রাষ্ট্রপতি বিদেশ জনসংযোগ বিপযর্য়

PR Fallout of Presidential Foreign Trip

প্রশ্ন: On getting convinced that you are a Grand Master in marketing communications, from seeing your professional profile, I believe you are in a good position to respond to this nagging question, which took a national dimension recently. How do you perceive, from a public relations perspective, the President’s recent trip abroad when all was obviously not well at home? – E. Ekeh

The bit about being a Grand Master reminds me of Chess, and Asiatic marshal arts (যেমন,. Karate, Jujutsu, Judo). I am yet to comprehend the extent of my profile being in public glare, for you to count so much on my view about an issue which has a lot to do with public perception of Mr. President. যাহোক, thanks for the compliments, while I hope not to be misconstrued as ‘trumpeting’ the views of any political group. Belonging or identifying with any presently is not even near my list of priorities. What I convey here should be perceived as an honest view, from purely a professional angle, for all concerned to note for improved performance.

From a public relations (জনসংযোগ) perspective, extracting Rex Harlow’s definition of the subject from several others, as applicable to leaders in relation to the rest of us (the governed), will be quite relevant to this topic. It states that PR must be viewed as that function which facilitates the establishment and maintenance of mutual line of communication, understanding, acceptance and co-operation between the leadership and the populace (i.e. the led). It entails management of problems or issues; help keep the leader informed on and responsive to public opinion; defines and emphasize the responsibility of the leadership to serve the public interest; facilitates keeping abreast with change and its effective utilization, serving as an early warning system to help anticipate trends, applying various means of communication as tools. The above summarizes public perception of leadership in consonance with expected demands of leadership roles.

This is why public perception of leaders even through any of the tools of mass communication matters a lot. A picture, for instance, is said to be equated to a thousand words – Hence a photograph of a former military president, in an exhilarating handshake with then chief of army staff, at the scene of burnt Ministry of Defence (or Independence) building in Lagos, ‘said’ so much to Nigerians. Many saw it as an expression of “congratulations, for a job well done”.

That of a former female minister of aviation, at the crash site of a light aircraft near Ikorodu in Lagos, gaily dressed like someone just out of a Sunday service, was perceived by many as mere utilization of ‘photo opportunity’, and not an expression of concern or sensitivity.

Close watchers, আমার মত, saw the current minister of aviation’s appearance at a news briefing shortly after the recent Dana Air plane crash in Lagos, as a “Master Stroke”. One could see that she dwelt on being soft-spoken; appeared with hair not properly made-up; no facial make-ups; and had a few drops of tears behind her eye-glasses. What else could have conveyed the prevalent mood? The public no doubt saw this as a minister who showed human feelings when the nation was grieving.

I view Mr. President’s decision to proceed on a trip to Rio De Janeiro, ব্রাজিল, to attend the recently concluded Rio+20 Summit, well under 48 hours after multiple bombing in Kaduna, Zaria and reprisal attacks which followed, as a major slip. It should be recalled that several hours of gun battle between security agents and the “Boko Haram” Islamist extremist group occurred shortly after in Damaturu, Yobe state. Reprisal attacks were pointers to obvious loss of confidence in the people about government’s ability to protect them.

If Nigeria must be at that Summit, going by these attacks coming in the wake of an obviously already planned trip to Brazil, who says the Vice-President could not have stood in for the President? This would have given ‘thumbs up’ for Mr. President, and portrayed him as being sensitive to the plight of Nigerians. Leaders are known to have even aborted their foreign trips, mid air, for concern towards unsavoury happenings at home.

It is not the number of foreign trips to “attract foreign investors” that should be played up, but how positively Nigerians perceive their president as being caring that counts more. Going by the fit former president Obasanjo achieved by being one of most travelled presidents, one would have expected the number of foreign investors, attracted by his travels, to have out numbered Nigerian citizens by now. I still recall a national newspaper, “ThisDay”, expressing its disgust towards these countless trips in its front-page headlines during Obasanjo’s tenure.

May I hint that a growing public impression about a presidential penchant for being at all events, outside Nigerian shores, that demand participation of heads of government (now almost a monthly affair) calls for some restraints. This gives cause for not being taken seriously in line with the saying that, “a neighbour who visits so often wears out his welcome”. All is obviously not well at home. These foreign trips should be curbed.

Creating an unfavourable impression before the international community and strengthening “Boko Haram” as claimed, by shelving an already planned trip, seem ‘difficult to swallow’; when minute-by-minute happenings here are well known with globalization. In the same vein, I view the explanations of the president’s handlers (those straddled with the responsibilities of positively projecting him for favourable public perception) as weak. They must realise that it is not a case of being able to run the country even from Heaven, courtesy of modern technology, but being perceived as sensitive to the plight of the people that counts.

I prefer the President of my country not being viewed in comparative terms with the experience of ancient Romans, who (as the story goes) saw their leader (Emperor Nero) showing preference for playing the fiddle, while Rome was on fire. How else can one describe insensitivity?

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