By Emeka Oparah
Recently at the Annual Conference of the African Public Relations Associations (APRA) held at the magnificent Tinapa Resort, Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria, the reputation of Nigeria came variously under the spotlight, and the overwhelming opinion – sad as it was – was that the image of the country could do with serious attention. One would have thought that after the brilliant papers presented and the attendant robust discussions, a sort of memo would have gone to those managing the reputation of Nigeria, pointing out the flaws and recommending some quick fixes and other longer-term solutions. I am not privy to such a memo – after all, who am I to know – but then, I haven’t seen any changes, except a few for the worse. And now, as I prepare to attend yet another talk shop (I hope not), the Third Stakeholders’ Conference of the Lagos State Chapter of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR) aptly themed “Communication, Reputation & Foreign Direct Investment in Nigeria”, I am persuaded to offer some free tips – pending the outcome – on how to salvage the reputation of our dear country especially before the international community and, hopefully, attract the badly needed FDI.
Let me start by asking whether you have flown any of the international airlines from Lagos to Europe and then to the US. I have done so many times and my experience will interest you. On a recent British Airways to the UK, first thing I observed was the aircraft wasn’t spanking new. The crew wasn’t exactly courteous. The passengers, mostly Nigerians, were largely unruly. One chap had to be firmly (read rudely) asked to switch off his mobile phone during take-off, as required by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and indeed every other civil (and even uncivil) aviation authority anywhere in the world. Another guy refused to put his seat in upright position for the same purpose of take-off! And there were several other instances of irresponsible behavior for the 6-hour duration of the flight!
Upon landing in Heathrow, there was a sudden transformation of characters leading to serious behavioral changes. It was apparent people’s comportment went north! People calmly waited for the aircraft to taxi to a stop before using their mobile phones or pulling out their luggage from the overhead lockers. If the aircraft was landing in Nigeria, you would think the pilot had signaled emergency disembarkation as people would have made to exit the plane even before it landed. I remember once screaming at a passenger who made a call to “Emeka, we are about to land”, as the aircraft made its final descent into Lagos! I freaked out! Apparently, some other passengers didn’t quite mind judging by their reaction to my reaction. Goodness me!
Back to my BA experience. I later boarded the London to Austin, Texas, flight and I was happy and unhappy at the same time, and I will explain presently why the double paroxysm of sadness and joy. Look, the aircraft was squeaky clean as in spanking new! A 787! I could still see some nylon covers to show how new the aircraft was. The crew was remarkably courteous and very gregarious. Even as a frequent flyer, I freaked out when an elderly dude in uniform came by, shook hands and introduced himself as the Captain. And I was like, “who the hell is flying the plane?” He read my face and helpfully volunteered that we were on autopilot and, of course, his co-pilot was in charge-just in case. Phew! Now, you can figure out why I was unhappy even in my happiness, but let me help: Why didn’t they extend the same courtesies and treatment on the Lagos to London route?
The trip back from Texas to London was almost the same experience. World class! Then, London to Lagos! Have you wondered why the gates to Lagos (or Nigeria) from virtually every international destination are always furthermost? I ask, even if I know why. We, Nigerians, are very noisy. We are very rowdy. We carry so much hand luggage. It is said the luggage that we bring on board is more than we check in. This is certainly an exaggeration but the point is very well made and also well taken. We talk on top of our voices with scant or no regard for the peace and happiness of others. Like I said earlier you would think a bomb or a snake was discovered on the plane upon arrival just looking at the way people seek to flee the aircraft!
I have told you this story just to illustrate that it is not in our stars but in us that we are underlings (apologies to William Shakespeare). The impressions we create as a people will aggregate into perception and, by extrapolation, reputation. As they say, dress the way you want to be addressed. We have consciously built a reputation of never-do-wells, and that’s the picture of us the world carries. If all the news coming out of Nigeria is positive and when people encounter Nigerians they come away with a negative opinion, then there is confusion. There is a gap, which needs to be managed strategically, deliberately and professionally. This is why countries have Information and Foreign Affairs Ministries-to manage their reputation at home and abroad. In the case of Nigeria, unfortunately, there’s not much good news coming through and our people are not behaving well. To make matters even worse, neither the Ministry of Information nor the Foreign Affairs counterpart seems to be aware of the situation much less doing anything about it. There is so much news about Chibok Girls, drug pushers caught during Hajj or executed in Indonesia; a $60m heist in Advance Fee Fraud; Boko Haram still hitting innocent villages and running away; recovery of looted public funds; Herdsmen attacking innocent host villages; audacious robbery and kidnapping incidents, etc. Meanwhile, the economy is wobbling with the Naira on a freefall and new investors are frightened and old ones are fleeing! The reputation of Nigeria is nothing to write home about right now. Period!
In spite of these challenges or better still because of these challenges the reputation of Nigeria requires close attention. The folks responsible for the task must wake up urgently from their slumber, because indeed they are fast asleep! Why it has taken so long to name ambassadors to the various missions abroad is still inexplicable, like most other appointments, kept on ice since the inception of this government. These appointments should be made without further ado. I am regrettably unsure the names I saw on the list are people who have the capacity, charisma, connection and flair to represent the country out there. I am not sure, and so they have to convince me and fellow Doubting Thomases. When these folks are being sent on their missions, they must be sent with a mandate to focus on rebuilding the reputation of Nigeria.
