[OPINION] Journalists and Political Communications: Plus or Minus?

Journalists and Political Communications: Plus or Minus?

Twenty-four years of Nigeria’s return to civil rule after the military handed over political power to civilians on the 29th May, 1999, a trend that is most disheartening and unbecoming is the practice by governments at all levels including politicians, most especially the political gladiators across the country not able to decipher the dichotomy between journalism and public relations practice in the prerequisite for nation’s building and development in the ongoing transition for power through the electoral processes by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) from Saturday, 25th February and Saturday, 11th March, 2023 respectively.

Presently, one of the clogs that have heated the polity so much and which recently drew the concern of the National Peace Commission (NCP) led by the former Head of State, General Abdulsalam Abubakar is the use of journalists by those standing for general elections to set the mood and tone of political communications across the country. This is not right if we must call a spade, a spade. No matter how seasoned a journalist is, he remains a full-fledged journalist of note and not public relations professional.

Traditionally, journalists are trained as “reporters” while public relations professionals are trained to manage “public image” of a brand, be it a nation, state, government, organization, product, service or customer which could be politicians as we have jostling for power in 2023.

The journalist as the “fourth estate of the realm” is constitutionally assigned apart from its obligation to its medium or media to keep the public abreast of events happening in the environment and beyond. Yet, this noble profession does not overlap with strategic communications functions. It is debatable!

Unlike the journalist, the public relations professional have more all-inclusive roles, doing many things at a go including journalistic writing, and transcending this sphere to a pinnacle that is called “strategic communications.” Talking about speech or public communications generally, the three must have elements that are not English words are ethos, pathos and logos.

Journalism is about news gathering, news making, feature writing, opinion article, issuing organizational press releases, special report writing, fact-finding writing, editorial writing, interview writing, broadcasting, programmes presentation, commentaries, documentaries, drama or newsreel productions, agenda setting, advertisement and a few others.

Public relations on the other hand involves image-making in the management of a series of problems or efforts such as; branding, reputation management, crisis management, issue management, stakeholders’ engagement, opinion moulding, facilitating mutual understanding among different publics (or stakeholders), organizing press conferences, issuing press releases, event management, sponsorship, lobbying, content marketing, PR advertorial and placement and a few other related roles and should be seen to be proactive, not reactive. This is a profession with eight different departments for building and sustaining mutually beneficial relationships.

Thus, why it is normal for journalism to engage in attack, a journalist holding a designated office of “media and publicity” is hired to perform a public relations function, and public relations only engages in image-making in all of its contents and must be reasonably devoid of any attack in the public space by telling its story without any manipulation. That is what makes public relations a credible venture because in public relations an image cannot be manipulated.

The twin responsibilities of “media and publicity” are functions of public relations experts to build partnership in journalism and get favourable media coverage on all contents for the public. The masses should be seen as the central piece of its messages for feedback. Given this area of common ground between these fields, the two have a shared practise of information dissemination but exploited different art to do so. Journalism is concerned with news reporting, while public relations is about information management.

The position of “media and publicity” should be to manage information, not escalate. These roles are powerful and should be used to strengthen national integration and eschew more chaos in the polity. The opposite of this has been the bane of the fragile, more divisive political landscape alluded to against the present federal government despite its revolutionary feats in laying solid foundations to sustain economic prosperity of the near future to come.

The best way to capture journalistic tendencies in public relations job is to serve a good reminder with the ethics of the New York Times which says, “The goal of the New York Times is to cover the news as impartially as possible- without fear or favour.” Adding to this, the Deputy Provost of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Dr. Dele Omojuyigbe in nostalgia had noted that the likes of the Alhaji Lateef Jakande (of blessed memory) despite their service in media founded by some politicians wrote impartially as practising journalists, unlike what is obtainable presently. Also, some lawyers cannot be spared for exhibiting quackery in public relations, thinking they could do well.

The golden words of Adolph Ochs, the Patriarch of The Times who says, “…and to treat readers, news sources, advertisers and others fairly and openly, and be seen to be doing so” are the bases of the pen profession. A practising journalist in the field of public relations neither needed to be told to avoid conflict of interest nor appearance of conflict. Notwithstanding, public relations is a versatile field that can successfully absorb other professionals into its fold, and this advantage to acquire the professional garb must be sought first before venturing into public relations practice.

Public relations is a diplomatic assignment. It is the finest art of telling someone to go to hell and he will be looking for the way to exit. Analyzing the current retinue of political communications in print and social media, much is left to be desired in the quest for nation-building ahead of the forthcoming general elections in 2023.

Reuben Hopo is Associate Member of Nigerian Institute of Public Relations ANIPR (Lagos Chapter)

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