The role of a spokesman, especially for the government, has come under scrutiny since President Muhammadu Buhari announced the appointment of Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu as the official mouthpiece of his administration.
The voices of scrutiny recently went a notch higher after the President gave the two seasoned journalists the somewhat confusing portfolios of SA Media and Publicity and SSA Media and Publicity.
While lucky spokesmen enjoy some level of honeymoon period, both Adesina and Shehu have come under the microscope from day one. The recent pictures of the President in his Daura farm released by the duo on International Refugees Day have raised a few eye brows in several quarters.
The lesson from that incident highlights the type of dilemma and pressure a spokesman faces every time he carries out his assignment. While the motive on that day was to present the President as a humble father keen to show his young son how to run the family orchard, the timing of the release was slightly awkward considering the high number of Internally Displaced Persons scattered in various parts of the country seeking urgent government attention.
In this job of speaking for others, the spokesman must get his timing right.
For me, the most important duty of the image maker is to make friends for his principal. At the end of it, that is what the spokesman will be judged with. On this count, we can conclusively say that those saddled with the responsibility of speaking for former President Goodluck Jonathan failed in their tasks.
In the public relations class, we were taught all spokespersons give organizations human form. We were reminded that to carry out an effective job, image managers must be properly trained. “No one should represent the entire organization unless he or she has invested time and energy in developing the skills of an effective spokesperson,” one of such manuals highlighted.
In actual practice, a spokesman requires much more than a formal training in public relations or journalism. In the field of work, a spokesman is expected to offer advice on all matters because in one way or the other, all matters are media related. How a spokesperson handles inquiries from his boss, the public and media, in addition to what he or she says publicly and privately, helps establish credibility for whatever entity he or she speaks for.
Seeing that journalists form the bulk of persons selected by the government in Nigeria as spokespersons, the credibility of the spokesperson must be given utmost priority. So being a journalist alone is not a guarantee to becoming a good spokesman. Those in positions of authority must choose carefully the individual(s) who will be charged with the role of spokesperson based not only on the individual’s familiarity with the subject matter, but also on his or her ability to talk about it in a way that communicates confidence and is understandable.
An essential ingredient needed for the success of the spokesman is the trust and confidence of the Big Boss. In our clime, one job that gets the easiest appraisal is that of the image maker. The appraisal will come from colleagues, rivals, hangers-on in the corridors of power, and media consultants who seem to have a second opinion on any action taken by the spokesman. Because these consultants are well-connected and have access to people that matter, they come forward with brilliant proposals on what should be done at all times. If your boss gives them more attention than you, you are in for a tough task.
I’m not saying all consultants are bad news for the spokesman, but the underlying motive behind all consultants is to make money for a service rendered; something that is miles apart from the aim of a designated spokesperson.
Closely-related to consultants are enthusiastic newspaper readers (may include family members) whose views on (mostly negative) stories about the Principal gets to him first thing in the morning. Their major occupation is to draw his attention to the not-so-positive stories in accusatory tone. With these kinds of people, the spokesman has to be true to himself, rationalizing issues in the most truthful way possible. Ultimately, a good spokesperson is able to clearly and concisely get across his key messages without sounding forced or artificial.
After four years serving as government spokesman whose ‘mandate’ was renewed recently, I instinctively know when a reporter means harm or good. But a spokesman must always be on guard not to allow his prejudice get in the way of his job. You are bound to come across friendly or adversarial media all the time; you must use all the charm at your disposal to disarm any antagonistic reporter who comes your way.
No where can you find more unfriendly opinions about your principal than in the social media. A spokesman not properly visible in the social media, especially on Facebook and Twitter, may just have to start searching for a new job. To succeed, the first thing a spokesman needs to do is to create a social media unit and assemble a team to monitor and set the tone for discussion about his principal online.
A certain death wish for any spokesman is to get involved in quarrels between different media or their reporters. Don’t fight anybody’s fight. Give unto reporters what belongs to them, or you stand the chance of being ridiculed, which in turn adversely affects your principal and the entity he is heading.
In addition to everything said, at every opportunity, the lessons taught in PR 101 classes always come in handy. Be prepared, be confident, know your audience, don’t give dodgy answers to straightforward questions, be truthful and above all, be respectful to friends and perceived opponents.
*Imam, a former newspaper editor, is a member of Nigeria Institute of Public Relations @imamdimam