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‘For ignoring issues-based campaigns, politicians are missing golden opportunity'

Rotimi Olatunji Williams

ROTIMI WILLIAMS OLATUNJI, Professor of Public Relations and Advertising, as well as Dean, School of Communication, Lagos State University (LASU) epitomises the bridge between the town and gown in all genres of communication. In this interview, he offers a comparative analysis of the campaign messages deployed so far by the two leading presidential candidates in the February 16, 2019 election vis-à-vis 2015 experience. His fatwa is deep and thought-provoking.

What’s your general assessment of the campaign messages deployed on all media so far by the two leading presidential candidates?

In communications generally and in political communication in particular, you cannot separate the message from the messenger.

No one can give what he does not have. For convenience, we may separate the old breed politicians from the Not-too-Young-to-Rule (new breed) politicians.

As for the so-called big political (mainstream) parties, there appears to be nothing to write home regarding the campaign messages of the leading All Progressives Congress (APC) and Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) presidential candidates.

Their campaign messages are full of innuendos, attacks, criticisms and counter criticisms and empty promises.

There are series of reactive campaign messages rather than a clear enunciation of party manifestoes, candidates’ programmes and strategies for actualising such programmes.

Campaigns are bereft of political ideologies, or clear-cut ideas. Campaign messages of the major political parties are replete with ethno-religious sentiments, hate messages and peddling of fake messages and campaign promises.

The possible exception relate to the Not-too-Young-to-Rule Presidential candidates who are, expectedly vociferous in their campaigns, articulating clear strategies for actualizing their programmes, if voted to power.

However, much of the campaigns of the new breed presidential candidates are not founded on any political philosophy, or at best a parroting of the neo-classical capitalist ideology; their campaigns are mostly in the social media and on pages of newspapers. They seem to be lacking in grassroots support; new breed presidential candidates and parties are often urban-based and often elitist. They seem to lack any class support too.

Generally speaking, the two major political parties have not been concretely and adequately addressing the real issues in the current electioneering campaigns.

Much energy, air-time, media space and resources are allotted to attack messages and name-calling. It has been a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Issues around the economy, political reforms, security, infrastructural decadence, youth unemployment, derelict nature of the nation’s social services have either been trivialized or out rightly ignored.

The new generation political parties that seem to focus real issues seem to lack the wherewithal (financially and otherwise) to articulate their views. The electioneering processes so far appear rudderless and call for a serious concern.

The quality of the present caliber of candidates at all levels of political campaigns calls for public worries. A rose called by any other name will still smell rose.

Defection from one party to another does not essentially change the character and strength of any polluted candidate, regardless of his current political party.

This calls for a sober reflection and should necessarily guide electorate in their voting decisions during the 2019 General Elections in Nigeria.

In what ways are the ongoing campaign different or similar to what happened in the campaign for 2015 general elections?

I was privileged to co-chair a Research Team put up by the Association of Communication Scholars and Professionals of Nigeria (ACSPN) which investigated uses of traditional and new media during Nigeria’s 2015 Presidential Election Campaigns.

The nation-wide study was sponsored by the Ford Foundation (West Africa).

Highlights of the findings of the 2015 presidential election are: a majority of the ads had negative tone (63.4%) while about a third of them were positive; a majority of the campaign messages were personality, rather than issues-based; a majority of the advertisements (62.7%) attacked the opponent party or candidate; campaign were replete with hate messages.

The major issues, not comprehensively addressed in the 2015 presidential election were those around the parlous state of the economy, insecurity, infrastructural decadence, poor state of the nation’s educational system, unemployment, political restructuring and the like.

The situation today (with regards to the 2019 presidential election campaign) is not widely different from the 2015 experience.

Presidential candidates seem to be engaging in subterfuge, empty promises and sloganeering.

When they talk about these issues, they seem to be lacking in correct strategies for dealing with the macro-economic challenges bedevilling the nation.

