Media Relations In Politics: Case Of Buhari

Gen.Muhammad BuhariRecent comments by General Muhammadu Buhari on the 2015 elections have elicited

wide-scale reactions, with some people even calling for his arrest and prosecution.

The senior politician used the Hausa parable kare jinni biri jinni, to express his

views that the next general elections would be tough. The next day, many newspapers

misquoted him as saying: “If what happened in 2011 (alleged rigging) should again

happen in 2015, by the grace of God, the dog and the baboon would all be soaked in

blood.” Indeed as many have since pointed out, it may have been unwise for such a

statement to be used in politics and especially by someone like Buhari who was

accused of instigating the 2011 post-election violence.

But regardless of the rightness or wrongness of the usage, the misrepresentation of

Buhari is a clear example of the failure or absence of public relations.

Politicians all over the world sometimes say things that may be misconstrued by the

general public, but it is the duty of the public relations team to either put the

statements in context or draw the attention of their principal so he or she can

provide explanation to what was being said.

In societies where political communication is done scientifically, the media team

is on hand at every occasion where a politician is to make a public comment. Highly

trained staffs are designated to cover his speeches like news reporters do so as to

observe areas that are likely to be misrepresented. Before the reporters leave the

scene, the principal’s attention is brought to such potentially controversial areas

and he or his media aide would shed more light on them, putting issues in the

appropriate context. This is what is professionally called “media briefing”.

In the case of Buhari’s now famous ‘dog and monkey’ comment, the General would have

had the chance to draw newsmen’s attention to the fact that he was using a Hausa

proverb, and the meaning would be explained accordingly. Any right thinking

journalist who makes his findings, will discoverer indeed that the phrase simply

means that “the contest will be tough” and this would have saved everyone the

trouble of clarifying the statement afterwards.

“Media briefing” has become very important in political communications around the

world that hardly would a top politician, in the US or UK for example, address the

press without his spokesman “briefing” the press either before or after his speech,

putting context to what he has said or is going to say. In Nigeria, most public

relations and media practitioners simply refer to press conferences as media

briefings. “Media briefing” is actually the explanation that precedes or succeeds a

speech or address by a top figure.

In Buhari’s case, his party and supporters too did not help matters. They failed to

provide explanation even after he was misquoted. Instead, they put forward the

argument that only riggers are afraid of what he said and that it is the PDP that

is likely to cause bloodshed, if any would occur in 2015. This only compounded the

situation. Another public relations blunder.

General Muhammadu Buhari and indeed other politicians and public speakers must

realise that one of the most important ingredients of successful media strategy is

the ability to control the flow and representation of information that appears in

the media. One of the things that I have learnt from practicing public relations

over the years (and Western scholars have scientifically proved it) is that, with

very few exceptions, the initial media coverage of an event or speech largely

dictates the opinion that many people will hold on the matter. This is even truer

in societies like Nigeria where many people hardly believe when a story is denied

by a politician. And that is why briefings are important. So media aides must

ensure that their bosses are properly understood before any journalist leaves the

venue.

In 2003, Buhari was reported to have advised Muslims to vote only for Muslims and

same for Christian voters. In 2011, his comments were linked to the post-election

violence. He has since said he was misrepresented in both cases and to his

advantage; no audio or video clip has ever been presented by his accusers to

support such claims. Today, in 2011, the grand old man is once again facing a major

PR crisis. From a professional perspective, it is obvious that these frequent

misrepresentations are largely due to the failure of his media relations apparatus.

By the way, a presidential candidate needs a robust team of highly competent media

and communications experts; he shouldn’t rely on the party’s public relations unit.

—Galadima is a media and communications expert based in Abuja

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