brings to the fore a debate on the appropriateness of desertion from their beats. Although there exist few conservative media houses who do not tolerate leave-of-absence for members of their editorial team for outside appointments, others not only encourage it but have built alumnus of veterans from the public service.
What could have made media practitioners unique in our society? Let us take Segun Adeniyi as an example. Through his weekly column, the Verdict, Segun Adeniyi has courted a formidable network of admirers and friends including the powerful and the mighty in political and economic circles. He has also courted adversaries as one of the Nigerian columnists who have consistently and religiously sustained their columns with timely and punchy critiques on our socio-political and economic environment. He may not be a saint but one cannot deny the fact that he often took on some of his influential admirers, as he preferred to call a spade-a-spade. Like most of our editor-columnists, he was so blunt in his writings that one wonders how he would cope in the conservative system, he might have abhorred in the past.
Editors in Nigeria are not as dreadful as some may wish to suggest even in the face of the new syndrome of dog-bite-dog. It will be unfair to comment now on their new political assignments when the public has not given them any breathing space. I may sound sycophantic if I assess them on their writings and personal integrity. But I am proud to say that I am one of the many Nigerians who receive maximum support from our editors in our official and personal works without any pecuniary inducement. Such supports have also shot to limelight many businessmen and politicians some of whom may even be ungrateful to accuse the press as ignoramuses who only speak local English instead of King-Kong language. The editors still perform their civic responsibilities to the admiration of the public no matter the intimidation.
But as powerful as Editors are, what could have moved them to develop interests in the public service and changed from being the watchdogs to the dogs to be watched? I believe that the public service is everybody’s business. Those in the service pride themselves as serving the nation, not working in a family business or the interest of a private firm that can hire and fire at will. Even in the face of poor remuneration and the public notion of the service as a corrupt institution, there is a massive rush of member of the various professions to join the bandwagon. They include bankers, businessmen, academics, lawyers, and medical doctors amongst others.
The truth is that contractors and political appointees who do not know the limits of their intrusion in the service have virtually taken over the jobs of the core civil servants. Take the case of a Minister in the last dispensation who appointed about ten personal aides in the name of Personal and Special Assistants and cutting-off even the director from performing their duties. While elected public officers have the prerogative to have as many political appointees as they may require, Ministers and other public officers have a limitation on the number of aides they can bring in, as stipulated in an Act of the National Assembly. If the present administration does not control the overzealousness of some of the political appointees who mostly prefer their relations and cronies as aides, the purpose of the monetization policy will be defeated through bloated recurrent expenditures.
However, one should not begrudge the situation of aides taking over the jobs of Information Officers when one considers that some senior information officers whose major credentials in the service is their age, can neither write a press release nor do they have email addresses and the modern tools of information dissemination. But on the whole they need motivation and encouragement in order to put in their best.
The dilemma of the hunters becoming the hunted is the expected suspicion within the new environment and the old beat. For instance, if a particular media publishes an exclusive story, the spokesperson may be suspected of the leakage by his principal, likewise other media may also be suspicious of discriminatory patronage.
The roles of a spokesperson especially for a powerful personality involves versatility, as the officer has to ensure he/she only sleeps only after the boss must have slept and must wake up before ‘Oga’ wakes up. The press secretary should not rely on a time schedule, especially in a country where the leadership applies fire-brigade approach to public issues; travel on adventurous expeditions; receive and pay needless courtesy calls and organize Owambe in the name of official engagements.
In a book “A Dozen Tips for Media Relations” (which coincidentally also has an endorsement of Segun Adeniyi amongst other editors) this writer suggests twelve points to be observed towards healthy and mutual relationships with the media for good public perception. These points that have illustrative and practical case studies include: knowing the operation of the media; understanding the new organization/environment; studying the boss’s temperaments; establishing network of professional bodies; developing good human relations; preparing logical budgets; acquiring the working tools; writing effective messages; speaking at the appropriate times; techniques of placing the message; managing crisis and evaluation through the feedback mechanisms.
While Segun Adeniyi has so far successfully handled the publicity aspect of the present administration, the first official portrait of President Yar’Adua for display in offices has wrong positioning of the eagle in our coat of arm. This image problem easily reminds one of the first portrait of a former president, which promoted a designer Swiss wristwatch. A spokesperson should go beyond media relations/publicity activities to include reputation management in his schedule, which is about everything about the principal and the organisation. It includes techniques of studying public moods and advising the Chief Executive and management concerned on the desirability of tackling policy issues without necessarily drawing media attention.
Like I wrote in my piece in 2003 title: ‘When A Woman Becomes a Spokesperson’ “let us hope that some of the new government appointees from the media are not deliberately withdrawn from their noble profession of voicing for the voiceless only to be used like sacrificial lambs after dirty jobs.” Today, we know those who are sincerely proud of their performance and those that would find it difficult to tell us about the principal and organization they served, if confronted.
As hunters may become the hunted by the critics and the public, there may likely be other practitioners who may not mind to be called “Junior PA to PA to SA to SSA to Special Adviser on Publicity.” They should always remember the differences between Public Relations and Propaganda in their assignments.
This article by Yushau A. Shuaib was originally published in Sunday Tribune July 22, New Nigerian July 22, Independent on Sunday July 22, Vanguard July 24-25, Weekly Trust July 28, Leadership Sunday July 29, Thisday on Sunday july 29, Punch July 30 and the Guardian August 6, 2007