By Abdullahi Bego
There is no question that our country as a growing democracy is moving at a hectic, albeit exciting political and cultural pace. Advances in knowledge and the resources to organize, disseminate and communicate in real-time have enabled tectonic shifts in citizen democratic participation across the country and have enhanced the capacity of individuals and communities to question power and demand from their leaders a conduct of public affairs in the light of day.
The news media are at the front and center of all this. They are an integral part of democratic governance. Thomas Jefferson, a former president of the United States, once said that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”. When Jefferson said this, newspapers were the only means of mass communication. Were he to say the same thing today, he would most certainly replace “newspaper” with “news media” to take account of the multiple platforms through which news is disseminated in today’s world.
A little over ten years ago when I started out as a spokesman to the Yobe State governor, the media environment was significantly different from what we have today. There were TV and radio stations and magazines and newspapers, alright, but those were traditional news media with conventional, formulaic editorial templates.
In that standardized, mainstream media environment, major news breaks had to go through the newsroom. From the reporter in the field to the editor and even the newscaster, elements of a story were normally subjected to the rigors of editorial fact-checking and the tests of objectivity, balance, fairness, and accuracy, amongst others.
This guarantees that there are at least some people whose job it was to make sure that deliberately mischievous, patently false, libelous and editorially inappropriate content did not get to media audiences.
This was what you may call the era of relative stability for many of us as government spokespeople. The very idea that you could follow up with someone in the newsroom and liaise with them to verify a story and, crucially, get your own side of it reflected at least puts all the issues in a balanced way in the glare of public spotlight.
This was the era when operations at the Government House Press Office were the routine press releases, press conferences, and the occasional interview sessions. You wrote op-eds that got published only 24 hours later at the least or even many days later. You filmed a 30-minute documentary that often took up to a month to appear on the TV screen, and you made the occasional appearance as a guest in a TV or radio studio.
Those were the standard operating routines a decade ago. Those are now only a part of the operating repertoire in a typical Government House Press Office.
What has changed?
First, the ascendance and growing influence of social media platforms have turned out to be the most significant turning points in how we operate as spokespeople and how we mediate the often-intricate relationships within the government, on the one hand, and between the government and the public, on the other.
From Twitter to Tumblr, Facebook to Facetime, and Instagram to WhatsApp, the entire ecology of government public relations – how government activities and interventions are seen and discussed by the public, say, or even the scope of public participation in the discursive universe – has shifted to an entirely new media ecosystem in which we, as spokespeople, continue to have infinitely far less suasion and where we are required to work harder than ever to align public perceptions as closely as possible to the goals of the administrations we serve.
It’s a practice environment which ensures that at the price of an internet data, everyone who chooses can be a media person – everyone!
But without the tools of informed practice, without a proper understanding of the implications of the written word, many in this new media universe have literally seized the moment to turn professional journalism on its head, writing any and everything they wanted, often under fake and unverifiable social media accounts. This marks the proliferation of fake news, internet bots, trolls, warts and all.
To be sure, social media is a force for good in our journalism practice. As a spokesman, for example, I now reach more people through my Facebook page and my Twitter handle at any given time than I could ever hope to do in a single TV or newspaper ad.
Social media has opened vistas of opportunity that were otherwise unthinkable when I started ten years ago.
But the idea that someone with an opinion but not necessarily the requisite facts can sit in the comfort of his room and start an internet troll that deliberately provokes or upsets or spreads a lie to make a political point or settle scores is perhaps the greatest worry every spokesperson keen to succeed on the job has.
It is also the reason why, as spokespeople, we must work harder than ever to approach the challenges of practice – the challenge of making sure that we can communicate the governance initiatives of our bosses successfully – with clear-eyed pragmatism.
When we speak of governance, we are speaking about good governance – about whether quality service delivery to the people, equity and justice, an empathy for the downtrodden, etc. are the hallmarks of the government in power.
Without a doubt, every spokesperson will always seek to portray his or her principal in the most incandescent perspective possible. But what to do when citizens, using social media as a vehicle, can shine their own light on the issues they deem important – when young people can question the validity of a government claim and altogether generate their own powerful counter-narratives that often go viral – is the question to which we must regularly try to find answers.
This is where evidence-based reporting comes into play. We can understand evidence-based reporting in contrast to speculative reporting. Speculative reporting is hear-say reporting. It mostly lacks facts or basis and mostly relies on anonymous sourcing.
I have to say quickly, however, that not all anonymously sourced stories are always necessarily false. The Washington Post, for example, used anonymous reporting, which was initially characterized as false, to bring down Richard Nixon as president of the United States during the Watergate scandal.
In most cases, however, anonymous sources had been used as cover to fabricate stories and ruin hard-earned reputations.
That’s essentially what is in vogue on social media today. It’s a digital echo-chamber where stories are hauled from one end to another without the least scruple, without a check on their authenticity. Of course, we know that most lies and rumors often go nowhere. However, as noted by Benedict Carey, writing under the title ‘How Fiction Becomes Fact on Social Media’ in an October 20, 2017 edition of the New York Times, “those with appealing urban-myth mutations (tend to) find psychological traction, (and) then go viral”.
