Strongly-worded thought leadership−or the perception thereof− is expected of any leader for him/her to be (and remain) relevant to both internal and external audiences
By Gilbert Manirakiza
Gone are the days when an African President could plagiarize another’s speech without being bothered about it, as president Buhari came to find out the hard way when he had to apologize last Saturday (Sept. 18th) for plagiarizing President Barack Obama’s 2008 victory speech. It is not only the plagiarism that has had tongues wagging, but the perceived moral contradiction of using stolen words in a speech that is used to launch a campaign aimed at enhancing integrity and honesty among Nigerians.
“This serious oversight will be investigated thoroughly and appropriate sanction meted,” said Garba Shehu, Mr. Buhari’s spokesperson, in a statement on Friday. This is enough to send the culprit running for the hills, especially as it comes from the initiator of the “war against indiscipline” which was enforced by whip-wielding law enforcement officers.
In all seriousness, this incident carries a number of lessons for all those who manage the reputations of senior officials.
Authenticity is expected of leaders
In the era of instant information, it is no longer enough to “be” a leader by position to earn the world’s esteem and goodwill. These have to be “earned” through the symbolic actions and statements made by the leader who, ideally, should have his own authentic narrative.
President Obama has developed his own narrative, which is punctuated by many symbolic actions that are delivered using all the channels that are currently available. No one can pull off his narrative style quite as well as he can, perhaps because he is the only one who can authentically deliver it.
As such, Pres. Buhari’s use of Pres. Obama’s words could not have gone unnoticed, nor would it have had the same effect. He may be genuinely committed to improve integrity and morality in his country, but Nigerians and the world expect (and perhaps deserve) to hear this through his own authentic voice and narrative.
People are bombarded by thousands of messages every day through an ever-growing array of online and offline platforms, and will simply not pay attention to you unless you are “worthy” of their attention. It has become clear that leaders who proactively provide strong direction and views about major issues gain the attention of the world. Regardless of how controversial these issues may be.
Donald Trump is one such politician who has understood that having strong messages and views, be the illogical, controversial or even unconstitutional, is the best policy to gain “attention”, which may or may not translate into votes or admiration. He is however not the only one, with the likes of Marine Lepen in France and Philippine’s Duterte courting controversy through very strong messages geared at remaining visible to their target audiences.
Although these individuals are controversial, they exemplify the fact that strongly-worded thought leadership (or the perception thereof) is expected of any leader for him/her to be and remain relevant to both internal and external audiences.
Internal and external audiences are increasingly linked
President Buhari’s speech was intended for Nigerians. But instead, it made global headlines for all the wrong reasons. Interestingly, your typical Nigerian might not be too concerned about the plagiarism aspect. However, a Head of State of a country whose economy is slipping into recession could do without such a global embarrassment at a time when he needs to woo investments and aid.
President Kenyatta is consistently ranked among the most popular leaders in Africa on Social Media. Images and videos of him having Nyama Choma and Kachumbari at Kenyatta Market or jigging to the tunes of a popular musician have a viral effect beyond Kenya and are likely to have an impact on political cultures in the region.
Governments need to take nation branding seriously
Human minds have a tendency to build and cling to stereotypes. For instance, what comes to mind when you hear Switzerland is different from how we consciously or subconsciously perceive Nigeria, China or Russia, and leaders of these countries play a big role in shaping these perceptions.
In recent years, Africans have been denouncing the mischaracterization of our continent and countries by global mainstream media. The reality is that this media is often playing into the perceptions and stereotypes that have been built over many years. If this is to change, we must do more than complain, and rather encourage our governments to adopt comprehensive foreign policies that tackle the issue of nation branding and reputation building.
Consistency is the name of the game
According to Nation Branding experts, changing the narrative and perception of a country and its’ leader requires giving the world a closer and more nuanced insight into what the country is about and what it contributes to humanity. Kenya is known by the west as a nation of great athletes and amazing safaris. If we are to convince the world that we also have great products and services to export, we will need to shift our narrative and consistently expose the world to what makes them worthy of consideration.
A number of media articles have profiled the ongoing “scramble” for Africa by various global economies such as China, Japan, the US and Europe. What seems to evade most analysts however is how these countries deliberately position themselves and their brands to African decision-makers and audiences. For instance, most Africans readily associate China with affordable and accessible products while associating Japan with more “durable” and “quality” products.
A double-edged sword
The Chinese economy, which has thrived on its’ reputation as the world’s factory, is reported to be slowing down in the wake of rising competition from other countries. As such, creating a certain perception is not enough to guarantee sustained growth of various sectors. In fact, being perceived as a producer of high-quality products might chase away markets that are interested in affordability, and conversely being perceived as a low-cost producer might give rise to doubts as to the quality of the products and processes.
Its’ hard to imagine that a simple case of plagiarism could generate so much noise, but when the culprit is the president of Africa’s largest and most populous economy, who also happens to be known for his strong stance against indiscipline, something has got to give.
The writer is a communication expert and the managing director of Newmark Group Limited www.newmark.co.ke