By the way, the Minister of Foreign Affairs seems to be overwhelmed or ineffective or both. May be I don’t look hard enough, but I have seen him occasionally smiling for the cameras in the company of the president with different colors of pens notoriously affixed to his breast pocket. An otherwise brilliant man, with a diplomatic accent, if you may, he isn’t letting us feel him like we felt his predecessors. Enough said. Then, the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, seems to have finally recovered from the election hangover but then lapsed into quietude. From talking like he’s still an opposition spokesperson to total silence is not good at all. Again, it took forever to change the heads of the parastatals in the Ministry of Information (MOI), but even now not much has changed in changing the narrative of the country. As far as I am concerned, it seems we are still in election or immediate post-election mode, and that is very unfortunate.
In his book, “Reputation: Realizing Value from the corporate image”, Charles Fombrun posits that with good reputation, products and stock offerings entice more customers and investors-and command higher prices; jobs lure more applicants-and generate more loyalty and productivity from employees; clout with suppliers is greater-and they pay lower prices for purchases and have more stable revenues and risks of crises are fewer-and when crises do occur, survival is with less financial loss. You don’t have to think too hard to realize that all of these can be extrapolated and applied to countries, to Nigeria. And that is where the reputational challenge facing us, as a people, and particularly those who are charged with managing Nigeria’s reputation, exist.
If we are unable, just yet, to change the people responsible for Information and Foreign Affairs, at least we can begin by changing their understanding of their jobs. They must be challenged to do something quickly. The Federal government should convene a summit on the reputation of the country featuring experts in communication, marketing and international relations. But while they are at it, the government should start changing the story by doing the following.
Firstly, let the government move from arresting looters of public funds to prosecuting and jailing them because the major difference between Nigeria and developed countries like the UK and US is not the absence of criminals, but the existence of the 11th Commandment”: Thou shall not get caught! Punishing offenders or negative reinforcement, according to B. F. Skinner will, in addition to correcting the offender, serve as a deterrent to would-be offenders.
Secondly, the government should commence a nationwide re-orientation campaign to address some of the ills of the society. Charity begins at home. We cannot be a great people, if we are not a good people, and I believe the National Orientation Agency (NOA) is set up to manage this. People who still fall in line only when they are instructed by uniformed personnel are far from becoming responsible. When a state government can put out paid advertisements to celebrate the birthday of a convicted former Governor serving jail term abroad or a community gives a hero’s burial to a convicted drug baron executed by firing squad in a foreign country, then you know we are snookered! So, there is a lot of work to be done on the minds of Nigerians, and the time is yesterday! Thankfully, the Federal Government controls a significant number of the radio and TV stations and can rest assured of the support of the state government and privately owned stations including AIT! Beyond the broadcast media, NOA should host rallies and also use all entry and exit ports to educate people of the need to conduct themselves well and act like ambassadors of the country.
Thirdly, government officials must be held accountable and compelled to conform to the vision of the President as a responsible, disciplined, trustworthy and patriotic person of high integrity. When government officials behave in ways that are not only inconsistent with the perception of the president but contrapuntal to the tenets of the change mantra of the administration, then they damage not only the psyche of the people but the reputation of the country. Leaders must walk the talk or made to take a walk.
Fourthly, can we start propagating the good about Nigeria? What’s with the negativity our brothers and sisters in the diaspora are peddling with relish and fiendish glee? Why are our own people de-marketing our own country? Well, perhaps, patriotism has taken flight from us and we are now destroying the image of our own fatherland. Even some of us living at home appear to be more than happy, quite regrettably, to share bad news and cover up the good ones. The media should lead the charge here and make it a duty to devote significant good airtime and space to positive news about Nigeria. My undergraduate project back in 1990 was entitled the “The Image of Nigeria Police in the Media: A Content Analysis”, and one of the key findings actually do come handy and very instructive here. I discovered that by merely stopping the radio announcements of stolen vehicles in Imo State, the Imo State Police Command contributed to the perception of safety about the state even as other states with even better records were perceived as unsafe. Perception, again, is reality! Need I say more than emphasize that we need a re-orientation in our attitude to our country and “we” means those at home and abroad?
Fifthly, so long as elections remain inconclusive; looters of the economy are allowed to roam freely; men and women of doubtful integrity are seen in around the corridors of power; herdsmen attack and waste entire communities without affirmative actions but mere rhetoric from government and leaders; people build mansions and live extravagantly from inexplicable sources and nothing happens; the courts still offer no semblance of justice but a caricature instead and young men and women are still apprehended with drugs and involved in 419, Nigeria will still be seen in negative light.
Lastly, but by no means the final word on this: where are the professionals? Where are the PR practitioners of Nigeria? Why are they not visible? Why are they not talking? Why are they not writing? Why are journalists, not PR professionals, still being considered for clearly public relations or communications assignments? Why are journalists only driving the Federal Government’s communications agenda? Why is the government losing the narrative to the opposition and anti-change elements? Perhaps, the PR Stakeholders converging in Lagos tomorrow will chart a new and effective course albeit belatedly.
Oparah, Director, Corporate Communications & CSR, Airtel Nigeria, writes from Lagos.