By Ayodele Ishola
In the fast-paced world of politics and public life, criticism is almost inevitable, and public figures must navigate the treacherous waters of public opinion with grace and strategic communication. A recent case that highlights the importance of the Nigerian State house response to the world press conference of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, the former Vice President of Nigeria and a presidential candidate in the 2023 election. This response serves as an important lesson in handling criticism especially from competitors or oppositions. In this article, I will like to argue that from a strategic communication point of view, attacking your critics, even when their mischief is apparent, is not the best response strategy. Instead, I will highlight a more effective approach to respond to such statements without getting entangled in a war of words.
The Pitfalls of Attacking Critics
Responding to criticism with hostility or personal attacks can quickly escalate a situation, turning it into a bitter feud. This can damage one’s reputation, erode public trust, and fuel further criticism.
An example of hostility and personal attack from the Presidency’s response to Atiku’s press conference can be found in this statement:
“We found such claim to be sheer hypocrisy as Atiku remains one of the worst examples of kleptocracy in Africa.”
In this statement, the Presidency directly accuses Atiku of being a hypocrite and labels him as one of the “worst examples of kleptocracy in Africa.” This is a clear instance of a personal attack and hostile language, as it not only questions Atiku’s integrity but also uses strong and derogatory language to make its point. Such language is not conducive to constructive dialogue and can escalate the situation.
- Reinforcing Negativity:
Engaging in public disputes with critics may inadvertently lend credibility to their claims and provide them with a platform to further their agenda.
Here is an example from the Presidency’s response:
The Presidency’s statement refers to Atiku as a “self-serving serial loser” and accuses him of “kleptocracy.”
The use of personal attacks in referring to Atiku as a “self-serving serial loser” and accusing him of “kleptocracy” is counterproductive. Instead of addressing the specific issues raised by Atiku, it focuses on discrediting him as an individual, potentially portraying him as a victim and drawing attention to his claims. This approach erodes civility in public discourse, fostering a toxic political environment marked by name-calling and character assassination.
- Distracting from Important Matters:
Public figures should focus on their agenda, the issues that matter to the public, and their vision for the future. Engaging in personal attacks distracts from these vital matters.
An example is the presidency’s statement:
“We want to advise Atiku that after over three decades of elusive bid for the Presidency of Nigeria, he must now end his unprofitable bid and go away from any venture that will further pollute the political atmosphere and national harmony.”
In this passage, the Presidency is urging Atiku to abandon his political aspirations, calling them “unprofitable” and suggesting they will “pollute the political atmosphere and national harmony.” This type of personal criticism and advice shifts the focus away from substantive issues and political matters that are essential for the country’s progress and development. It directs attention to a personal attack rather than constructive policy discussions.
A more Strategic Response
So, what’s the best way to respond to critics, even when their motives are questionable?
- Stay Above the Fray: It’s essential to maintain a statesman-like demeanor and stay above the fray. Avoid direct confrontations and name-calling, as it can detract from your public image.
One world leader who consistently demonstrated the ability to stay above the fray and maintain a statesman-like demeanor is Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa. Throughout his political career and especially during his presidency, Mandela exemplified grace, reconciliation, and forgiveness.
One of Nelson Mandela’s famous quotes that exemplifies staying above the fray is: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
This Nelson Mandela’s quote perfectly exemplifies the idea of staying above the fray and not letting resentment or negative emotions consume you. It emphasizes the importance of maintaining one’s composure and not allowing personal feelings of anger or bitterness to cloud one’s judgment or actions.
- Focus on the Issues: Redirect the conversation towards the issues and challenges that matter most to the public. Emphasize your commitment to addressing these concerns and your vision for a better future.
Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II. Churchill is known for his powerful and inspirational speeches, particularly during the challenging times of the war. Instead of engaging in personal attacks or dwelling on criticism from political opponents or hostile forces, Churchill consistently focused on rallying the British people and the world against the common enemy, which was Nazi Germany. He directed the conversation toward the critical issues of national defense, resilience, and the vision of a free and united Europe.
Churchill’s leadership through effective communication helped maintain the morale and determination of the British population and their allies. He is remembered for his ability to steer the conversation away from negativity and towards the issues that truly mattered during a time of global crisis. This approach contributed significantly to the eventual victory of the Allied forces.
This approach by Churchill exemplifies the significance of staying focused on the issues and priorities that matter to the citizens rather than engaging in name-calling and personal attacks. By emphasizing critical challenges and the vision for a better future, leaders can demonstrate their commitment to addressing the needs of the public. This approach not only helps maintain a positive public image but also allows for more constructive and productive discourse in the political arena. It shows that leaders are more interested in serving the interests of the people than in engaging in divisive and unproductive rhetoric.
- Defend with Facts and Logic: If a response is required, do so with facts, logic, and well-reasoned arguments. Present a calm and collected case to debunk any false claims made by the critic.
Recently, Erisco Foods Limited, a leading tomato processing company, faced a customer complaint claiming that Erisco Nagiko tomato mix product was unsafe for consumption due to concerns about the quality and safety of the ingredients used.
But rather than defending the reputation of the company with facts and logic by immediately releasing comprehensive quality assurance reports and certifications from relevant government agencies and independent third-party laboratories confirming the safety and quality of its products, Erisco embarked on an all-out attack and having the complainant arrested which turned out to be a counterproductive approach that escalated the issue into a major crisis.
- Use Humor and Wit: Using humor and wit to manage responses to criticism is a clever strategy that can help an organization defuse tension and win public support, even during challenging situations.
In February 2018, KFC faced a major crisis in the UK when it experienced a shortage of chicken due to issues with its new food distribution contract. Many KFC restaurants had to close temporarily, leading to public frustration, criticism, and widespread media coverage. Instead of resorting to a defensive or confrontational stance, KFC chose to use humor and wit in its responses to the criticism.
KFC released a series of full-page advertisements in major newspapers. The ads featured an empty KFC bucket with the letters rearranged to spell “FCK.” The tagline read, “We’re Sorry,” and the text below explained the chicken shortage and apologized for the inconvenience. This clever use of wordplay and humour was both self-deprecating and endearing. It acknowledged the problem while simultaneously humanizing the brand.
The “FCK” print led to more than 700 press articles and TV discourses, reaching around 797 million audience and additional 219 million on social media users all over the world. A single press ad that delivered to more than 1 billion audience within three months.
In the realm of strategic communication, it’s essential to recognize the profound impact that your responses to criticism can have on your public image and leadership perception. As eloquently stated by Nelson Mandela, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Engaging in personal attacks and hostility often yields more harm than good. Instead, let’s draw inspiration from the wisdom of Winston Churchill, who emphasized, “You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.”
In other words, staying focused on the issues and rising above the fray is the key to progress. Studies have shown that leaders who maintain a statesman-like demeanor during criticism enjoy higher approval ratings and are seen as more credible.
In conclusion, leaders who choose the path of rising above, staying focused on the issues, and communicating with transparency, logic, and even a touch of humor when appropriate, not only preserve their credibility but also fortify their effectiveness. Let’s remember that in the world of strategic communication, a thoughtful response can be far mightier than a knee-jerk reaction.