THE PUBLIC SPHERE with Chido Nwakanma
On 18 August 2009, Alhaji Muhammed Idris was in the Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria’s (PRCAN) team on its first visit to the Ministry of Information. The Ministry of Information is the home ministry of professionals in communication and media covering public relations, journalism, advertising, marketing, and sales. Prof Dora Akunyili hosted the team comprised of President Nnaemeka Maduegbuna, Idris as Vice President and Chido Nwakanma, the Treasurer.
On Monday, 21 August 2023, Mohammed Idris will return to the Federal Ministry of Information not as a visitor but as the de jure and de facto landlord and spearhead of the communication machinery of the Federal Government.
Alhaji Mohammed Idris is Nigeria’s well-known media entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political leader. Born in Malagi in the Gbako LG of Niger State, Idris holds a master’s degree in English from Bayero University, Kano, and a BA in English from the University of Sokoto (now Usman Danfodio University).
Idris brings vast and relevant experience, exposure, and education suitable for the job of Minister of Information. His experience straddles the media and communication arms of the ministry.
Until his appointment, Idris was the publisher of Blueprint newspaper and Secretary of the Newspaper Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN). He is a Fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations and was Vice President of PRCAN, the consulting arm of NIPR. He earned his position in PRCAN as the Chief Executive Officer and Lead Consultant of Bifocal Communications Limited, a leading public relations company in Nigeria since 1996. He also chaired the NIPR Kaduna chapter.
His media entrepreneurship forays include serving as Chairman of Kings Broadcasting Limited, owner of WE FM 106.3 radio station in Abuja and publisher of Blueprint Newspaper.
Idris, aka Malagi, due to his natal origins, is a member of the International Press Institute (IPI) and the Nigerian Delegation to the IPI Congress in Switzerland in 2021.
Significantly, Idris served as the Director of Strategic Communications, APC Presidential Campaign Council for the Tinubu/Shettima Presidential Campaign in 2023 and Deputy Chairman of the Information/Communication Sub-Committee of the Policy Advisory Council of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
Mohammed Idris will take office after Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who, by widespread agreement, was a disservice to the Ministry. Idris must restore credibility to the public communication function in government. Nigerians consumed government information with more than a pinch of salt but brought out their head pans of salt under Lai Mohammed. He made it ridiculous.
Mohammed Idris must work to restore trust in the government’s communication. Government communication managers must earn the trust of citizens. The distrust is despite the array of media platforms available to the federal government in competition with the private sector, which also houses the bulk of social media platforms. The challenge is that when citizens disbelieve social media, they do not turn to government-run media.
What are the roles and functions of the Ministry of Information? The primary one is disseminating accurate and reliable information about government policies and programs to the public. It includes managing the government’s public relations and media relations, promoting national unity and cultural heritage, regulating the media, ensuring freedom of expression, educating the public about civic responsibilities, countering propaganda and misinformation, and managing national documentation through archives and libraries.
The Bola Tinubu administration’s appetite for nomenclatural activism provides an entrée to consider a more appropriate name for the ministry. Ministry of Information is from colonial times and the stimulus-response media theory. The ministry continued to operate in the Rediffusion mode of injecting citizens with information without pausing for feedback. Two-way synchronous communication is the current paradigm and should reflect in the ministry’s name. The rise of digital, with its tilt to engagement, makes it even more imperative to change the approach.
The UK changed from the term Information long ago as its ministry of the same remit bears the “Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport”. It is responsible for promoting the UK’s creative industries, regulating the media, and protecting freedom of expression. In South Africa, the equivalent of our Ministry of Information is the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) Department, headed by a Minister of Communication and Digital Technologies with the Under-50 Khumbudzo Ntshavheni as minister.
The Ministry of Information (MOI) plays a crucial role in shaping public opinion, promoting the government’s agenda, managing the nation’s reputation, and defending its standing. The obverse is that MOI can and often lends itself to deployment to suppress dissent, restrict information flow, censor the media, and enthrone propaganda rather than persuasion. Idris would have to walk the tightrope of balance. Idris has avoided negative comments against the media, unlike the other person, who they thankfully moved to till the soil for riches.
Tested in public relations, the industry expects Minister Idris to apply to his task the first prescription in public relations: audit perceptions of the government as the basis for drawing up its communications plan. Research/audit/discovery is the first step of the four-step Public Relations R-A-C-E framework – research, action, communication, and evaluation. He will find that the Ministry hardly followed this best practice. Indeed, once during a capacity-building intervention under Frank Jr Nweke’s tenure, officials confessed that the last time they surveyed the public for feedback was during Prince Tony Momoh’s era. That was a gap of two decades.
That communication plan and subsequent policy must favourite digital and social media as the vehicle for government communication. In doing so, government communication must engage all the skills and tasks of public relations in social media in utilising metrics and engagement.
The government’s communication and engagement should feature a role in the evolving and growing creative industry. Contribute if you can but do not hinder the traction of this sector, steadily earning plaudits and goodwill to the country.
What name would serve the Ministry best in the new era? Here are some names for it to consider recognising two-way communication. They include the Ministry of Public Engagement, Ministry of Media and Public Affairs, Ministry of Civic Engagement, Ministry of Democratic Communication, Ministry of Civic Media, and Ministry of Public Voice.
A suitable name could be one of the items in the perception survey.
What and how the ministry communicates speaks to the perception of the government by both internal and external stakeholders. In the last 24 years of the Fourth Republic, the best performers focused on the Federal Government’s remit of the ministry rather than The Presidency or the ruling party. Such a focus enables a higher level of credibility from even-handed communication and engagement with citizens and other stakeholders of the federal republic.
The Macbride Commission of UNESCO studied global communication and information challenges in the 80s and called for Many Voices, One World. The Ministry of Information should enable the flowering of Many Voices, One Country. Good luck, Malagi.