-A PR DILEMMA
In Public Relations practice, crises and issues management, which is often neglected, is an inevitable tool to curtail and control the escalation of emergent crises. Indeed, it is the moment of truth which needs to be addressed squarely when there is a mechanism to monitor trends as they unfold.
The recent executive-legislative face-off on the remunerations of political office holders, is surely not a crisis but an issue which can be politically controlled because of the caliber of the parties involved. It may be seen as a battle of wits between the most powerful arms at the highest level. Some effective communication techniques were employed by the two parties to make a point through their respective representatives. Each party made effective use of the media which is the last resort in democratic systems, to win the support and understanding of the public which includes the electorate. Several new stories and commentaries have captured different angles of the arguments, while credible editorials too made sterling observations. But one central point is the recognition and reference made by both parties to the fact that a particular body is central to the imbroglio.
In fact, the two arms were in agreement as to the constitutional mandate of the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission in fixing the remuneration packages for all political and public office holders in the country. There are two sides to the media reports. Some claimed that the executive is annoyed that the National Assembly is not complying with the recommendations of the Commission on their pay. Others stated that they have complied but that the former doesnít want them to enjoy the monetized benefits.
The Commission may be said to be in a state of flux and finds itself between the devil and the deep sea. One cannot but pity the Chairman of the Commission, Engr. Hamman A. Tukur, and the federal commissioners whose institution is undoubtedly at the centre of the imbroglio. But the problem is that, the commission has successfully addressed those issues in the past through the timely issuance of press releases, feature articles, press-briefings and media interviews. But how can it intervene in this unfolding drama when it should remain nonpartisan and independent?
Specifically, issues management is the way and manner sensitive matters of public concern are controlled and addressed. Some of the questions may be temperamental, delicate and emotional through debates, arguments, outcries and all elements that bring about outbursts from spoken words, printed words and display of images.
Though negotiations and media relations are acceptable PR tools, every crisis manager knows that there is nothing more worrisome than to be entangled between powerful and influential coalitions of different forces and be asked to mediate when each plays constitutional roles to oneís accomplishments in statutory responsibilities.
The dilemma of the commission stems from the fact that it is constitutionally and legally empowered to recommend packages for all categories of political officers, from federal down to state levels which it has successfully accomplished between August and September 2000, by submitting the reports to appropriate authorities at the federal and state levels based on constitutional provisions. Of more relevance are Sections 70, 84, 111 and 124 of the Constitution.
While defending the package, Engr. Hamman Tukur had declared then that there was wide-range consultation with various classes of officers affected, which involved political office holders. A reasonable measure of public participation through interviews, memoranda, consultation with experts, intellectuals, elders and media reviews were also considered, apart from the experience of a few other countries for the purpose of comparative analysis. The submission received wide publicity.
The way and manner it has triumphantly carried out its other tasks, including the new revenue formula, verification of disputed oil wells, monitoring of all sources of revenue to the Federation Account, verification exercises on developmental efforts in the grass-roots and its advisory roles on fiscal efficiency, have further endeared it to the two powerful arms of government, who see it as a reliable umpire.
Furthermore, the humility of president Olusegun Obasanjo was seen when he led other members of the federal government, including members of National Assembly, to lobby the commission on the need for a better revenue share to the Federal Government. This political lobbying, which is an acceptable norm in a democratic dispensation, as well as an effective public relations tool, was not done covertly but publicly, as even the press covered the session. States and local government executives followed this commendable example of Mr. Presidentís when they made their physical representation too. Some may have expected the president, as the Head of State, to just phone the Commissionís leadership and intimate it with the figure he required. This reemphasized the essence of executive transparency and honesty in the national polity.
On the other hand, the National Assembly has always abided by constitutional provisions, which stipulates the independence and autonomy of the commission without interfering in its national responsibilities. It holds members of the Commission who have representations from each state of the federation, in high esteem. The cordial and mutual relationships between the two are commendable and exemplify an excellent intergovernmental relationship.
But in a situation as the one on salaries of legislators, which has become a serious public debate, how can the Chairman respond to the crises without drawing the ire of either of the parties? How can he come out and explain that the reports of all the packages were submitted a long time ago without offending any of the parties? How could he state that the approved monthly emoluments for the lawmakers are basic salaries, utility, entertainment, maintenance of vehicles and quarters, newspapers, wardrobe and recess allowance, while accommodation and constituency allowance are paid only once yearly?
How could the Chairman inform the public that the allowances for Personal Assistants, Special Assistants and Domestic Staff are not part of the take-home pay for public officers, but for the personal aides duly designated and for whom there must be evidence of employment before such pay is effected? Or, how could he reemphasize that some pays are terminal, which is once in tenure? Such pay includes transportation, which is a loan to be repaid, a furniture allowance and severance gratuity which is given after a successful full tenure.
Another riddle would be, deciding an effective way to reemphasize that the monetisation of transportation and accommodation implies that the beneficiaries must either use government amenities and forfeit their respective monetary benefits or keep their benefits and forget government provisions.
The public perception will also come to play. Even though there were a lot of supportive commentaries and editorials immediately after the submission of the report in 2000, what will be their fresh reaction? Would they see it as truly jumbo or that it will truly create employment opportunities for the teeming youth, eradicate wasteful government spending and minimize high level of corruption in governance? Would they agree as they initially did that, to some extent, the benefits of the monetisation outweigh the likely negative effects? Wouldnít either of the two powerful parties think that the commission wants to be confrontational and one-sided if it refuses to consult them before going public?
In fact, the dilemma of the Public Relations practitioner on issues management, can give someone a nightmare, in the face of allegations and counter allegations on the misuse of public funds. What this impasse portends is the fact that public relations is all about studying public perception and responding to them appropriately, logically without being seen in a bad light.
Therefore, the decision of Engr. Hamman Tukur, Chairman of the Commission, to react through a press briefing, after studying the trend, and fully digesting the main bone of contention, is timely, courageous and a better way of resolving public discourses. That is using appropriate public relations technique. Early response may have been harmful.
It is hoped that, with the facts and figures presented by the Commission recently, the public is better informed, the media well-equipped as the watchdog of civilized society, while anticipating that the face- off of the giants must have come to an end.
article was published in: