For spokespersons to excel

In September last year, I wrote a news story titled, “NIPR Worries Over Ajuri Ngelale’s Gaffes, Insists Tinubu’s Spokesperson not ‘Qualified’ for PR Job”. The story, published by PRNigeria, was all about the discontentment of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations, NIPR, with the way and manner Mr. Ajuri Ngelale, the Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, discharges his duties as Mr. President’s spokesman.

The report partly reads: “Mr. Ajuri Ngelale, the Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, is not a certified member of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR) and is therefore not qualified for the job, credible sources have confirmed to PRNigeria.

“They said that Ngelale, without the basic knowledge and requisite training on PR, is ordinarily not ‘fit’ to hold the exalted position he now occupies in the Tinubu Presidency. We have checked our records and membership register and we could not find Ajuri Ngelale in the list.

“This discovery is coming after the presidential spokesperson goofed in his recent official statements. Ngelale recently committed major blunders when he claimed that President Tinubu was the first African leader to ring the bell at the National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations (NASDAQ) during a visit to the United States.

“The presidential spokesperson had also made a similar mistake when he claimed that the United Arab Emirates had lifted the visa ban on Nigerians after a bilateral meeting between President Tinubu and UAE President, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

“The Presidency later acknowledged it goofed in both instances as the UAE did not issue any statement on the visa ban, while former President of Tanzania, Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, and other notable leaders had rang the NASDAQ bell before President Tinubu”.

I may be wrong, but my gut instinct tells me that the NIPR is very much concerned about how some persons who call themselves spokespersons shabbily carry out their works, in a way that is attracting utter contempt and disdain for the PR profession.

Hence, it convened its maiden “National Spokespersons Summit and Award” in Abuja, last week. The NIPR hosted the event in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Information and National Orientation. This writer served as the Chief Rapporteur of the summit.

The two-day event, held on March 26 – 27, 2024, was themed: “Change Narratives, Change Society”. The essence of the summit was to highlight the need for a national consensus on what should shape the nation’s narratives, and enhance competences of spokespersons, through the acquisition of relevant skill sets, understanding of global trends and best practices, and knowledge of modern techniques that would enable them to craft effective and attractive messages, create acceptable contents and manage expectations of their principals, organisations and more importantly, society.

Some dignitaries at the event included Vice President Kashim Shettima, who was ably represented by one of his aides, Mr. Stanley Nwokocha; Information and National Orientation Minister, Mohammed Idris, (who was the Chief Host); Akwa Ibom State Governor, Pastor Umo Eno, who was represented by his Commissioner for Information; Mr. Kayode Alabi, the Deputy Governor of Kwara State, who represented Governor AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq (who served as Chairman of the Occasion); Minister of Solid Minerals, Dele Alake; Comptroller General of Customs, Bashir Adewale Adeniyi; Minister of Women Affairs, Uju Kennedy-Ohanenye, and Mr. Tunde Rahman, a presidential spokesperson, among others.

Welcoming guests and delegates to the summit, Dr. Ike Neliaku, President and Chairman of the NIPR Governing Council, lamented that Nigeria is presently filled with violent communicators.

According to him, it is time the leaders and citizens beain the process of non-violent communication. The Information and National Orientation Minister, Alh. Idris, while delivering his opening address, said: “As we gather here, we must recognise the critical role that effective communication plays in shaping narratives, building trust and fostering understanding. I expect that at the end of this summit, the capacities of spokespersons will have been strengthened to also equip participants with the skills needed to craft compelling narratives for national development”.

In his speech, Governor AbdulRazaq said: “This is a time to craft and drive messaging around strong national branding that further cements our place as not only a medium of power, but also a major player in the international system,”.

Dr. Mua’zu Babangida Aliyu, while delivering his goodwill message, expressed worry over the rising cost of governance, especially at the centre. The former Niger state governor stressed the need for either the country’s restructuring, redirection, or devolution of power.

Speaking on “Change Narratives, Change Society: Case Studies of Successful Spokespersons in History,” Prof. Tonnie Iredia observed that “there is too much talking in Nigeria as if speaking is the only thing that makes communication”.

“In fact, when you speak too much you end up not managing information, but just disseminating information. So, it’s not who can speak well that can manage information”.

The mass communication scholar and veteran columnist lamented that most spokespersons are victims of fire brigade approach, when handling crisis situations.

“Concerning the issue of fake news, spokespersons can only help to address it when they dish out credible information faster and rapidly in conventional media outlets, than the purveyors of falsehood on social media,” he said.

Represented by Mr. Nkowocha, his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Communications, VP Shettima observed that effective communication is aided by a good plan.

“As spokespersons, you must not delay in responding to issues on behalf of your organisations. Be proactive in addressing issues to the media, so as not to create an information vacuum. Also essential is the need to prioritise facts”.

Shettima also described spokespersons as the most powerful force in the maintenance of social order. He called on spokespersons, as experts and professionals, to partner with the federal government in crafting compelling narratives that will change the Nigerian story and reinvent our society.

“The power of spokespersons manifests in their consistent responsibility to communicate with clarity. The evolving global media landscape makes your job more complex than ever before. Today, you are not only spokespersons, you are the gatekeepers of truth and defenders of the public at the mercy of fake news merchants. We can win the war against misinformation and disinformation by the time our responses to fake news are timely and evidence-based,” he said.

Sharing his professional experience, Mr. Olusegun Adeniyi, the spokesperson to late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, cautioned spokespersons not to turn themselves into the attack dogs of their principals.

“Effective spokespersons must have access to their bosses every time. Know how to also reach out to critical stakeholders or influential persons when a crisis erupts. Furthermore, issue clear statements to avoid misquotations. Don’t be too haughty, and refuse to pick calls, as a spokesperson”.

Giving his perspective on, “Bridging Citizens-Government Communication,” Malam Garba Shehu, former Senior Special Assistant to ex-President Muhammadu Buhari on Media and Publicity, opined that it is only by changing the Nigerian society that its narratives will change.

In his remarks at the event, Mr. Alake, asserted that it is important for spokespersons to believe in the leadership ideals and philosophies of their principals, and the core missions of their organisations. “If you do not believe in his plans, in his programs and policies, you cannot even speak on his behalf with conviction”.

Maintaining that spokespersons should be involved in the process of formulating policies, Alake said: “So, for me, the most important duty of a spokesperson is to ingratiate himself into the policy-making body. He must be an essential part of the policy-making organ of any administration, or a corporate institution”.

With the extraordinary success of hosting the inaugural spokespersons summit, the NIPR has truly charted a new path for information managers, media aides and public relations officers in the country. It may not be the road that will make them attain financial prosperity, but one that will immensely develop the professional capacity of our spokespersons, and enable them to do their jobs very well. And efficiently!

Mahmud is the Deputy Editor of PRNigeria, and wrote in via: [email protected].