There are other challenges with patterns of media usage during the 2019 presidential election campaigns. In 2015, there was much money, at least with the then ruling party, to throw around for media buying.

The PDP clearly outperformed the APC in terms of advertising spend on television and newspaper political advertisement placements, while the APC concentrated its advertising budget on radio spots.

Today, unlike what obtained during the 2015 presidential campaigns, for the two leading political parties (APC & PDP) as well as other emerging political parties, there is generally a drought of paid campaign messages across board, and in all traditional media.

I conducted an informal research reading through The Punch and The Guardian newspapers of 16/01/2019, purposively counting the number of sponsored political advertisements by the or on behalf of the presidential candidates.

Results shows that there was just one page advertisement sponsored on page 52 on behalf of the PDP presidential candidate.

There was not a single advertisement by the APC or other parties; The Guardian did not attract any single advertisement of the same date.

There is therefore a paucity of sponsored political advertisements in 2019 compared to the 2015 presidential election. And this is happening less than one month to the 2019 presidential election in Nigeria.

What’s your assessment of the performance of regulatory agencies such as APCON, NBC, NPC to ensure that campaign messages are devoid of offensive language?

It is too early in the day to assess the performances of regulatory bodies such as the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON), National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Nigerian Press Council (NPC) and the like on matters of enforcement of regulations guiding electoral campaigns.

Regulations dealing with political campaigns through the media have always been in place.

The two major challenges are lack of enforcement of sanctions against erring political candidates, parties or media agencies.

Secondly, the sanctions, when implemented are often too mild and not strong enough to deter future infractions against the law.

That was what happened in 2015 when certain newspapers and broadcast stations flouted the law by exposing fake messages, documentaries and ‘obituaries’ of rival presidential candidate without any serious sanctions.

The 2019 presidential election is taking place under the same regulatory framework as obtained in 2015.

Already, there are reported cases of dismount- ling of billboards of rival candidates across the states of the federation and we are yet to learn of any sanctions against any of the perpetrators.

This calls for a serious concern because candidates seem to have been denied level playing ground while the electorate is denied enough opportunities to hear or be exposed to rival political messages.

As a Communication scholar with bias in Public Relations and Advertising (PRAD), what’s your take on the utilization of abundant resources in terms of professional expertise in the creation and deployment of campaign materials?

Again, the lessons of the ACSPN study of the 2015 Presidential elections campaigns are instructive here.

In spite of the availability of political communication experts and firms in Nigeria, both the APC and PDP utilized the services of foreign political communications consultants during the 2015 presidential campaigns.

AKPD Message and Media, founded by former Obama campaign manager, David Axelrod, was hired by the APC while the PDP initially hired Levick Strategic Communications, although such engagements were treated in secrecy. The situation is similar today with the APC and PDP.

Another platform of engagement with electorate is debate, why is it that politicians, especially old brigades are always reluctant to take advantage of this platform?

Ordinarily, every serious politician or presidential candidate should seize the opportunity of a public debate and subsequent mass media exposure with both hands. But this will only happen if the candidate has any programme or ideas to showcase in the first place; or if he considers himself/herself vocal enough to address the public.

A candidate who does not want to present himself for public scrutiny will normally shun public debate, whereas the origin of democracy in the Athenian Greek City was founded on public debate.

Whichever party or candidate shuns public debate has indirectly turned his back against the ethos of democracy.

Unfortunately, Ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo set that negative precedence during the current 4th democratic republic while preparing for his re-election bid during the 2003 presidential election campaign.

Since he got away with that undemocratic act, subsequent presidents, including the incumbent have been following that bad precedence.

The recent open debate by the Vice-Presidential candidates of select political parties, including the participation of Vice-President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo is commendable.

President Muhammadu Buhari should follow suit in the now much published January 19 Presidential debate.

