2014 has been a year filled with monumental public relations, for both individuals and institutions. In this first part of a three-piece series, we look back at the year and bring you a list of the biggest public relations nightmares for the government, opposition and individuals, as well as the rare success stories in communication during the year.
By all standards, the government has been the biggest victim of the most damaging PR blunders during the period. But the main political opposition was equally not spared embarrassment.
$156 million sanitary pad loan
Funny as it may sound, the decision by the current government to add a line item for the provision of free sanitary pad to underprivileged students as part of a US$156 million loan from the World Bank became one of the major PR nightmares for the regime. Despite the credible evidence of girls dropping out of school as a result of experiencing their menstrual cycle, there was a major furor in the media over the decision.
The political opposition made capital out of it and created the impression that the government went to borrow a whopping US$156 million to buy sanitary pads. The initial attempt at setting the records straight did not appear to be adequate. But with time, the issue died a natural death.
Professionally, we believe the negative vibe against the government could have been avoided by simply including the item under a different generic label. The fact that only a minute portion of the money was going to be spent on this item made it not worth the negativity it brought to the image of the government.
The US$3.5 million Brazil fiasco
Perhaps, the grandmaster of all PR blunders for 2014 was the government’s decision to airlift a whopping $3.5million to Brazil to pay the appearance fees of the players of the senior national team. Although there was evidence to the effect that it was not the first time the government was flying money out of the country to pay the players, it was indeed the first time that the decision was announced live on radio by a minister of state.
The entire event was handled in a manner akin to a dramatic scene in a blockbuster Hollywood movie with armed guards as escorts. The event was beamed live by television cameras to the world, with the players spending the night kissing and counting their ‘booty’ just hours before their last group match, which they lost.
It was by all standards the gravest display of state incompetence in the 21st century and brought the country the biggest international shame. The fact that this heavily dented the image of the country internationally was not in doubt. But the controversy it generated internally was even more troubling. We even hear Hollywood is producing a movie based on the event, leading the President to appeal to the producers to not exaggerate the incident.
The incident was one of the worst PR disasters any government could ever face. The entire communication around the incident was not planned, lacked any strategy and complicated the PR problem.
Worse still, the abysmal showing of the Black Stars at the World Cup competition added more insult to the dented reputation of the country. It was the country’s worst performance since participating in the World Cup for the first time in 2006.
We believe the country has learnt a lot from the experience, and hopefully, we will not live to see another kind of this disaster happening again. From our professional point of view, the best way to deal with a PR crisis is to prevent the crisis situation from occurring in the first place. It is better to anticipate and cure any potential PR crisis hazard than living to deal with a real crisis.
The money incident could have been handled in a better way than it was. Nevertheless, the current effort by the government and the football association to ensure that all future payments are made electronically suggests that the country would prefer to not have a repeat of the embarrassing experience in the future. It is important to bear in mind that any communication crisis, no matter how big or small, results in reputational damage, which normally takes a lot more time and resources to repair.
Ruby cocaine scandal
As if the Brazil fiasco was not enough, then came the biggest ever cocaine bust involving a Ghanaian in 2014. Described as Africa’s drug Cleopatra, Ruby Adu Gyamfi, alias Nayele Ametefe, was arrested at London’s Heathrow Airport with 12.5 kilograms of cocaine with a street value of £5million. Her ability to travel through the VIP lounge of Ghana’s only international airport, Kotoka, with the alleged assistance of the airport officials allowed cynics to allege that she is associated with high-profile personalities in the establishment.
The most embarrassing bit of the scandal had to do with the claim by the Narcotic Control Board (NACOB), the state agency with mandate to handle drugs issues, that it collaborated with the British authorities to arrest Ruby, a claim which was flatly denied by the British. More injury was added when the communications minister, in a rare move, openly challenged the agency to produce evidence to back its claim. This was followed by the dissolution of the Board by the President, and a negative public reaction by the board chairman. It was a scandal which dented the image of the Narcotics Control Board, and by extension, the government.
In our opinion, the government’s reaction to the story was prompt and robust. The disclaimer against its own key drugs agency’s claim was a sign of courage. However, the institution itself, so far, appears to have been unable to recover from the shock. It seemed the communications wing of the agency did not anticipate the negative response from the British authorities and the Ghanaian government. So they appear to have been at a loss and probably settled for the option of praying for time to pass to allow the public attention to shift from the embarrassment.
It is our hope that the NACOB has learnt its lesson and will immediately start developing their crisis communications plan and test their PR crisis response strategies before any other crisis hits them. However, it is worthy to note that the year has not only been filled with PR disasters. In our opinion, there have been some rare success stories.
An incident which severely dented the image of Ghana’s biggest opposition political party (New Patriotic Party) was when about a dozen hefty-men wielding machetes besieged the party’s headquarters, disrupted a live press briefing being held by the party’s chairman and general secretary, and threatened to harm them. It was seen as evidence of intolerance and the deep cracks within the party’s leadership.
The incident attracted widespread condemnation from all sections of the Ghanaian society, with many expressing disappointment that the party’s alleged intolerance had reached a crescendo. It created the impression that the party was not ready for political leadership of the country.
We are, however, of the view that the reaction of the party leadership and the communication around the incident was quite coordinated and professional. Although the damage to the party’s reputation was high, it managed to quickly move away from it and held a successful electoral process which saw its veteran leader elected for the third time to represent it as the presidential candidate for the 2016 elections. With 2015 being the penultimate year to the next election, it will do the opposition a lot of good if it manages to avoid such embarrassing incidents in the coming years.