Dr. Robert Ekat

When Nitin Nohria, former dean of Harvard Business School, said, “Communication is the real work of leadership,” he was highlighting a crucial element in national development. Nigeria, a complex tapestry, faces various challenges, but one persistent one is connecting with its people. This problem is compounded by the hydra-headed corruption that remains a wedge between the leaders and the people, straining perception, but one which strategic communication can help resolve.

Strategic communication is a plan that factors in audiences and channels to achieve critical objectives. In national affairs, it bridges the gap between leaders and citizens, fostering national identity and shared vision. However, in Nigeria, this gap widens with each successive administration.

At 64, Nigeria should have a clear national identity, creed, and common vision, but these remain elusive due to corruption and poor communication. Corruption and strategic communications cannot coexist; where there is corruption, propaganda prevails. To succeed, a government must develop a communications strategy that involves all stakeholders, ensuring understanding and buy-in. Honesty, trustworthiness, credibility, ethical considerations, and critical thinking are essential elements of strategic communications.

Oftentimes, we see leaders in Nigeria with the proverbial body language that suggests seriousness to work. The critical question to ask is, “What stops them?”

The easy answer to this does not need any scholarly credentials to know: corruption or the perception of it stops them. The question in the mind of the reader right now is, “How can strategic communication solve the problem of corruption?” This question can simply be answered by disaggregating the elements of strategic communications. They are: honesty, trustworthiness, credibility, ethical considerations, legal and regulatory compliance, critical and creative thinking, etc.

Where there is corruption, the sort of communication that obtains is “propaganda.” Nigeria is a behemoth to govern, and to succeed, a government must settle down to plan its communications strategy, carrying all of its stakeholders, such as staff, appointees, partners, and the people, along. On the one hand, there must be a conscious effort to ensure that ministries, departments, and their members understand the direction of the government, viz-a-viz its policies, goals, and desires.

Also, the people must be sufficiently told and shown the direction of the government and the sincerity around it. Suffice it to say that proper draft and implementation of a strategic communications plan can help in building trust and credibility, stakeholder engagement and participation, policy advocacy and implementation, crisis management and risk communication, promoting economic growth and investment, education and awareness campaigns, technology and innovation, cultural preservation and national identity, and measuring impact and effectiveness.

A practical example of how communications has been used in Nigeria is in the recent exchange rate crisis. When the Tinubu administration first allowed the naira to float, believing that it would find a good level against the dollar, it took the opposite turn and continued to fall in value. The media space got awash with information that the naira would continue to fall. It fell to a new all-time low of N1,534/$ on the official Nigerian Autonomous Foreign Exchange Market in February 2024.

More fear driven by the media moved people to sell off their naira to dollars, further crashing the naira to about N1,800/$.

It is important to note that the government left the media space to speculators, who had filled days spreading panic around the naira and benefitting from the resultant effect.

Towards the end of February, the Central Bank of Nigeria, through the governor, Mr. Olayemi Cardoso, got into the fray using a number of monetary instruments, which halted the assault on the naira. The decisions of the CBN were massively amplified using mainstream and online media platforms. This was sustained for weeks and months, drumming fears around the dollars, a reverse of the initial circumstance, which put fears around the naira.

With the fears around the possibility of the naira appreciating against the dollar, many people who had dollars stashed in domiciliary accounts began to bring them out.

While it is safe to say that the actions of the CBN stabilized the naira, the role of communications using the media cannot be undermined. As experts say that the fair value of the naira against the dollar is #860, it would seem that fear drove it up to #1,900, and “same fear” for the dollar, largely driven by the CBN through communications, brought it down to less than 1,200 naira in April.

As communications without substance cannot deliver sustainable progress, the naira gains were lost eventually, as it currently goes for about 1,400/$.

According to Udeme Ufot, the basic roles of strategic communication include defining and creating, informing and engaging, positioning and differentiating, persuading and influencing, reminding and sustaining, and stimulating action.

In defining the problems for which a strategic communications plan should solve, the place of research cannot be overlooked. It appears that there is too much subjectivity in Nigeria, as is the case in many African countries. Governments often assume they understand the problem; hence, as soon as they assume office, they set out to apply solutions and communicate their sentiments across the different levels of stakeholders.

Governance lacks empiricism, hence the frequent mistakes of proposing policies that are clearly poorly thought out, and rescinding them upon public outcry. There are just as many stakeholder groups in government as there are among the governed. Government must collect insights from these different groups and rigorously analyze them to understand pain points, desires, and even acceptable solutions, guided by nuances that effective research instruments reveal.

A communications strategy born out of such rigour will understand the people well enough and how they like to be communicated with. This will also help government appreciate concerns around variables such as corruption, executive impunity, waste in governance, and a whole lot.

To this extent, a communications strategy will factor in honesty in addressing the concerns of the people while carrying them along. Communication from the government to the people is most effective when the people see that the government is addressing issues that are important to them. With trust built between both parties, it becomes easy to get the buy-in of the people for the government’s policies, and over time, build more fundamental variables of national creed, belief, and identity.

Furthermore, it is critical to understand that the government is a brand. Once it loses the regard of its public, it only spirals downwards. Successful companies continue to reinvent themselves in the minds of their customers by redefining their essence, building trust, and offering value. Governments must embody this position.

According to Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, “Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.” The President of Nigeria, Bola Tinubu, as the number one marketer of the Nigerian brand, must genuinely seek answers as to what the majority of Nigerians think about the brand (Nigeria) he manages. This inclination to be defensive of the image of the government whenever people call it out may be unavoidable, but the government must be true to itself, at least, in seeking the truth about sentiments around it and incorporating approaches to changing such perceptions.

This is not rocket science.

Dr. Robert Ekat is a Lead PR and Communications Consultant at BHM Nigeria. He is also a part-time lecturer in the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN).