Underscoring the importance of information as a tool for persuasion, De Soola Pool argues that of the four great instrumentalities available to nations for influencing the world around them-diplomacy, armed forces, money and information-the last is both the most powerful and the least understood.
A fundamental challenge confronting governments at all levels in Nigeria is their inability to bridge the communication gap between the government and the governed using strategic communication. Successive governments have been paying lip service to the deployment of effective public communication strategies that engender inclusiveness, good governance and sustainable development. Oftentimes, policymakers and implementers view communication as an after-thought and only think about it when there is a crisis.
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This could largely be attributed to lack of awareness and education, inactive involvement of the citizens in the decision-making process, the existence of different views and interests, lack of communication capacities and most importantly lack of collaboration and coordination among key national institutions and sub-national governments.
In order to find common ground, establish credible symbols and authority and create consent of the people they govern, experts posit that political actors must seek to enlist the interest of the public in major policy decision-making processes as part of their overall strategic communication plan.
In general, the existence of a good flow of information and the availability of communication vehicles are crucial prerequisites for empowering national populations to freely express their opinions about major development issues and to play a role in the process of democratic advancement, conflict resolution and eventually, a peacebuilding process as canvassed by UNESCO.
A whole of government and whole of society approach demands that governments at all levels must ensure the active involvement and participation of the citizenry in participatory democracy as a process that fosters support for governance reform by influencing opinion, attitude, and behaviour change among leaders and policymakers, mid-level bureaucrats, and citizens.
Pundits opine that when used in the context of good governance, the concept of strategic communication encompasses the actors, organisations, infrastructure and systems that are necessary to ensure a two-way flow of information and ideas between the government and the citizenry.
Thus, strategic communication enables both individual and social change to achieve larger development goals, rather than merely writing press releases, using radio dramas, advertisements or visual aids. Nigeria has often implemented her policies without taking into cognisance the importance of communication.
In support of the foregoing, communication experts argue that writing news releases and seeking media coverage can be useful, but without an inclusive master plan, there is a risk of misdirecting efforts. This is a problem, particularly for those government institutions that rely mostly on issuing press releases and organising press conferences instead of engaging the citizens in a two-way communication flow that guarantees feedback. Press briefings and press releases on their own lack media interaction and could throw up more questions than answers, thus paving the way for rumours and reinforcing wrongly held views amongst the gullible members of the public.
Sound public communication strategies go beyond simply reacting and responding to unpleasant situations by publicists or spokespersons, but require a strategic master plan aimed at promoting the reputation of an entity, persuading people to do specific actions or advocating particular policies to attract goodwill and promote national buy-in.
For instance, the recent altercations between the federal government over the vexatious issue of reviving grazing reserves and stock route development would not have arisen if the government at the centre had taken proactive measures through constructive engagement with major stakeholders. The federal government could have marshaled the wealth of information and institutional memory at its disposal, used rational arguments and evidence to support its position regarding its intention to restore the controversial cattle routes.
Similarly, the proliferation of conspiracy theories and dissemination of fake news regarding public policies and public office holders usually thrive in a situation where public officials horde information and keep citizens in the dark about important issues that affect the lives of the citizenry. As Larkin puts it, “In crisis situations, it is imperative to tell your own story, to tell it all and to tell it fast.” This is indeed true for when the authorities are not willing or able to communicate, citizens will fill in that space themselves, possibly with all kinds of conspiracy theories or fake news, thereby again contributing to a climate of fear or at worst, promoting divisiveness as is often the case in Nigeria. Hence, authorities must quench the population’s thirst for information by proactively dishing out information especially where matters of national importance are involved.
As Graaf, succinctly warns, “Although governments may attempt to keep the level of anxiety low, certain media, oppositional parties or individual citizens might feel inclined to inflate the discourse and the fear in society; especially in the current era of real-time social communication via social media”. Another significant challenge is the need to quickly counter negative stories and misinformation that propagate across media markets and geographic boundaries in the digital age.
Schramm suggests that; “The flow of information is of the greatest importance in regulating the level of social tension. Communication is a kind of temperature-controlling agent”. It is instructive to note that information is now an issue in a new form. Consequently, governments would continue to be subjected to pressures from emerging information forces in the society.
Reflecting on the benefits of government information, immediately after World War II, the Lord President, Herbert Morrison, avers that ‘It is the right and indeed the duty of the government to inform the public of the facts necessary for the full understanding of its actions and decisions’. Only if the public were given the facts could they be expected to accept and act upon government policy. ‘It is in the national interest’ Morrison continued, ‘that the citizen and taxpayer should be adequately informed by the government on its administration and policy. The people “have a right to know,”
It is gratifying to note that the rapid development of the media sector, particularly social media and the availability of multiple channels of traditional communication in the country together herald a great opportunity that the Nigerian Government and states and local government councils could deploy to mobilise the citizens to support government policies, programmes and actions towards national development.
It is, therefore, necessary for public institutions in Nigeria to understand the strategic imperative of effective public information management in strengthening government-citizen communication towards achieving national strategic objectives, particularly in managing the image, reputation and promoting the cultures of the people of Nigeria through a dynamic public information system.
Ibrahim Mohammed is a Development Communication expert