Tolu Ogunlesi: Social Media Lessons For Governments And Businesses

Posted on February 14, 2013 by


And then the power outage happened in America, during the February 3 Super Bowl. Nigerians, who religiously follow the Super Bowl (even if only to see Beyonce and the ads), responded instinctively, taking to the Internet to make jokes about the 34-minute power outage. And, perhaps remembering her encounter with President Jonathan, they copied Ms. Amanpour in the Twitter messages. She wasted no time in taking up the issue, commissioning CNN’s West Africa correspondent, Vladimir Duthiers, to take to the streets of Lagos to talk to citizens about their electricity experience. It wasn’t a pleasant story, as expected; everyone complained about their sufferings at the hands of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria.

I’ve shared the above to serve as background and context for a number of points I’d like to make about the social media, which, for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with it, is a catch-all term that covers all those Internet and mobile-phone tools and platforms that enable interaction and engagements (sharing of information/data/experiences) amongst large numbers of people.

Point One. The world has changed. This seems obvious, but perhaps, not to everyone. Certainly, not obvious, in my opinion, to many governments and corporate organisations. Last week, I read a story that the Federal Government paid a sizable retainer to an international public relations agency to arrange a CNN interview in 2010. When the Amanpour incident happened, it occurred to me how much things have changed: How the unpaid-for-features, mediated by social-media (like the Super Bowl-inspired Amanpour feature), make the sort of impact that no PR execs could ever envisage, and that the paid-for interviews and advertorials can only dream of making. Thanks to tools such as Twitter and Facebook, ordinary Nigerians now have their voices amplified to levels unimaginable even a decade ago. Twenty years ago, the government could shut down newsmagazines and newspapers and restrict radio and television broadcast, forcing opposition papers to go underground and opposition radio abroad (like NADECO’s Radio Kudirat).

Today, there are more than 100 million mobile phones out there in the hands of citizens. There’s online radio. Millions of people are on Facebook and Twitter and reading and writing the constantly increasing number of news and gossip and opinion platforms out there. These days, some of the biggest items in the print media only make it in there after having exhausted an engagement cycle on the social media. Social media has firmly inserted itself into the news-cycle – aggregating, curating, filtering, amplifying – and is now part of the media structure (think citizen journalism).

Point Two. Understanding that the world has changed means that governments and corporations should be taking clear and urgent steps to adapt. We’re in an adapt-or-die world. Trying to run away from social media is not the way to go. Neither is trying to impose traditional means of control on it. Sometime last year, Rwandan President Paul Kagame engaged in a bitter online (Twitter) fight with a British journalist who accused his government of human rights violations. Who’d ever have imagined an African leader directly engaging in a public ‘fight’ with a foreign journalist? President Jonathan’s Facebook page had to be shut down when hisFacebook “friends” let him know their minds about the dubious attempt to remove petrol subsidy. Presidential spokesperson Reuben Abati has just launched a personal website. He joined Twitter in 2012. According to research by digital media consultancy, Bloovue, the three most popular Nigerian politicians on Facebook are Goodluck Jonathan, Tunde Fashola, and Nasir el-Rufai. Social media is now so crucial that the Federal Ministry of Information plans to spend N100m in 2013, on “Developing Social Media Platforms and Networking With Other Platforms.” All things being equal, the ministry will not get any value for that money, unless it radically rethinks its conception of information, engagement, and audience expectations. Most, if not all, of the money will be wasted or mis-spent.

Companies and governments cannot afford to simply throw money at social media strategy, the way they’re used to doing with traditional media channels, where, the bigger the spend, the bigger the impact. Social media requires more strategic thinking, more planning, an instinctive understanding of how people think and act online, an obsession with adding value to engagements, and the sort of patience necessary for long-term brand-building.

Point Three. Corporate Social Responsibility is not enough in this age. Companies need to think in terms of what I call ‘Corporate Social-Media Responsibility’. We’re seeing social media and digital media managers and teams emerging in blue-chip companies. Corporate success will be increasingly tied to social media engagement. Governments will also need to find ways to engage intelligently on social media. Emphasis is on “intelligently.” The current mode of engagement – instinctive defensiveness – belongs to a now-dead era. I firmly believe that in the age of social media, governments have to rethink their structures. Government officials assigned Media / Communications / Public Affairs / Social Media roles now have a duty to not only speak to the public on behalf of their principals, but also to speak to their principals on behalf of a politically-active and engaged and prolific public. Government policy and action should be shaped by social media engagements. The duty of media aides is not merely to endlessly foam at the mouth in defence of their Ogas, but also to impress it on the Ogas that the people are talking, and should be listened to, and respected.

Point Four. The pre-eminent anti-social media argument is this: It is a minority tool, an echo chamber in which a bunch of privileged urban youths (concentrated in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt) talk to one another, oblivious of the gritty reality out there in ‘real life’. You’ll hear people ask: How many people are on Facebook, or Twitter, compared to the number of people who are absent? It sounds like a real argument, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s not.

Why do I say that? It’s simple: if social media is indeed irrelevant in the larger national context, then newspapers – which actually reach fewer people today than social media – are equally irrelevant.

Yet, newspapers are still far from irrelevant in Nigeria. From what I know – mostly anecdotal evidence, admittedly – newspapers are taken very seriously across the country, especially by the ruling elite. You’d be surprised to know the extent to which government officials and corporate organisations court the media, and journalists. For some reason, Nigerian politicians have not stopped believing in the powers of the country’s journalists.

So, if newspapers are not irrelevant, the social media cannot be. This is because, one, as I said earlier, the social media now has a larger reach than the print media. And two, even more important, is this: Social media has got a seamless connection with traditional media, so that information and data flow unrestricted between the two. A BlackBerry message hops from device to device, creeps into Facebook and Twitter, and ends up in a newspaper piece. The hundreds of thousands of newspaper readers (available figures suggest that the combined daily circulation of all Nigerian newspapers/newsmagazines is much less than a million), the two million BlackBerry users, six million on Facebook, five million and 11 million on social networking platforms Eskimi and 2GO respectively, millions of radio and TV listeners, and the 100 million active mobile phone lines in Nigeria should therefore be seen as a single indivisible entity.

This article was originally published in the online edition of The Punch on Tuesday, 12th February 2013. It has been re-published here with the permission of the author.

Tolu Ogunlesi is a winner of the 2009 Arts and Culture prize in the CNN MultiChoice African Journalism Awards. He is the author of a collection of poetry, ‘Listen to the geckos singing from a balcony’ (Bewrite Books, 2004) and a novella, ‘Conquest & Conviviality’ (Hodder Murray, 2008).  His fiction and poetry have been published in The London Magazine, Wasafiri, Farafina, PEN Anthology of New Nigerian Writing, Litro, Brand, Orbis, Nano2ales, Stimulus Respond, Sable, Magma, Stanford’s Black Arts Quarterly and World Literature Today, among others. Follow Tolu on twitter or check out his blog!
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