Just days before Nigeria's presidential, legislative, and state elections, a Weber Shandwick team from Washington, DC, was asked to set up a communications platform inspiring trust and confidence in the fairness of the forthcoming vote.
It was an atypical, but vital PR task for a nation whose hopes for transparent democracy had repeatedly been disappointed. Credibility was critical. Yet only days from the vote, information was lacking, distances are vast, topographies and cultures diverse, and outside advice might not have been welcome. We had to reach out to citizens, to groups who could get the message out, and to observers both domestic and international.
New media was key. Cell phone penetration throughout Nigeria is impressive: what we achieved with instant messaging, SMS use, and Twitter feeds more than compensated for physical distance. "Come out & vote Apr 2 it's ur right. Take ur voter card to where u registered 8 to 12 noon. Join line 1230. Vote. U may wait peacefully 4 count." This was sent to some 5 million numbers.
The media landscape is vast and diverse with dozens of radio and TV stations in every state. We successfully urged the media to underline the process' integrity and security. "This is Nigeria's Moment" wrote This Day, the largest circulation paper. "How We'll Ensure Credible Polls" headlined Nigeria's Guardian.
A crisis communications center was created as a round-the-clock hub for the three election cycles. It had TV monitors, a 36-person phone bank to cover voting regions and languages, social media and cell phone monitoring, voting-results computing, and broadcast facilities for rapid response.
The center opened two days in advance of the election. It got plenty of use when, at the last minute, the elections were postponed because some of the ballot papers sourced from South Africa - to avoid in-country corruption risks - failed to arrive on time.
In the end, all elections went off successfully and peacefully for the most part. The Economist hailed "Nigeria's successful elections: Democracy 1, Vote-rigging 0."
This was Nigeria's success, but communications contributed. We learned that new media can overcome physical distance and meet the critical need for consistent messaging.
Nigeria still faces huge issues, North-South divides, and an alarming insurgency. The promise of its democracy needs continued support from all concerned with this dynamic country's future.
Michael Stopford is EVP of global corporate strategy at Powell Tate, a division of Weber Shandwick.