Reuben Abati: The difference between journalism and public relations

by Chido Nwakanma

One of the reasons the article fails woefully is the high level of “channel noise” Abati himself introduces into the discourse. You cannot seek to win over people by first insulting them! You lose that audience immediately.

Presidential spokesperson Dr. Reuben Abati wrote on Sunday August 26 an article syndicated in at least three major Sunday newspapers to attack critics of President Goodluck Jonathan and to deflect criticisms of the President.  “The Jonathan They Do Not Know” was a wide-ranging discourse of largely the discontent expressed in the media by the public against the President and an attempt to defend him seriatim on the issues.

Specifically, Abati stated:

• “They” do not know and misunderstand President Jonathan.

• “They” are “all the cynics, the pestle-wielding critics, the unrelenting, self-appointed activists, the idle and idling, twittering, collective children of anger, the distracted crowd of Facebook addicts, the BBM-pinging soap opera gossips of Nigeria”.

• These people “seem to be in competition among themselves to pull down President Goodluck Jonathan.”

He lists the charges by these publics against President Jonathan to include being “a clueless President”, failure to provide infrastructure, the right of Ijaws to produce a President, as well as claims that he is spending billions to feed and that he drinks ogogoro.

By his position as Special Adviser (Media and Publicity), Dr. Abati works in public affairs, a key aspect of public relations.  What follows is an analysis of his essay from the prism of public relations practice and theory.

First, the essay runs against the grain of what public relations ordinarily should seek to achieve. According to scholars, (Broom, 2009) “public relations is the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organisation and the publics on whom its success or failure depends.”

The Public Relations Society of America identifies the functions expected of the public relations specialist to include:

• Monitoring awareness, opinions, attitudes and behaviours

• Identifying policies, procedures and actions that conflict with the public interest and organisational (institutional) survival

• Counselling management (the President) on the establishment of new policies, procedures, statements and programmes that are beneficial to the President and the public

• Producing measurable changes in awareness, opinion, attitude and behaviour inside and outside the institution.

These finally result in “new and/or maintained relationships between an organisation and its publics”.

Mutuality is at the heart of everything done in communication. Media relations as one of the key tools of public relations and under whose banner Abati wrote, seeks primarily to “develop public trust and support” for the principal with primarily the media. In essence, Dr. Abati’s intervention ought to lead to the result of improved relationships between President Jonathan and the audiences Abati identified.  This is because public relations and public affairs as a sub-set “is the discipline, which looks after reputation, with the aim of creating understanding and support and influencing opinions and behaviour.” It is a “planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics”.  On the contrary, however, Abati sets out to attack these audiences.

The publics Dr. Abati attacks — critics, activists and the social media players — are among the most important publics for the Presidency.  They represent the opinion leaders and moulders who help shape public discourse and perceptions of issues in public affairs. By definition, therefore, the job of the public communication specialist in public affairs is to maintain “mutually beneficial relationships” with these critical publics.

Abati’s essay brings to the fore a hodge podge of issues. These include the feeding habits and menu of Mr. President, his taste in wine, his fitness and work routine and his gender sensitivity.

In its public information role, public relations relies heavily on various theories of mass communication including agenda setting, media effects and diffusion of innovation. They would help in analysing the utility or otherwise of the submissions Abati makes.

The agenda setting theory of M. McComb and D. Shaw (1972, 1993) states that while the media has an effect on cognitive levels, they may not affect predispositions. They further show through research that media not only tell people what to think about in broad terms but additionally how to think about them in specific terms and then what to think.

The “agenda” is “a set of issues” such as Abati itemises, but according to Rogers and Dearing (1996) in order for the agenda to be effective and become part of the process it must be communicated. There is a “dynamic interplay” between the media, the public and policy makers.

Diffusion of innovation theory (Everett Rogers, 1995) further highlights the process through which information passes through various layers and is communicated to audiences. Messages pass through awareness, interest, evaluation, trial and adoption. Knowledgeable communication practitioners whether in public relations or advertising consciously deploy elements of this theory when they segment audiences and tailor certain messages to specific targets.

Most importantly, the diffusion process reveals that practitioners cannot achieve major change in attitudes, beliefs, and awareness in a brief time. Further, one cannot attain such changes through news media alone. It also emphasises the importance and effectiveness of channels of interpersonal communication.

In other words, there is much more to public relations than mere publicity, which is the trap into which Abati falls.  As many analysts have noted, Abati dredges up issues, such as President Jonathan’s simplicity and his drink choices, which are of no relevance to his audience. This is the issue of salience in communication. As the venerable Cutlip and Center (2009) note in Effective Public Relations, “For public relations practitioners, getting an issue onto the media agenda can be a good thing (i.e. when you want to raise awareness of an issue) or a bad thing (e.g. when something embarrassing, dangerous or illegal happens at your organisation).” Abati elevates to the public (media) agenda underground talk (rumours) that President Jonathan quaffs kain kain. He deludes himself that because he says the man does not, people would believe him.

This is the last issue. Public relations uses various tools to enhance the credibility of messages. One of these is third party endorsement. Reuben Abati deludes himself that he can transfer his credibility as a columnist to his new role and that readers would still have the same level of confidence or trust in his assertions. It is not happening.

A more astute practitioner would get credible and current media players to report first hand these issues from a disinterested perspective for the benefit of readers, thus setting the agenda with a chance through diffusion of creating awareness as basis for believability.

One of the reasons the article fails woefully is the high level of “channel noise” Abati himself introduces into the discourse. You cannot seek to win over people by first insulting them! You lose that audience immediately. “The Jonathan They Do Not Know” evidences a distancing by The Presidency and its communication team from the vital stakeholders it needs people in the media and the young people who populate online and who GEJ wooed successfully by declaring his campaign on Facebook in 2011.

The presidential spokesperson indicts self when he avers that these key influencers he identifies do not understand or know the real President Jonathan. It is his job to make them understand using the tools of public relations. A key part of that tool is “doing good and shouting to the rooftops about it”.  It calls on the public relations man to be “a sensor of public opinion” and the counsellor of his principal to do the right thing. Often times, the necessary homework precedes publicity, as is the effort to carefully choose audiences, messages and platforms for reaching them. On all these scores, this effort fails woefully and has fetched more coverage that is negative for the Presidency in one week than hitherto.

Reuben Abati the columnist clinically dissected issues, providing strong analyses of the evolving political economy of Nigeria, and earning a strong connection with the audiences he now excoriates. His range was wide and his appeal even more so. There is, however, a world of difference between the front-row in your face approach of the columnist and the back seat of the public relations strategist. The cerebral Dr. Abati needs to learn this quickly and deploy for a positive reputation for our President is good for the country.


* Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.



Comments (3)

  1. Dear Sir (Writer of this article)

    What you fail to grasp is a government article such as this is coordinated – it can not be the thoughts of an individual though for convenience it has to carry the ultimate portfolio of the highest ranking public relations official in that particular government structure – in this case is Abati. So Abati's name is there but he did not write it. He might have received a rough draft from Madam Patience Jonathan and beefed up. I am sure you will appreciate this truth but I would still like to hear from you.

  2. An intelligent, well presented piece by a man who obviously knows what he is talking about. Perhaps he could be hired as Special Tutor to the Special Adviser! The gentleman Dr Abati could obviously use some help!

  3. Brilliant piece!

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