It should be seen as an opportunity to globally market the parties’ candidates and programmes. But unfortunately, politicians may have come to the realization that the elites who are mostly interested in political debates hardly vote during elections, while the larger majority who vote at elections are often guided by primordial and other considerations.

How can politicians be made to appreciate, and thereby appropriate the electoral values of debate? Or doesn’t debate have any electoral value?
Public debates have huge electoral values that should be harnessed by any serious and patriotic candidate during elections.

A refusal to participate in an open debate should be seen for what it is: a serious disrespect for the electorate, an affront to democratic ethos and a lack of interest in the Nigerian project. This should be rejected by well- meaning Nigerians.

There is a need for non-governmental organizations, media and other non-partisan groups to expose the limitations of candidates that avoid public debates.

What is your SWOT Analysis of the structural design of the debate platform managed by the Nigeria Election Debate Group?

To the extent that public debate has been institutionalized by the Nigeria Election Debate Group is highly commendable. The sustainability of the project since inception is equally commendable.

However, the present arrangement where select presidential candidates are accommodated in the debate leaves much to be desired.

Although, total number of presidential candidates is increasingly unwieldy, the Nigeria Election Debate Group should have a long-drawn and phased debate Time Table where candidates are peered.

Selection of candidates can be made based on age of formation of political parties, gender, ideology, or other such criteria. But every candidate should be given the opportunity to participate.

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and National Orientation Agency (NOA) should be involved in creating awareness on the need for the political parties to be involved in public debates.

While electorate should be urged to take voting decisions, based on campaign promises during such debates.

Live campaign at all levels is still marred by occasional violence, what do you think politicians are not doing right to harness the potential of live campaign effectively?

Crowd mentality ordinarily induces violence, whether during election campaigns, during sporting fiestas or other gatherings. Occasional violence during political campaigns is not peculiar.

For example, the nation witnessed some form of violence during the flag off of the APC 2019 governorship campaign in Lagos State, and another one in Kwara State, North-Central Nigeria. But the solution to this is not to ban public campaigns as recently done by Governor Abdul Fatai of Kwara State.

This was interpreted, correctly or otherwise, by the rival APC candidate as a process of stifling the opposition.

The solution partly lies in political education and partly in ensuring that police protection is offered to campaigners regardless of political party affiliations. Culprits should be arrested and subsequently prosecuted.

What is your view on the state of PR practice and regulation in Nigeria and the challenges of information management considering that
Government and the public sector hand professional information management to non-PR professionals especially senior journalists?

A government or political party deserves the political communication or public relations consultants it hires or refuses to hire.

Engaging the service of professional public relations and political marketing consultants is akin to hiring the services of competent and highly resourceful lawyers as advocates.

When the late M.K.O Abiola hired the services of an expert indigenous marketing communication firm to handle his campaign messages in 1993, the candidate and the nation were the gainers in terms of memorable and campaign winning messages.

During the 2015 presidential campaign, there was a qualitative difference in the campaign messages churned out by indigenous public relations firms as opposed to those exposed by foreign consultants.

When governments hire publicists rather than expert public relations firms/practitioners, the result is miscommunication, crisis in public communication of failure of governments or political parties.

Nigeria is abundantly blessed with globally-rated professionals in every field including public relations.

Journalistic writing is an aspect of public relations, but not all of its functions and strategies.

Wisdom demands that every professional be engaged to operate in his/her area of expertise.

Journalists may not be fully equipped to best handle the professional services of a public relations expert, unless of course if the journalist was exposed to public relations education and professional training.

Assess the role of PR in conflict management and has PR been used effectively in conflict resolution in the country?

Public Relations professionals are not fire fighters, which is what most people often think of when dealing with conflict/crisis management function of public relations.

Using both the social scientific and humanistic approaches, public relations analyses trends and issues that may lead to conflict and crisis situations, predicts consequences, initiates programmes and communications, and recommends courses of actions to forestall future occurrences of unacceptable situations in the society.

Conflict/Crisis Management is based on well-articulated public relations strategies and plans.