Evidence-based reporting, though not a one-size-fits-all, is the way to go in handling this.
Evidence-based reporting assumes that we can use the resources at our disposal – the resources of evidentiary proof such as photographs, video clips, location visits, officials who can speak on camera, data, graphs, charts, and every possible background and verifiable info – to steer the media away from the speculations and trolls especially prevalent on social media and bring them to the facts on the ground in our states.
That is the reason that all of us as spokespeople should have an extensive network of contacts across the media landscape. And, by the way, that includes warriors from Facebook and Twitter who you should want to gravitate towards you and your boss. It pays to have as many friends in the media as possible.
Certainly, I found this to be true over these past ten years. There were photos and news stories, for example, that were published by certain major newspapers depicting the effort of my principal at or near the time when those papers were going to bed and time was critically of the essence solely and exclusively because of the friendly working relations I have with some of the editors of those publications. Nothing else would have instantiated those portrayals of my boss.
Evidence-based reporting also presupposes that we would use the same resources that I have mentioned earlier to establish and maintain a powerful presence in cyberspace so that overtime, as a matter of volume and spread, we would seem to have the upper hand.
But let me say this: We can only do this so much.
There are times when our best antidote against occasional disinformation is silence. There are just certain lies that you don’t have to respond to or individuals you don’t have to join issue with. When necessary and appropriate, you can use a single event to address many extant issues, and clarify those that need clarification.
While you do all that you must do to be successful as a spokesperson to the governor, uncontrolled social media fury will turn out to be just a part of a long list of worries you have to contend with.
There are many others, such as how do you stay ahead of the game and ensure the best possible press for your boss and your state as a whole? How do you respond to or deal with lies, disinformation and invectives especially on social media? How can you have the best possible access to your boss and to timely information from across the government so that the news media can trust you as a dependable Spox? How do you build trust and confidence in the work you do and earn the respect of your boss and other people you work with in the government house? How do you mediate the relationship between the media, and especially hostile media and the principal you serve? How do you monitor and convey feedback? How do you relate with, and not invoke the anger of, the Ministry of Information, which may in some cases see you as a competitor rather than as a partner? Also significant is the question, how do you manage internal and external oppositions?
These are questions that I believe many of us are already dealing with right now. And as some might admit here, they aren’t quite easy to deal with. Certainly, they weren’t easy for me. They are questions that go to the heart of our very definition as spokespeople and whether, in the end, we succeed in that capacity or not.
What I have learnt over the years is that, to be successful, you first need to have a set of core values that should be your map and compass throughout your career. Among those core values, loyalty, hard work, professionalism, patience, and large-heartedness should rank at the top.
As the saying goes, the genius in man is its own advertisement. No one confuses patience and attention to detail and dedicated effort and hard work for impatience or sloppiness. When you are hardworking and loyal and doing everything necessary to protect your boss, and project his image and the work he is doing for the state, people will gradually come around.
It won’t always be easy. There are many who won’t agree with your modus operandi. There are some who would question your effort, even when they couldn’t do it themselves. There are even some who may try to drive a wedge between you and your boss. These things do happen.
But when you trust in God and apply yourself; when you leave no stone unturned as the saying goes, then you are likelier to succeed; you are likelier than most to whether the storm.
The question of access is also very important. How do you gain the best possible access to your boss? For some spokespeople that I know, life on the job is a catch-22. They don’t have access to their bosses because, let’s face it, they are not seen as performing as optimally as they should. But they don’t perform as optimally as they should because they don’t have access to their bosses. This saps their energy, compounds their practice environment and makes it harder for them to deliver.
Let me say that there is no one single way around this. In my own case, I think it’s a combination of serendipity and space-time advantage. Serendipity is plain good luck. I am lucky I have a boss who trusts the people he works with – me inclusive – and who allows everyone to properly do the jobs assigned to them. This then ensures that he allows access in the areas specific to your job assignment.
I am also lucky I stayed on the job for long. So, I had both the time and the space to work myself up to my boss’s confidence through loyalty and hard work.
Since not many are this lucky – this lucky with the kind of boss that I have or the space of time that I had – my prescription is simply to let hard core professionalism and hard work, loyalty and temperance come to the rescue.
Let your work speak for you. Let the extent to which the governor is widely and positively reported across the media say something about your hold on your turf.
And lastly, let your patience, dignity and integrity speak on your behalf, because I believe when you do, when you allow the best version of yourself to always shine through, then however difficult the moment seems, you are sure to have your boss on your side and when you have your boss on your side, you have everyone in the government on your side. Everyone!
Thanks so much for listening.
Bego, spokesman to Governor Ibrahim Gaidam of Yobe State, delivered this paper at the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) Conference for Media Handlers of State Chief Executives which held at Sandralia Hotel, Jabi Abuja on Monday and Tuesday 23rd and 24th October 2017.