‘Public communication critical, must be constant, and not only at crisis period’

April 13, 2020

Mrs Bunmi Oke is the Chief Executive Officer and Lead Consultant of Ladybird Ltd, an agency she founded after her stint with 141 Worldwide, about two years ago. In this interview with Akin Adewakun, the former president of the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN), gives reasons government should constantly communicate with the citizenry. Excerpts:

What should the nation’s integrated marketing communications industry should be doing at this time the nation’s is faced with this critical health challenge, COVID-19?

The best we can do is to use our own platform to communicate what COVID 19 is all about, because information is power. And I believe that’s what we’ve been doing. And we have to realize the fact that we need collective efforts to solve the problem; since this has become a national emergency. The fact remains that you can only operate when an environment is conducive. So we need to do everything humanly possible to make sure  the situation  returns to normal, as soon as possible, and the best we can do is to support, either by operating in groups, sending different messages on how to curb the spread of this pandemic.  You know there are different ways of communicating. Some are done comically. Some are done through SMS Messages, wattsapp or what have you. We just need to keep the conversation positive. Maybe after all this,  when the government is organized, they’ll probably understand better why communication is so critical and campaigns are important to be done.

A few brands are, here and there, trying to donate items and sensitise the public, regarding COVIC 19. In your assessment, would you say these efforts are enough?

Everything in life is about strategy. We have long term strategy and we have short term strategy. All brands have long term strategies. But crisis management or crisis communication requires immediacy.  That is, an immediate solution. There is no room for too much debate. What it requires is decisiveness. That is why, with people that handle emergencies, whether they are fire brigade or whatever, decisiveness is key. Brands are not different. There are crisis managements for brand communication or for even public communication. The key there is decisiveness. Right now, the focus is how to even play safe, and any brand that can help to promote this is what is needed here. A brand that does not have anything to say, or the wherewithal to do it, at this period, should better  keep quiet than advertise for sale, because that is irrelevant, now. This is not the time for advertising for such direct sales, even though people will eat more. But any brand that can help support crisis management, even  if it is a public brand,  a government brand, a private sector brand or service, should continue. I think that’s what people are trying to do. And don’t forget, this is not the first time Nigeria, as a country,  will find itself in such a situation. Other countries have handled crisis in different manner.  Ebola didn’t get to a point, that required serious crisis communication, before it was nipped in the bud.  But, this one has now gotten to a point where the entire world is trying to get it into its consciousness that something serious is happening, and which requires  everybody to understand and play their roles, so that  at the end of the day, they can get back to some kind of normalcy. Without normalcy, everyday life cannot continue to exist. Even communication will be hindered. This phone you are using to conduct this interview might cease to function. So that is the challenge.

What are the implications of this present health challenge for the industry?

I wish we all had a crystal ball before us to be able to predict the fallout. But one thing is for sure:  in communication there is something we call communication for change. I think we are at that point where we are going to have communication for change. A lot of things are going to change. Even Nigeria, as a country, has got to be cleaner. In  the 60s, I heard they used to have wolewole (sanitary inspectors). Now people will realize that cleanliness must be part of their everyday lives, and should not only be practiced at times of crisis. That is why you’ll have sanitisers being giving a priority on the shopping list, than the Aso ebi. So we are going to witness a reset. Even consumer lists are going to change. I think brands would also have to reset themselves, though everything will still be based on consumer insight. What are the priorities of consumers at that point? Now we are going to realize that without health, you can’t achieve anything. We’ll be talking of hygienic security. You know people only see security from the perspectives of their properties being secured against armed robbers. But they’ve forgotten that  if their homes are not secured from germs and epidemics, they are not really  secure. So we are going to understand a new form of security, which is also our germ protection strategy. So people are going to change their priorities. A lot of products and services might also do more  research on how they can make their services available online, because this period must have thought them the fact that if you are not online, you’ll probably be out of touch.  Even the supermarkets are now online, promising home delivery, which should have been the norm before now. Even though, we will still have some things that can not be done online. You can not do your hair online, neither can you eat online. Maybe some of the government’s plans to put the populace on the e-platform will be taken more seriously after the crisis, too. For example the situation where we have three or four means of identification might be reduced to one, because right now, you’ll have to deal with BVN, National Identity Card, International Passport, Drivers’ Licence and others. That’s why advanced countries find it easier to communicate with the citizens, because they have a single identification tool, like the social security number to identify their people. But what we have here is that we waited for a crisis, to start thinking. Unfortunately, the normal thing is to think before a crisis occurs. That’s why they tell you, while boarding a plane, that  in case of an emergency,  this is  what you do. They are not waiting till when there is crisis or emergency, before dishing out such information. Maybe we are getting to a  point where we start re-orientating our people, too. The person that will run in the Olympics does not wait for the game to commence before he starts practising. He would have been practising for four years before the Olympics. But, unfortunately, we’ve forgotten that crisis does not have pity for the unprepared.


How would you assess public communications in the recent past, since some have argued that they seem above the populace they are meant for?

Well, the problem with public communication is that those dishing out such communications, fail to realize that there are different publics. The way you talk to an educated elite is quite different from the way you’ll talk to the one that is barely literate. We make these things more complex than they really is because we don’t apply professionalism, to this job. People don’t know how important communication is until they face crisis. And that is the problem. If you wait for a crisis to communicate, then you know there is a problem. For instance, even in a family, when members have not been talking before, is it during this period that they are going to have a civilized conversation? Of course, not, because this is not a time to be rational. Everybody wants to take a decision and just move ahead. So from a public communication perspective, government should understand how important it is before the crisis sets in. It is then that it can start putting in people who can be described as round pegs in round holes. The challenge we have is that we really don’t understand, why we need different forms of communications for different people. It’s like when you build a house, the plumber and the electrician are not doing the same job, even though they are holding what seem like similar tools. I think the sooner everybody wakes up and realizes that a campaign is different from a mass communication act and an external communication, the better. Even in the ministry, the way you talk to a Level 14 Officer will be different from the way you talk to a Level 7 Officer. So why are we making these things looks so complex, where you must have a type of communication for the population mix that you have? If you want to say hello to some people, if you wave, some say you are rude, whereas to some it’s a form of good bye. Meanwhile, it’s the same symbol, so you got to understand that it’s not as simple as it is. It’s actually critical. Everything we do, including government policies, if it is not well communicated, it can’t be effective. You see government has so many good policies, but nobody seems to understand them. Even the so-called elites are trying to understand them, because they don’t market such policies. I think we should just take ourselves more seriously. I think it’s a good time to reset. Now unfortunately, this crisis has exposed a lot of flaws in the systems that we have. It shows those plans that we seem to have are just on paper, they are not foolproof. For instance, no light, no water, everybody has become a government on their own. People can’t even stay in their houses because it’s too hot.

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