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2023: How supporters are ruining chances of candidates, making tasks of engaged PR professionals difficult

By SOL PR
29

The campaign for the 2023 general election has commenced unofficially, despite the polls being seven months away. With the candidates for the various elective positions now known, supporters have begun marketing their preferred candidates on traditional and social media. The candidates are also not left out as some of them are attending radio or television interviews and/or announcing potential generic policy statements on social media.

However, one trend that has been observable in the last few months is the dissemination of spiteful and misleading messages by the supporters of candidates, especially those of the presidential candidates. There have been numerous instances whereby these political associates and supporters either deliberately or inadvertently misinformed Nigerians with the types of messages publicized. This behaviour is notched a step higher with the malicious and nasty messages that the backers of one candidate spew against other candidates. It has become more of the use of propaganda by these supporters over purposeful communication.

This situation affecting the campaigns of the major presidential candidates can be summarised as a conflation of a careful presentation of slanted information and ideas in favour of one party and candidate while obscuring other entities, the verbal hurling of slurs of all manners and the casting of aspersions on the various candidates’ personalities by these supporters. Unfortunately, this scenario is not just playing out within the camps of the presidential candidates, it is also spiralling down to the campaigns of other elective positions.

Such a scenario has created a unique challenge for candidates during the electioneering process. With the amplified use of social media for elections in Nigerians, political supporters can now directly provide unsolicited comments of abouteir preferred candidates and also convey their thoughts about the personality and proposed policies of their candidates’ opponents. This means that, more than ever, political supporters can directly influence campaign themes, messages and direction. However, this occasional faux pas and vile behaviour heavily perpetuated by these supporters have created a problem of perception management against these candidates. The inability to rein in their supporters to dial down their rhetoric has pitted some of these candidates against the public, thereby ruining their chances for the election even before campaigns officially begin. Also, this predicament has further complicated an already convoluted publicity plan and campaign expected to be executed by PR professionals engaged to work for certain candidates.

For instance, the supporters of the Labour Party have been accused of being arrogant, circulating distorted statistics, as well as bullying Nigerians to support Peter Obi, the party’s presidential candidate. The party has gained popularity in recent times, particularly among young Nigerians on social media, following the defection of Obi, a former Anambra State governor, and his eventual emergence as the party’s candidate for the presidential election. The LP candidate himself has not helped matters following his airing of muddled information, some of which has been fact-checked and deemed duplicitous.

Also, Bola Tinubu, the presidential candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), was bogged recently with some serious allegations in a report written by an independent investigative journalist. Supporters of Tinubu have staunchly risen to his defence, maintaining that the allegations were regurgitated, that the APC candidate was not prosecuted in the country where the alleged offence was committed and has been subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing by a letter by that country’s embassy. Tinubu’s supporters have, however, not handled the public perception of this issue with grace and the professionalism it deserves as they have continuously blasted and pilloried a good number of Nigerians, who insist that the allegations, backed with evidence, are very severe and that Tinubu must respond to them.

While they were yet to quench that fire, supporters of Tinubu ignited another crisis when they staunchly defended the choice of a Muslim-Muslim ticket by the ruling party. Many Nigerians insisted that the APC decided to ignore their fears about religious intolerance and instead further exploit the country’s fault line. The fears of those uncomfortable with the ticket were further intensified recently at the unveiling of Kashim Shettima, the APC vice-presidential candidate, with the appearance of “fake” bishops who wore clerical robes at the event to purportedly showcase the solidarity of Christians with the ticket. To add insult to injury, the spokesperson of the Tinubu Campaign Organisation released a statement defending the presence of the said bishops, describing them as “upcoming bishops” whose ministries are just fledging.

In the same vein, supporters of Atiku Abubakar, the presidential candidate of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), have also been reproached by the public over their failure to provide a credible explanation of their preferred candidate’s source of wealth, as well as articulate his views on religious harmony and tolerance, following his deletion of a post on Twitter concerning blasphemy. Even though the PDP candidate claimed he never authorised the posting of the tweet, the rehashing of such a reason has been dubbed insincere by the public. Also, Atiku’s supporters have been censured for providing flimsy excuses to justify his comments in a recent interview in which he erroneously said the 1999 constitution (as amended) allows public office holders to continue to indulge in their private businesses when in office.

