Despite the existence of the Oath of Secrecy, Act, 1962, organisations can still find innovative ways of communicating with the public, without compromising very sensitive information. Corporate communications must be strategic, intentional and purpose driven. Social media platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook have democratised information gathering, thus introducing some measures of disruption in information management processes.
“When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.” – Stephen R. Covey
Corporate communications in Nigeria’s public sector is akin to walking the eggshells. Balancing public and institutional interest in information management is a daunting responsibility. Public sector institutions prefer significant confidentiality measures in their information management processes. Emerging cybersecurity technologies and knowledge management have led to the introduction of extra steps for information storage and retrieval. Many of these organisations currently store documents in digital formats, encrypted, and, in some cases, they introduce a password for access. In federal ministries, agencies and departments, the use of physical files is, however, still prevalent. Several memos, reports, and documents transverse the institutions in utmost confidentiality. Spokespersons or directors of communications in these government agencies walk a tightrope in information management.
Government officials have attributed this state of affairs to the confidential nature of public sector activities and the need to protect the organisations and government from unintended information leakages that could cause embarrassment. These officials have cited the Official Secret Act, also known as the Oath of Secrecy Act, 1962, as the significant barrier to corporate communications in the public sector. The overarching objective of the Act is to “check against the publication of highly confidential information or documents that may weaken or limit the integrity of any government and, by extension, threaten the security of the state” (Asemah, 2009, p. 371).
Citizens have continued to express concerns over the continuous use of the 1962 Oath of Secrecy Act, 61 years after the country’s independence. The Clerk of the House of Representatives, Yahaya Danzaria, in a story in Premium Times of 9 August, 2022, was quoted as intimating the staff of the House of Representatives that the Oath of Secrecy Act of 1962 has remained in force to prevent the leakage of important official documents of the government, stressing that institutions must protect vital government information to avoid exposing it to embarrassment and ridicule.
Despite enacting the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 2011, government officials still fear the consequences of divulging official government information. Some government employees have lost their jobs for releasing confidential information without authorisation. The above places enormous restrictions on directors of communication or spokespersons of government agencies. The need to withhold some vital information, and justifiably so, while under pressure from the media and other stakeholders for information, could be unsettling. Industry professionals, the media and members of the public have expressed grave concerns over limited information on the activities of some government agencies, stressing that, at times, some of the statements released are inadequate and outdated.
Corporate communication analysts have observed that the FOIA 2011 has not necessarily solved the problem, arguing that obtaining information from government agencies remains challenging. The recent upsurge of requests for information from government agencies under the FOIA, 2011, is attributed to the existing communication gap between public sector organisations and stakeholders. Strategic stakeholders’ engagement is crucial to information management. As mentioned above, the prevailing scenario underscores the need for regular stakeholder engagements, where the public sector institutions provide information addressing nagging questions. Stakeholders’ engagement strategy reduces the pressure that institutions encounter regarding requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act of 2011.
In January 2012, the Public Affairs Department of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), under the supportive leadership of Professor Umar Garba Danbatta, the executive vice chairman (EVC), obtained an approval of the department’s strategies to guide the Commission’s corporate communications. I must emphasise that, it is in organisation’s best interest to have one spokesperson to avoid the release of mixed messages, thus creating communication dissonance. The messaging should be consistent, factual, and unambiguous. The spokesperson must keep abreast of the subject matters and be very knowledgeable. The corporate affairs director or spokesperson should elicit the trust of the CEO, the approving authority for all external communications. Any suggestion of pursuing personal interest would engender suspicion and consequent censorship, due to a lack of confidence and doubt. The CEO should approve all sensitive materials for external communications. Owing to the sensitive nature of the communications industry, statements from the Commission must be consistent, clear, transparent, timely, and factual, and should address the issues at stake.
During the period that the industry experienced poor quality of services (QoS), the Commission decided that our communications would be frank and regular, without cover ups. Denials of obvious situations and challenges provoke the people, but acceptance of the existing situation, while craving for understanding, as the situation is addressed, elicits favourable considerations. The Commission was transparent, empathetic, and timely in its strategic communications. The public affairs department adopted an open-door policy and was ready to respond to media enquiries. There were regular media appearances addressing the challenges in the sector and the regulatory interventions the Commission engaged to solve the problems. The Commission acknowledged the existence of the QoS challenges in all media appearances and press releases but outlined the measures the Commission had adopted to deal with the issues, such as insisting on the strict compliance of service providers to the QoS benchmarks. At that time, NCC wielded the big stick and issued the highest fine ever imposed on any regulator in the continent on a major operator in Nigeria for breaching the Commission’s regulations.
To effectively manage the Commission’s information, we conducted a study to discover the factors that negatively affect corporate communications. Our findings indicated that delays in releasing substantial public information fuels rumours, and inaccurate information encourages the negative “grapevine.”
Blocking communication channels lead to unfriendly relationships. A spokesman should keep an open-door policy with the stakeholders, especially the media, to avoid speculations and adversarial publications. The organisation should maintain regular interactions with both the online and mainstream media. Regular consultations with relevant stakeholders is necessary to keep them informed of the activities of the organisation.
In 2012, as part of our strategic communications drive, the department obtained the approval of Professor Danbatta to set up the Online Media Unit in the Public Affairs Department, and opened social media handles on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Instagram to disseminate information on the Commission’s activities. The organisation was one of the first public sector organisations to use social media platforms to engage our stakeholders. The Director of Public Affairs had a Twitter handle that informed the public of the Commission’s activities, on real-time basis, engaging directly with stakeholders and consumers of communication services. The Commission streamed many of its events live on social media platforms.
The the world is a global village, and information is currency in the digital age. A former Chief of Staff at the US House of Representatives, C. Lillie, on 26 August, 2014, stated that “Information is the currency in the digital economy and as such has value.” Mark Barrenechea, in his article “Why Information is the New Currency”, opined that, in a digital world, information is the new currency, and as information flows across networks and is exchanged, more metadata is collected, thereby growing in value.
Despite the existence of the Oath of Secrecy, Act, 1962, organisations can still find innovative ways of communicating with the public, without compromising very sensitive information. Corporate communications must be strategic, intentional and purpose driven. Social media platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook have democratised information gathering, thus introducing some measures of disruption in information management processes. Public sector organisations should embrace both the mainstream and the new media in communicating with the various publics. Information is a digital asset; organisations that ignore its impact on information management do so at their own peril.
Tony Ojobo, the former director of Public Affairs, Nigerian Communications Commission, writes from Abuja.
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