Unfortunately, most organizations and governments engage the services of public relations whenever they are enmeshed in one crisis or the
other, to douse the fire, as it were.

Most organizations are less inclined to allow for the deployment of public relations professional processes in the management of organizational or government crisis.

Such bodies would rather prefer image repair during crisis to positive image building that comes with correct situation appreciation, initiation of programmes and communications to speak to the crisis situation, evaluation and monitoring.

This is why I submit that the potentials of public relations have not been fully harnessed for conflict and crisis management in Nigeria.

An example is the lingering Boko Haram insurgency and herders-farmers conflicts in parts of Nigeria. Governments’ efforts have so far been limited to the physical/military containment of the crisis.

But how much of public relations/ communication strategies have we deployed to our engagement of the stakeholders in these theatre of warfare?
They carrying arms against the nation are just a minute part of the stakeholders in the Boko Haram debacle. They recruit members from their respective communities.

It is time governments fully integrated public relations strategies into management of national crisis and emergencies.

What is your perspective on reviewing the Mass Communication curriculum vis-a-vis the dynamism in communication environment?

I am Vice-President (South-West) of the ACSPN. The national body had held series of academic and professional conferences (one at the University of Lagos and the other two at Bayero University Kano).

Some other key officers are Professor Lai Oso (LASU School of Communication), as National President; Professor Umaru Pate (Vice President (Bayero University, Kano) and Professor Nosa Owens-Ibie General Secretary, (from Caleb University). The Association considers the current curriculum with emphasis on “Mass Communication”, grossly inadequate.

Accordingly, the Association has submitted a well–articulated set of curricula for the consideration of the National Universities Commission.

Our recommendations have taken cognizance of emerging digital and social media and the consequent multiplicity of communication media, leading to our recommendation for the unbundling of Mass Communication into other areas of communication scholarships.

These include Media and Journalism Studies; Broadcasting; Public Relations; Advertising; Information and Digital Media Studies; Film and Digital Media Studies; and Development Communication.

That is the global trend now and that is the way communication curricula is to go in contemporary Nigerian society.

What is that most essential thing that the country’s electoral process needs at the moment?

There is need for positive attitudinal re-orientations by both the political class and the Nigerian electorate.

Politics and electioneering campaigns that are characterized by unbridled resort to ethno-religious bigotry and private acquisitive tendencies will never deliver the Nigeria of our noble dreams. We need to prune down the number of political parties in Nigeria.

The younger elements with patriotic ideals should truly fight for political relevance within existing political structure, failing which, they need to sink their respective idiosyncrasies by putting up a formidable political party or alliance that can dislodge the current ruling class in the major political parties.

There is the need for the younger elements to build grassroots political parties that also founded on positive ideologies.

Rather than advocating restructuring of Nigeria based on ethnic or geographical delineation, there is the need to re-structure the present governance in terms of legislature structure, number of legislative representations at national parliament, salaries and emoluments of legislatures and executives at all levels of governance and such other adjustments.

The tendency is that it will be business as usual if the current generation of youths take over the reins of power under the present defective, corruption-prone and wobbled democratic sub-structure.

What does President Buhari’s handover of his campaigns to Asiwaju Tinubu portend for politics in Nigeria and political campaigns?

The whole idea of setting up a Presidential Campaign Committee or Team to manage elections is not strange and represents part of the best practices in political campaign planning and management.

After all, a campaign should be well coordinated, purpose driven and goal directed.

This is why Presidential and Gubernatorial candidates often appoint Director Generals to coordinate political campaigns.

That President Muhammadu Buhari has named Asiwaju Bola Ahmed, National APC leader as the overall coordinator of his second-term presidential bid is not strange.

What will be strange is to totally abdicate the responsibilities in this connection. Fortunately, he didn’t as he has been featuring in all the campaign grounds so far.

###CREDIT TO THE GUARDIAN NEWS###