One common trait with all these aforementioned issues is that the campaign organisations of these frontline candidates have either not addressed them or provided half-hazard responses that can be ascribed to amateurs camouflaging as communication specialists. If not properly managed, this predicament will not only derail a candidate’s campaign but also impugn their reputation and ultimately destroy their chances at the election. Perception takes time to build and if hired PR professionals are not allowed to effectively manage the process of communication, their task to manage the candidate’s internal and external interaction towards the tail end of the campaign may be futile, as the voters may have already formed in their minds an opinion or impression about such candidate(s).

This potential crisis of the transmission of messages and poor management perception, therefore, signifies the urgent need for political parties and their candidates to adopt strategic communication for their campaigns. Strategic communication requires creating clear goals and understanding towards managing an organisation’s perception in a bid to mutually serve the best interest of both the organisation and its publics. It incorporates a variety of communication-related professions, including public relations. The commonly adopted definition of public relations made at the 1978 Mexican Assembly describes PR as the art and social science of anticipating and analysing trends, predicting their consequences, counselling organisations’ leaders and implementing a planned programme of action which serves both the organisation and public interest.

The above-mentioned definition points to why politicians, their campaigns and political parties need to, more than ever, engage communication experts to shape the narrative of their campaigns and craft their messages, respectively. Virtually all the camps of the presidential candidates are, at the moment, only focused on the last part of the definition (reeling out a programme of action by disseminating information) and this, expectedly, has led to chaotic reactions on radio, television and the social media. Strategic communication, however, goes beyond just disseminating information, especially in politics. What it does is to reconcile or adjust in the public interest the aspects of personal and public behaviour which has significance in society. Public relations and strategic communications, in general, act more as mediators, a middleman between the organisation and its publics.

The organisation in this instance are the politicians. The moulding of these politicians’ messages to be more refined and the need to create an affable persona to convince the public has become crucial in this era of Nigerian politics, especially as there is an ever-increasing number of educated people who can now get access to all manner of information at the tip of their sophisticated smartphones. Referring to those controversial issues earlier stated, if the politicians do not effectively address them (not by using propaganda and lies), their reputation among the electorate is likely to be severely among the electorate, and that is not good news for any candidate or political party during an election.

Political candidates and political parties already enjoy brand love, courtesy of their fellow political party members, associates, and supporters. However, for them to effectively spread their tentacles and market themselves more to garner more voters to their side, they need to have a palatable brand image to achieve brand equity with undecided members of the electorate. For that to happen, these politicians need an individual or a group of people who are skilled in developing a planned process to answer all potential thorny questions professionally and ensure that the public has a better intuitive understanding and insight of their persona.

These skilled persons, better known as public communication professionals, adopt dextrous strategies in shaping the narrative of a politician’s campaign, rather than the crude and aggressive tactics currently used by the supporters of the presidential candidates. PR professionals employ the S (Specific) – M (Measurable) – A (Attainable) – R (Realistic) – T (Time-bound) principle to effectively manage and protect the politician’s image and reputation. Through these SMART principles, they craft key points and messages for the specific audience, transmit approved and verifiable information from the press office, create a higher awareness for the client and position their client to provide moderate and measured responses to questions for various media platforms, lower the impact of the client’s vulnerability, and act as a corporate vigilant by springing into action to contain any crisis that may be brewing.

No example can be much more relatable of any political candidate who blitzed his way to power, courtesy of a reformed perception framed for him by his hired public relations firm other than Muhammadu Buhari, the 15th President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Buhari had lost four presidential elections from 2003 to 2011, as Nigerians largely had an extremist view of him. But thanks to the re-branding of his persona and public image, the same Nigerians who had rejected him four times in the space of eight years finally gave him their mandate in 2015.

This transformation is what we at SOL PR offer to members of the political class, especially candidates, this election cycle. We commit to understanding our clients’ businesses and focusing on driving their growth, as well as managing PR/communication crises for organisations by utilising the skills, knowledge and tools to effectively manage their reputation, influence public perception and maintain a high level of trust and a positive relationship between themselves and the public.

We are accomplished managers of the marketing, business development, and communications processes for mid-size and large companies as well as government establishments/agencies. We have a highly skilled image management team comprised of distinguished former journalists and brand experts with experience working with the media outlets that clients need to penetrate, giving us familiarity with the client, the agency side and the media.

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