Nigeria: Enter the Bulldogs, By Wole Olaoye

As political campaigns for the 2023 presidential elections gather steam, the various parties have started unveiling their programmes. They are promising to take Nigerians to the moon and back. You have to give it to the Nigerian politicians: They know how to re-say the same thing others have said in the past and still appear different. This time, however, the electorate are demanding the ‘hows’. The parties and their operatives don’t find that funny. So, they have dug deep and fashioned out stratagems to avoid answering tough questions.

Enter the bulldogs. Every party has at least three prominent ones. Some have fancy titles to suit their plastic egos while others are content to be described as ‘chieftains’ of their respective parties. Their job is to play on the intelligence of the public, insult the interviewer, blackmail him or her, and insist on a monologue rather than an interview. They generate so much heat but little light.

I have observed that some of the journalists who have found themselves at the receiving end of the vituperations of these jobbers are too stunned to pay them back in their own coins. I do appreciate the decorum which many journalists, especially those of the broadcast media, have extended to the politicians, but nothing in the tenets of the trade says you should allow yourself to be anybody’s whipping dog.

Even columnists and members of the commentariat in general are presumed biased if they criticise any candidate or party. Politicians don’t believe in dialogue. They love the sound of their own voice alone. They would rather be the interviewer and interviewee rolled into one. They love the limelight of the tube or the front pages, but they hate questions that demand that they tell the truth.

One veteran politician whose record includes a ‘duty tour’ of at least four political parties before returning to eat his vomit where he first started, pointedly reacted to a question on the national reach of his presidential candidate by retorting: “When were you born? You see, journalists say all kinds of nonsense when they have been given money by political opponents. I know you’re not one of such journalists. That is why your question surprises me. As you know, my candidate is the man to beat… “

Another one answered a question on the alleged drug dealings of his candidate by talking down on the journalist. He went as far as telling the pressman to get a paper and pen for a lecture. It was all ego and bluster. So much gas. No substance.

Yet another one, notorious for publicly exhibiting ill breeding, would rather use the opportunity granted him to vilify the candidates of other parties, reserving the most acerbic of his adjectives for a particular spokesperson of one of the rival political parties. A pig by any other name will still wallow in the marshes.

Hello! Spokesmanship is an art which can be learned. Like every field of human endeavour, it has its own tools and tricks that are within the grasp of anyone desirous of making a success of the task. Every spokesperson needs to be trained in how to handle interviews and achieve the best possible outcomes.

It is more forgivable for party candidates to make interview errors than for their spokespersons to do so. To start with, a spokesperson is supposed to have some level of expertise and exposure to handle the media. The problem I see is that our politicians can’t distinguish between an influencer, a spokesperson trained in the art of messaging and a rabid supporter who is ready for fisticuffs when anything negative is said about his candidate.

It is counter-productive to throw a spokesperson at the media to ‘go and wing it’. As the voice of the candidate, the spokesperson first has to be involved in the design and development of key messaging. Where expert knowledge is required, he/she must be availed of such a resource so as to be able to answer technical questions lucidly.

A spokesperson should never go into any media interview without a purpose. The fact that the other party was on air yesterday does not mean that you have to go on air today even when unprepared. You must have a message to deliver.

The average spokesperson I have studied in the last few weeks has been more interested in over-assuring the public even in areas where he is not sure. It is not a crime to acknowledge people’s fears about a candidate or his policies. It is expected that having acknowledged what everyone else is talking about, the spokesperson can now proceed to sell his candidate’s viewpoint.

Once the public perceive a spokesperson as not being worthy of trust, sending him to represent a candidate or the party is a waste of opportunity. A good twist of the tongue in speaking the King’s English can only be an asset when built on expressions of competence and expertise, honesty and forthrightness.

What accounts for some of the friction in some of the interviews I have studied is the fact that some spokespersons want to answer questions that are not within the scope of their competence. There is nothing wrong in saying, “Only my principal or party chairman can answer that question”. A spokesperson may, however, offer to follow up on questions and other issues that cannot be immediately addressed.

There are spokespersons who the public have already identified as foul-mouthed bulldogs. They cannot possibly add any value to any candidate’s campaign because, in them, the audience’s perception is completely blinkered by the messenger; so, although he appears regularly on air, his message is lost.

I know that journalists can be very nosy sometimes. However, it is not in the place of a spokesperson to be combative towards his interviewer. The viewing public, in a television interview for example, don’t trust people who look like they came for a fight instead of sharing their own perspective. Having said that, a spokesperson should not allow an interviewer to put words in his mouth. If necessary, rephrase a leading question and then go ahead to answer it. If the answer requires you to repeat something you had earlier said, please do so without being rude.

Expect follow-up questions. The ‘meat’ of many interviews is from follow-ups. Don’t quarrel when the interviewer interjects. He has a set of questions to ask within a short time frame. The entire programme is not designed for you alone. That ought to be common sense. If asked a double-barrelled or triple-barrelled question, first break the questions into component parts before answering in short crisp sentences. Your goal is to throw light on the areas touched by the questions and hopefully win more converts for your candidate or party.

It seems some candidates are avoiding the usual presidential debates, preferring to hold their own town hall meetings where they preach to the converted. What any dispassionate strategist wants to see now is the candidates subjecting themselves to professional grilling to enable them hold their own before any panel. Apart from personal questions that may be uniquely designed for each candidate, most of the other questions will dwell on HOW each candidate wants to build all those beautiful castles in his manifesto. Every candidate that wants to be taken seriously ought to be undergoing training by now.

Flinging insults at opponents, as a certain presidential running mate routinely does, is no substitute for a reasoned argument. Neither is it advisable to pour scorn on the use of statistics by your opponent. What to do? Bring out your own data if you have any!

Debates do turn the tide of victory. I remember in our university days, Speech Night was unmissable. We look back at those years with fondness and gratitude for being nurtured in an environment that insisted on the best in terms of ideas and communication.

What we are advocating is not nano-science. And no one should think he is too old to profit from the kind of self-confidence and quick-wittedness that comes with being well groomed for a presidential debate. What will eventually win the day may not even be your manifesto but a quick turn of phrase in the face of adversarial questioning.

Remember the case of Ronald Reagan who was asked during the 1984 US presidential debate if, at 73, he was not too old to be president?

“I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Reagan, the retired actor hitherto considered incoherent and unreliable with facts and figures, won with a landslide.

Am I communicating?

Wole Olaoye is a public relations consultant and veteran journalist. He can be reached through Twitter: @wole_olaoye; Instagram: woleola2021.

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