Three videos clips, of prominent politicians, which surfaced on social media in the course of the 2019 general powerfully reinforced the changing media landscape. The videos of Governor Nasir El-Rufai, All Progressives Congress (APC) governorship candidate in Oyo State, Adebayo Adelabu and Senator Oluremi Tinubu, which caught them making improper remarks is instructive to public relations, corporate communications handlers, and their principals.
In the more established democracies like the United States of America, politicians are already becoming wise to this threat following embarrassing expose by video trackers. Candidates on the election trail, operate with caution, afraid of letting slip that sentence, or half-sentence, that exposes them to the opposition and public scrutiny. By design, corporate executives, politicians, and celebrities are well-groomed for public and media outings but are left exposed when their handlers are not in tow. Those spur-of-the-moment, unrehearsed episodes, where they are caught unawares, reveal their real characters. So much for slip-of-the-tongue. A moment of indiscretion on social media can be costly whether you are a corporate executive, politician or celebrity.
Social media has eliminated the gatekeepers and made journalists of anyone with a smartphone and Internet connections. The result, of course, is that in the process, politicians and other highly-placed individuals have sometimes been caught off-guard, mostly in uncomplimentary situations.
To put it in context, let’s remember that of the many stories that have been broken on the micro-blogging social media platform, Twitter, no other stand out perhaps like the January 2009, tweet by Janis Krums about a ‘plane in the Hudson’ and that by Sohaib Athbar, about the attack on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad
Even in the 24-hour news cycle that the world has become accustomed to, these two events and the fact that they were broken on a social media platform like Twitter is a demonstration of a significant shift from the vertical power structure of news. The new media environment takes power out of the hands of traditional media and PR people and gives it to the people.
The linear media system has been replaced by a more democratic system that thrives on the power of instant, direct communication. The shock to the media system is profound, and many, including media organisations, public relations practitioners are still struggling to adjust.
Corporate communication management and public relations have become more demanding in the age of social media because the ecosystem of convergent media makes airbrushing near impossible. I know if you have the financial muscle and you can exert influence through advertising, you do get some favours, but certain properties of the network publics make complete airbrushing impossible. Newspapers have stopped printing mid-way to prevent ‘unwanted’ stories about big-time advertisers from going out. Where newspapers have refused to cooperate, aggressive mopping up of copies can limit the damage of a negative story. TV and Radio stations can drop certain stories from bulletins once they receive complaints. So, with traditional media, it’s relatively easier managing brands and prominent individuals.
With new media, however, it is near impossible to do this, and that’s because the properties of communication in the networked publics are persistent, replicable, scalable and searchable.
danah Boyd, who spends time researching these things, and who first identified the properties explains that every online expression is automatically recorded and archived. In addition, online communication can be duplicated, and because they are archived somewhere, they can be accessed through search.
In other words, whatever makes its way online is on a server somewhere, and is readily available regardless of the damage control organised by PR or corporate communication managers. It’s a victory of sorts for activists and citizen journalists but understandably a nightmare for brands, prominent people and their communication handlers. A few examples will do.
There are many instances where the people have successfully used new media to advance social causes and get redress even against government officials. In one classic case of citizen action forcing a government official to correct misdeed, in 2013, Adams Oshiomhole, then the governor of Edo State was caught on camera publicly insulting a widow accused of breaking the state’s law against street trading. Following the emergence of the amateur video on YouTube and other new media platforms, the story was picked up by traditional media after which the governor was forced to make a public apology, appease the widow with a cash gift of almost USD5,555 and a job.
In another case that is also illustrative of citizen activism forcing redress, a young woman, Uzoma Okere, was abused by naval officers in Lagos in 2008 for allegedly refusing to move her vehicle quickly enough off the route of the convoy of a senior officer. A witness posted a video which captured the incident on YouTube provoking widespread public outrage, public hearings by Nigeria’s upper legislative house and the Navy, and award of NGN 100 million (approximately USD660,000).
These are just examples of the growing influence of people power that would not have been possible without new media and a reminder to be careful about their communication in public. I don’t even want to spend time analysing the logic of El-Rufai’s body-bags threat when he had served as an election observer in other countries. I’m also not going to waste time on Adelabu’s threat of banning cars with other states’ number plates from Ibadan roads when that would probably lack the backing of any known Nigerian law. There’s also no point subjecting Senator Tinubu’s ‘we no dey trust una again’ comment to any analysis because her’s made some sense in the context of the perceived electoral threat the Igbos in Lagos.
My interest instead is on the citizen’s power in the new media environment to hold brands and prominent people to account. Maybe, just maybe if they know that every flippant word, unbecoming action can be caught on tape or video, turned into an ‘unkillable’ piece of communication, they’ll be more careful.
As I write this, I have just watched again, Oshiomhole’s ‘go and die’ video and that, for me, is a powerful illustration that regardless of any attempt at airbrushing, you can take a look at those pieces of content and know people for who they really are.