By Yushau A. Shuaib
The occasion was auspicious. The personalities were news-creators from diverse critical government ministries, department and agencies (MDAs) and the host is the Embassy of the United States of America in Nigeria.
The 24 selected spokespersons of critical MDAs in Nigeria represented security agencies, financial institutions and regulatory bodies who were invited to a Four-Day Spokespersons Training Workshop organised by the Public Affairs Section of the embassy in collaboration with Washington-based Edel Communication.
In his address to the plenary session, US Ambassador to Nigeria, Terence P. McCulley told the participants that as spokespersons of their organisations, they play an important role in the success of democracy. According to him “Spokespersons help shape public debates and perceptions, and are central to the system of communicating with the people.”
The Ambassador therefore encouraged the spokespersons to participate actively in the training because it would help them learn how to enhance their relationship with the media, how to inform citizens in a clear and timely manner, and demonstrate how the government is addressing people’s needs.
The guest speaker and resource person is Christian Edel, a renowned U.S. media consultant and president of Washington-based Edel Communications. He is one of the best instructors in Public Communication Strategies, and has trained ministers and government spokespersons from more than 60 countries including government representatives in Mexico, Tanzania, South Africa, Turkey, Ukraine, and Lebanon. In the United States, he is credited with the training of thousands of U.S. State Department employees, including assistant secretaries of state, ambassadors, and other diplomats.
The participants went through hands-on practical training consisting of on-camera practice along with critiques in which a group of eight participants each day worked together in pairs of two, all receiving individual attention from the trainer and peers. Participants were overwhelmed and excited by the practical training executed with sophisticated equipment, especially the simulating scenario in a live-broadcast environment. Despite their long years of experience, most participants admitted that they had learned new skills in using latest technologies to reach mass audience.
The participants were taken through various theoretical and practical techniques of public communication in a competitive and even hostile environment. Writing skills and the use of different form of media- print, electronic and online were also part of the workshop. The sessions and outcomes of the programme were very instructive, timely and beneficial for improvement in professional competence of officers.
A major revelation of the summit was the realization that spokespersons in government hardly meet to chart a course through cooperation and collaboration for unified communication strategies to propagate policies and programmes.
Though it was discovered that the Federal Ministry of Information has an online forum for Resident Information Officers for circulation of press releases and features, the platform is restricted to staffs of the ministry on secondment to other agencies. It was also noted that PRNigeria online, which has been in existence for a while is only an informative portal and resources centre for result development in communication and public relations practice.
It was generally agreed that none of the existing platforms provide an avenue for interaction in a convivial environment where spokespersons of public institutions could synergize and cooperate towards unified communication agenda in enhancing public communication for the success of the administration.
It was in view of this that the participants suggested the formation of a Forum for Spokespersons in Government as a common public communications platform. In a deliberate effort to concretise the vision of the forum towards identifying new and creative ways to promote a coherent image of the institutions of government, the Director of Communication at Central Bank, Mr. Ogochukwu Okorafor hosted the participants to a special lunch where Col. Muhammad Yerima, Director, Defence Information was elected Chairman with Okorafor as deputy while Kachi Daju of Federal Ministry of Information would serve as Secretary to steer the activities of the forum.
At the CBN- hosted special lunch, members agreed that the forum should comprise Chief Press Secretaries, Head of Press and Public Relations and Directors of Corporate Communications representing public institutions from ministries, departments, commissions, agencies among others. The forum they added should serve as a mechanism for inter-agency cooperation and coordination in the field of public information and communications. The forum will also strive to strengthen inter-agency cooperation for enhanced objective and fair media profile of government institutions.
It is expected that the spokespersons’ knowledge of the media and key mandates of their respective institutions can enhance and promote better understanding of government policies in a well-coordinated and unified communication processes.
While more spokespersons from critical MDAs have signified their intention to join the forum, the output of the group will determine their substance and influence in re-shaping public opinions about institutions of government from seeming negative perception to positive image.