THE “VIRUS” IN OUR PUBLIC COMMUNICATION BY Dakuku Peterside
Purposeful public communication is a very important aspect of public governance especially in times of emergency. It provides opportunities for politicians and public office holders to educate, persuade and inspire trust among stakeholders. They are expected to achieve this through effectively conveying credible information, managing expectations, interacting with citizens, allaying fears and anxiety and providing necessary assurances. The ultimate goals are to raise awareness, cause change and transform societies. However, some politicians and public office holders continuously miss the point as they do not know how to pass their messages across appropriately to their audience or simply lack the capacity to do so . This has the capacity to send wrong signals and even create unnecessary tension and confusion among the public especially at difficult times like the current pandemic.
Politicians ought to be influencers who understand their responsibility to inspire and encourage citizens when they try to convey tough but necessary decisions. Citizens look up to what they say and how they act to shape how they respond to situations. With the threat of Coronavirus hanging over our heads, citizens’ need for credible, correct and rapid information has never been more critical. . Public officials have a role to make this happen but this is not the case with Nigerian officials especially at the various state levels . If anything we have seen so much inconsistency that you will try hard to figure out what message they want to pass . Unfortunately, inconsistency of information creates uncertainty and fear which is not what is intended. It is imperative that whenever public officers have something to say, they must be aware of the content, context and probable consequences whether it be a milestone, a development or even a challenge. Citizens want to listen to a leader who will be transparent and accountable by providing them necessary and credible information and guidance.
It is during an era of emergency such as we are that these important skills of governance are stretched beyond limits. Those who can inspire are easily separated from those who want to play politics at every given opportunity even when citizen’s lives are involved. Public communication in a period like this must be deliberately fact-driven, without prejudice, tackling misconceptions and persuading citizens to follow government directives. Resorting to theatrics and political rhetoric cannot be a virtue at a time of crisis. Political rhetoric is appropriate for certain occasions and subjects but not when lives are at stake . You do not need to be a rocket scientist to know a leader who is getting it right and making the right impact on the populace. The United State President Donald Trump , in his circus like spectacle, is obviously working so hard to communicate with his countrymen and women through his daily press briefing. He puts in a lot of efforts including providing regular updates on social media. However, as days go by, his approach continues to reveal what a good communicator should not be. Some commentators insist that this might have contributed to some unintended consequences that could worsen the pandemic rather than reduce it.
Good communication is participatory. It is a very important source of power. It is about talking with people not talking to people or at them. Many politicians tend to do the later. They use every available opportunity to play the power game without necessarily understanding the changing nature of power map in the polity. As influential persons, the way politicians use their power matter much in times of emergency. In Nigeria, for instance, the governor is the “chief security officer” of the state and is therefore supposed to be a role model and one of most influential persons in his state . However, what some of them fail to realize is that the power they exercise are delegated to them through the votes of the people that they are elected or appointed to serve. Strictly speaking , their power should at all times be used for service and an effective politician is supposed to use an emergency period to make the citizens realize how to deploy influence for public good .
Sadly many of our politicians prefer to behave as celebrities, and quickly go to the media even when they have little or nothing to say. They believe that the best way to communicate with citizens is to buy airtime on television stations and several pages of newspapers in advertisement. They tend to spend more money on advertisement than they might have spent on the so called project , programme, or accomplishment they are advertising. They neither make efforts to be transparent or stick to the facts rather they often think that by sounding verbose , theatrical or technical they will exert power over those they govern. Some deliberately sound ambiguous or unusually political in order to appear impressive or even divert attention from the truth.
This pandemic appears to have emboldened populist political leaders who thrive on sentiments of the gullible segments of the public to throw verbal missiles at imaginary enemies including other levels of government just to appear relevant in their base instead of addressing the real issues. They resort to firing unsavoury innuendos and disparaging remarks to express one form of anger or another. It would appear that they simply enjoy hearing their own voices as though they are megalomaniacs seeking for attention. To strike any form of balance and become all-encompassing appear to be completely lacking in their style. How this penchant for media mileage and promotion of “hyper individualistic ego “can contribute to fighting the pandemic we are faced with remains what many observers are struggling to figure out. Listening to them, you would imagine that good communication skills might have been infected by some virus as these leaders abandon the essence of governance through responsiveness in pursuit of irrelevant ego trips. One symptom that this virus produces is the tendency to use quarrels with imaginary enemies to expose lack of capacity of purposeful leadership.
The complex and multi-dimensional nature of the impact of this covid-19 pandemic has exposed the fact that good advertising is good but it cannot become a substitute for leadership with credibility, content, and capacity. The public cannot be treated with disdain as though they are captured people whose views, interests and sentiments do not matter. The wellbeing of the citizens ought to be at the centre of what a leader should say or do. Ironically part of the huge resources these politicians commit to blowing their own trumpet can put in a few additional equipment and a few more testing kits that can contribute to a more effective battle against the virus. The least expectation of the public is that some of these political leaders must by now rise above what my senior friend, Uncle Chidi Amuta will describe as grandstanding, noise making and empty drama paid for with our common resources.
In contrast, I have listened to a few leaders whose communication have been quite distinctive. In the midst of rising fatalities, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York remained firm and factual in communicating government efforts to contain the pandemic. His archetypal approach ensured that developments are communicated as they happened and ensured that citizens remained regularly engaged. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand whose messages are clear, consistent, sobering and soothing has been outstanding. Both of them are clear examples of how to differentiate leaders from self-seeking egomaniacs and noisemakers.
My hope is that at the end of the pandemic, political leaders who will win public confidence as the populace struggle against this pandemic must be the ones who mastered the art of public communication and are sincere . I am also optimistic that citizens will emerge to know exactly the kind of leaders to vote into office or not, based on their experience during this period.
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