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COMMUNICATION WITHOUT COMMUNICATING; Why Strategic Thinking is Crucial in Virtual Communication to Avoid Miscommunication

In the age of instantaneous information sharing, the significance of strategic thinking in virtual communication cannot be overstated. A recent incident involving the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) and Nigerian Musician Naira Marley highlights the necessity for meticulous planning in public relations (PR) strategies. This case underscores the potential misinterpretations and negative implications of virtual communication, emphasizing the need for organizations to adopt effective PR strategies that circumvent miscommunication and prevent unintended consequences.

The sequence of events began with Naira Marley’s visit to the NDLEA headquarters. The agency’s spokesperson, in a well-intentioned move, shared images of the artist alongside the agency’s chairman. The narrative provided highlighted Naira Marley’s visit and his expressed willingness to contribute to the fight against drug abuse. The spokesperson’s intention was clear: showcase a notable figure’s support for a noble cause. However, what unfolded was a vivid reminder of the intricate nature of virtual communication.

In the virtual realm, perception shapes reality. The shared images, coupled with lack of contextualization and clarifications created an opportunity for misinterpretation. In this case, the audience inferred that Naira Marley had been appointed as an ambassador. The story reverberated through various media outlets, sparking debates, and drawing lots of criticism and condemnation. The storm of overwhelming backlash on social media necessitated swift and strategic damage control measures by the Agency.

Ishola Ayodele

In response to the escalating situation, NDLEA had to release a statement categorically denouncing any association of Naira Marley as their ambassador having recognized the magnitude of the public’s outcry and the potential harm this miscommunication has had on the agency’s reputation.

This incident underscores several essential lessons for organizations engaging in virtual communication:

  1. The Domino Effect of Miscommunication:

What may seem like a routine announcement or a simple image can snowball into a major event, affecting an organization’s image and reputation. This ripple effect highlights the need for meticulous planning and strategic thinking in every piece of communication shared.

United Airlines:

The impact of miscommunication can be profound, resonating far beyond initial intentions. A prime example found in my book ‘PR Case Studies: Mastering the Trade Vol 2’ is the case of United Airlines in 2017. A video depicting a passenger being forcibly removed from an overbooked flight went viral. The airline’s initial response failed to convey empathy or address the gravity of the situation. The incident escalated dramatically, leading to a significant PR crisis, plummeting stock prices, and widespread negative public sentiment. This case underscores the importance of strategic thinking and the need for meticulous planning in communication to prevent a minor incident from snowballing into a reputation-damaging catastrophe.

  • The Power of Visuals:

In virtual communication, visuals carry immense weight. A single image, coupled with a concise message, can drive the interpretation of an entire narrative. Organizations must consider the potential implications of any visuals shared, contemplating how they might be interpreted by a diverse audience.

As Strategic Communication professionals we must never forget that contextualizing information is paramount to all we do. The NDLEA’s initial message did not explicitly define Naira Marley’s role, opening the door to multiple interpretations. Providing context within the communication itself can prevent misinterpretation.

  • Swift Clarifications:

In the digital age, misinformation spreads rapidly. Organizations must be prepared to issue swift clarifications when miscommunication occurs. Promptly addressing misconceptions can help control the narrative and reduce the potential harm caused.

When the agency shared photos of Naira Marley and members of his team posing with the NDLEA chairman/chief executive officer, Brig. Gen. Mohamed Buba Marwa (retd) as well as the agency’s director of Media and Advocacy, Femi Babafemi, on its official X platform (formerly known as Twitter), they inadvertently set the stage for misinterpretation. The absence of swift clarifications allowed the public to draw their own conclusions. What followed was a wave of speculation and assumptions, leading many to believe that Naira Marley had been appointed as an ambassador for the agency’s cause and this became the catalyst that fueled their PR reputation crisis.

To avoid such miscommunications in the future, organizations should consider implementing strategic PR approaches:

  1. Contextual Communication: Messages should be detailed and explicit, leaving no room for ambiguity. Communicators must anticipate how audiences might interpret their messages and tailor them accordingly.
  • Internal Consensus: Before sharing any communication, ensure internal consensus regarding the intended message and its potential implications. This aligns all stakeholders and reduces the chances of mixed signals.
  • Scenario Planning: Envision various scenarios that could arise from your communication. Consider potential interpretations, reactions, and consequences. Develop responses for each scenario.
  • Audience Understanding: Understand your target audience’s expectations, beliefs, and perceptions. This knowledge can guide your communication to resonate effectively.
  • Virtual Literacy: Educate your team about the nuances of virtual communication. This includes understanding how messages can be perceived differently across different platforms.
  • Real-time Monitoring: Continuously monitor public reactions to your communication. This enables you to identify and address misconceptions promptly.
  • Crisis Communication Protocol: Have a crisis communication protocol in place that outlines the steps to take in the event of miscommunication or negative consequences.

The NDLEA-Naira Marley incident serves as a powerful reminder of the intricate nature of virtual communication. The implications of a seemingly innocent announcement can be far-reaching. Through strategic thinking, meticulous planning, and a deep understanding of the virtual landscape, organizations can navigate the complex realm of communication effectively, mitigating miscommunication and fostering positive relationships with their audiences.

Ishola Ayodele is a ‘Message Engineer.’ He helps Brands, Organizations and Leaders communicate in a way that yields the desired result. Reach him via isholapr@gmail.com

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