PR Lessons From Nigeria’s 2015 Presidential Elections

published on Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Jonathan and Buhari

Hey guys,

It's been a while. Hope 2015 is ending on a wonderful note for us all?

Well, as most of us know, I'm a public relations enthusiast and whenever I see a piece of writing that speaks to me or enlightens me, I try to share it with as many of you guys as possible. 

So well yeah, I've been thinking and reading up a lot on political PR in Nigeria of late and I thought to share this post, written by Usukuma Ntia, with you guys.


"PR Lessons From Nigeria’s 2015 Presidential Elections

ANY analyst or observer romancing with feeling that Public Relations is not yet a strong factor that can tilt election results would promptly divorce this opinion after the last presidential elections in Nigeria. Almost all the major political players have known the fact. They have since recognised the relevance of strategic public relations in winning the hearts and minds of diverse stakeholders in Nigeria’s political and public circles.

This explains why the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had to hire a U.S. Public Relations and lobby firm, Levick, to provide strategic direction for her image management activities months before the last presidential elections. Even after castigating the ruling party for allegedly hiring a foreign Public Relations firm, the main opposition party, All Progressives Congress (APC), also hired Burson-Marsteller, a London-based Public Relations and Public Affairs firm, to tackle her perception and reputation challenges. Less than a year to the general elections, APC again hired another political strategy agency, AKPD. This time to help position the party for the 2015 general elections.

Savvy Nigerian politicians must have sensed that with the introduction Permanent Voters Cards (PVC) and the Smart Card Readers (SCR), the hay days of rigging, impunity, stark misrule and ballot snatching were numbered. The winners and losers of the last presidential elections have been declared. Just like any contest, goals are scored and victories achieved mostly when a team capitalises on those blunders committed by the opponent. During the last general elections, were there identifiable PR blunders on the political market place that experts have consistently warned against? What of derivable lessons that all stakeholders can learn from to sharpen their skills in subsequent encounters?

Campaign focus was one very visible spot where blunders and gains were achieved during the last presidential elections. Renowned PR expert and President of the famous U.S. based consultancy, Ries& Ries, Laura Ries in a book she jointly wrote with her father titled: The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding had stressed that, “to be successful at building a brand, you need to think as narrowly as possible. And you need to stay as narrowly focused as possible to keep the brand strong”.

From the build-up of political activities to the declaration of the ruling party’s presidential candidate, it seemed the purpose was to “be all things to all people.” From “Continuity” to “Forward Nigeria”, the slogan kept changing to accommodate the special desire to “expand” focus. But the opposition kept to the massage of “Change” summarised under three major themes — war against corruption, insecurity and economic mismanagement. No wonder they made better impact. Even some of the biggest gains of the Jonathan-led Federal Government — agriculture and railways transformation — were never branded for better focus and impact. Ex-president Shagari’s less impressive Green Revolution and President Obasanjo’s averagely packaged Operation Feed the Nation (OFN) will likely remain longer in the minds of Nigerians than the much- acclaimed agricultural programmes of President Jonathan because they were branded for sharper focus and impact. The lesson: There’s no need for disjointed information overload. It creates confusion. Rather, pay attention and understand your critical positioning, then distill your array of facts down to few purposeful statements that must be simple, clear and unique for anyone to understand and remember. Now you can tell your brand story, repeat it and make it compelling. Strive to be economical with words. Whether in business, politics or economy, plan and narrow your focus, especially in your communication to “land” that punch that will give the competitive edge.

Another battleground where the presidential contest was won and lost was the area of audience engagement. Former CEO of Xerox, Anne Mulcahy, revealed that “the Obama campaign is one of the greatest examples of what is possible in the brave new world of 21st Century marketing. They did a masterful job of connecting with minds, personalising messages, refining old and new media, sending clear messages, and providing the feedback that enabled them to respond to the messages they heard.” Obama’s achievement is pointer in history to the strength of consumer engagement in the political market space.

Although the best marketing practices project the benefits of the advertiser, the core message must always be focused on the customer need. The focus for any successful marketing initiative is always about the customer — their needs, their passions.

Any player, who loses connection with his customers, will lose relevance in the market. For any political group, the voting public is its future. If it chooses to remain competitive, it must listen, learn and use information they get to the benefit of the party. It is amazing how often this is forgotten and how many market players can lose sight of this crucial tenet. Looking at the actions and reactions of the PDP-led Federal Government in the last 10 months or so leading to the general election reveals huge gaps in the public engagement capacity of the party. The leader’s relationship even with his party members most times resembled a football coach who deliberately pushes his star players to join the opposing team. His consistent fall out with party colleagues has done just one thing — strengthen the opposition. For a party to lose five governors in an election year reveals the level of decay in human relations.

When Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in northern Nigeria, President Jonathan failed to even speak about the kidnap for several weeks. This projected him as very uncaring. Jonathan’s perceived indifference was compounded when he was photographed at a lavish wedding just a few days after insurgents killed 2,000 people in the north-eastern town of Baga.

The opposition conducted its research carefully to accurately identify the perception of the Nigerian audience about the PDP-led government. Those facts were deployed massively across various platforms to their benefit.

Second lesson: Audience — internal and external — engagement is key to consistent political success. Public trust is equally vital. In this age of innovation where interactive communications tools — tablets, the internet, and mobile devices — have revolutionised the way brands and consumers interact; political players cannot ignore these incredible opportunities to consistently create new levels of engagement with their audiences. The most important reason is to measure the results and enact needed changes since the goal is to remain relevant and successful. As global marketing scholar, Peter Drucker puts it, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”  Popular U.S. industrialist, John D. Rockefeller puts it more succinctly thus — “Next to doing the right thing, the most important thing is to let the people know you are doing the right thing.”

Lapses that affected the reputation and performance of the key actors in the last presidential election were also noticed in the areas of commitment, inspiration building and passion. CEO and President of Human Business Works, Chris Brogan, strongly opines: “My number one piece of advice on branding is ‘make and keep commitments.’ It’s really the best brand advice for any human. Every time I run afoul of it, I fail.” Most successful political leaders have always had something in common- Charisma. And charisma comes from inspiration and a sense of mission toward a clear goal.

In order to rally the team, and all audiences, there is need for a total sense of commitment to a clear cause. From all indications, the PDP-led government never radiated inspiration, charisma and commitment even within the party’s top echelon. Contradictory statements and public indictment of even the top party leaders was common. It is on record that the National Chairman of the party publicly indicted the party leader and President, and there were no consequences. Trust was clearly deficient.

For the opposition team, the situation was clearly different. Although they were perceived as strange bedfellows that came together, they ran a campaign that radiated discipline, commitment and inspiration. Communications from different offices were not issued in a contradictory fashion. They came across, at least publicly, as a team that radiated trust. For any team to succeed, trust is an important asset in this day and age.

The Lesson: The public can always sense and follow the team that radiates passion, trust, inspiration and purpose. These qualities can be picked from interactions as well as internal and external communications. Any team that can relentlessly ensure that her internal programmes are infused with insight, knowledge and social responsibility will most probably succeed, all other things being equal. Thus when the internal brand is established firmly and refined continuously to remain relevant through much diligence and commitment, those messages will radiate outward to your various audiences.

So, to create the ‘energy’ that wins the hearts and minds of your audience and turn them into enthusiastic advocates, a serious team must constantly ask itself: How can we make our supporters feel inspired?"

By the way, how are the plans for christmas coming? I hope we all plan to have a great time even with all the traffic we're going through in Lagos.

It is well.

Merry Christmas you guys!