Home OPINION COMMENTARY 2023 Elections: Where Are The Real Political PR Practitioners? By Tope Adaramola

2023 Elections: Where Are The Real Political PR Practitioners? By Tope Adaramola

The history of Public Relations in Nigeria definitely predates the attainment of the country’s political independence.

But the hitherto amorphous structure of the discipline was terminated with the inspiration of Late Dr. Sam Epelle, the then Federal Director of Information, to establish a body that would “professionally think, plan, practice and promote Public Relations in Nigeria” in 1961.

However, the most fundamental watershed in the practice of Public Relations in Nigeria took place in 1990 with the promulgation of Decree 16. This gave legal clout to the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations as a recognised professional body for training and regulating the practice of professionals. The profession had since 1990 made it relevant both in private and particularly in government circles.

As the political process towards the 2023 General election gets intense with few days to the elections, political parties have typically continued to out-do themselves by way of striving to woo electorates to guarantee their success at the polls.

Pundits believe that this coming election is quite critical in the nation’s history, going by the renewed public confidence in the electoral process to make votes of the electorates count more than it used to be.

If there is any group of professionals that are engaged to oil the process of politics, particularly at this time, it is public relations practitioners, who are trained in the art of public opinion moulding. They lend their expertise to political actors to woo electorates in their favour, sometimes against besetting odds. Needless to state that Politics and Public Relations have thin line of relationship which is the essence of study of political public relations as a discipline.

However, the extent to which this synergy is taken advantage of, particularly by political actors so far in the field today leaves much to be desired. Many of those who act, at best as spokesmen or image teams of the leading parties and notable candidates have little or just above average knowledge of real art of public relations, leading to serial goofs being witnessed by many of the parties and their flag bearers. Taking a rough survey of these spokesmen, one would come to understand that so many of them were either media men, outspoken lawyers or others who are merely gifted in oratory, but without any tinge of PR knowledge. Most political principals and their planners fail to realize the adage that “however long a stone literally stays in the river, it is difficult for it to become a fish”.

There is a process and regime of knowledge which PR gives beyond mere “smooth talking” or ability to throw jibes at opponents at the slightest opportunity, as we see during the ongoing process. Ideally, PR infuses its professionals with emotional intelligence, issues management and personality management to achieve political results, during elections and thereafter.

Frank Tamuno Koko presenting a paper on “Public Relations and Election Campaigns. The Nigerian experience 1959-93” identified politics as an endeavor which PR is most relevant but had “not been utilized”. He traced the history of Public Relations in electioneering campaigns, which he said is the threshold to durable democracy and decried the perfunctory use to which PR had been put into use in the past.

Taking an excursion into history, one could single out the Action Group then led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo and the NCNC led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe as those parties that used political PR to their optimum advantages.

The meeting of Chief Awolowo with one Mr. Dolan, a communications expert in London in 1957 (two years to the general election) and consequent signing of a publicity contract between the Patrick Donald and Associates (PDA), marked a watershed in political PR practice in Nigeria.

The PDA had the mandate of among others, “Building the reputation and prestige of the Western Nigerian Government, encouraging financial grants and aids from other governments and private sources.

After the 1958 London conference, the PDA had more political focus as it was called upon to also play the role of “seeing to it” that Chief Awolowo and the AG were successful at the coming federal election.

The ingenuity of one Freidrick Doefinger, a recruit of Mr. Dolan was gravely manifested in the strategic publicity campaign which made the AG and of course, Chief Awolowo an household name, even in the domains of hardline political adversaries.

The PDA’s efforts, among others led to the establishment of the First Television station in Africa. The intent of the television station was to reach salient youth in the daytime through educational programmes and the adults at night through night time news, entertainment, and to convey implicit and explicit political messages to them.

See also:  Minimum Wage, Maximum Troubles For Nigerians, By Yusuf Ozi-Usman

The PDA also utilised the print media to assert its dominance in the western region. In order to strengthen the AG affiliated amalgamated press chain of Newspapers which included the service and Daily Express, PDA hired Louis Martin, a black American newsman whose mandate was to effect partisan communication in such a way that it would not seem odious to the readers. The Daily Express definitely gave the Daily Times a good run.

For those that could not be reached through the print and electronic media, the novel idea of using helicopters to distribute pamphlets, pencils erasers and the writing of AWO with smoke screen on the sky worked political wonders.

The PDA also doled out several ingenious Public Relations strategies which gave the AG tremendous goodwill in spite of the perceived “hostile political milieu” in which it operated.

In the East, although talks had persisted between Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe’s NCNC and Bernet and Reef, an American PR consortium, contractual agreements were only reached in April 1960. Bernet and Reef, among others, predicted their consultancy on “economic carrots” rather than overt political campaigns. They also succeeded in reducing effects of some political doses of the PDA on eastern supporters.

Down the line, political actors in successive era in the country had utilised the services of PR professionals to the extent to which they understood their value. Many are living witnesses of how the PR streaks brought into the campaign of Chief MKO Abiola and the couching of “Hope 93”, as well as the campaign slogan of “MKO is our man o” became a national anthem of some sort; same for the Bashir Tofa of the NRC party.

We saw how the PR conversion process, a la Frank Jefkins, was effectively deployed to change the minds of electorates positively, away from the vexatious religious biases created by the “Muslim Muslim” ticket brought about by both the SDP and the NRC flag bearers being of the same fate at the time.

Fast track to 2015 General Elections when the two major contenders were General Muhammadu Buhari and President Goodluck Jonathan.

Pundits believed that part of what helped Buhari to win the election was the strong PR strategy room that was opened and utilized for his campaign. The strategists sat down and did a SWOT analysis on his person, his beliefs and past aspirations.

At the end of the day, they were able to play down on his shortcomings and highlighted his strength as a man of integrity, shoving aside the popular perception of him as a sectional and religious bigot. This made Buhari come across to electorates as a better choice over a sitting President Jonathan of the PDP.

Inspite of the increasingly sophisticated political landscape today, not much has been seen of real PR practitioners being on stage in the political process.

At best, we have had a handful of social media self-styled bigots and fanatics who gratuitously take up the duty on different handles to blindly defend and force their favorite candidates on everyone regardless of the rules of professional ethics and decorum.

Political PR practitioners aside from opinionating and speaking for their principals also have the onus to advise and grill them on public presentation, making them to be issues-focused and maintain highest level of decorum, eschewing speech faux pas, that may dent their reputation during and after the elections.

Maybe, the crucial questions begging for answers are: could it be that the PR practitioners were not deliberately engaged or they were too scared to play in the murky waters of politics, preferring the “calmer waters” of corporate image projection instead?

Could it also be that many PR practitioners of today are not adequately seasoned to combine or pull a convergence between theory of political PR and the reality of practical politics?

Whatever the answer is, the non-active PR content in our on-going politics has left the political space dirtier and murkier without the refinement value that PR profession could have brought to bear on the entire exercise.

In conclusion, I can really not agree less with the probing coinage of Lee Iacocca’s celebrated book entitled “Where have the true leaders gone?” In this context, if I were to ask within the context of the on-going political process, it would be the case of “Where have the real PR practitioners gone?”

Tope Adaramola is a Chartered PR Practitioner and Insurer

Leave a Reply