Opinion: Central Bank of Nigeria on fire, WhatsApp to the rescue

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On May 1, 2018, while Nigerians were observing a work-free day for workers, a Staff Writer of an emerging media platform, the News Digest, spotted smoke rising from the Headquarters of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in Abuja.

The young journalist parked his car and started taking pictures and video of the incident. As an Editorial Adviser of the new media outlet which consists mainly of campus journalists, youth corpers and young graduates on internship, I was contacted for an appropriate caption and editorial angle for the story. I have mentored some of the young journalists and observed that they enjoy scooping fresh angles from reports on social media as they develop and convert trending issues into the news by engaging celebrities and newsmakers in interviews. With their handy smartphones, the major tools of their job, they take pictures, conduct interviews, record videos, edit stories and publish the reports at the click of the button.

I closely looked at the images of heavy smoke emanating from the CBN’s tallest complex in the District. Though I didn’t doubt the sincerity of the young journalist, I nevertheless nursed the fear that the photos and the videos could have been doctored and manipulated.

The young journalist insisted that he was still at the scene. I asked that we should engage in a live WhatsApp video chat to verify the authenticity of the claim. Behold, I watched the live transmitted video of heavy and thick smoke enveloping the building.

While it is conventional by social media standard to just post and publish the pictures without contacting relevant authorities, I volunteered to speak to the ever vibrant and responsive spokesperson of CBN, Mr. Isaac Okorafor on the incident. Several calls to his phone weren’t going while the young journalist was on my neck to get clearance to break the news with the pictures.

The pictures were immediately published with a story captioned: CBN Headquarters on Fire. The story went thus: “There was a fire outbreak at the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) headquarters in Central Business District in Abuja. The News Digest reporter who was at the scene reports that Fire-fighters have controlled and quenched the fire from engulfing the tallest building in the area.”

Immediately after the news break, CBN unleashed one of the most exciting, timely and effective crisis communication strategies to counter negative narratives of the fire incident at its headquarters premises in Abuja.

Less than an hour after the news break, Okorofar who was outside the country then reached out to the media on the phone, especially through the WhatsApp (which is cheaper for foreign calls) to deny the fire-outbreak and insisted that it was smoke from a malfunctioned generating plant.

For a tactical reason and after realising the major platform used to share the fire incident story was WhatsApp, he dispatched an urgent press release using the same channel to reach the media contacts and relevant stakeholders. He continued to provide WhatsApp updates including pictures and video while maintaining other means of communication like email through his aides.

The spokesperson’s WhatsApp press release, which he rushed with few spelling mistakes, indicating that he typed it on phone and sent, read thus: “There Is No Fire at CBN Head Office. Reports that the Cenyral Bank of Nigeria (CBN) head office building is on fire are false. Passers-by who saw a pall of exhaust from the generator house far away from the building apparently mistook the exhaust for fire smoke.

“The CBN maintains a total security system that triggers safety alarms in the presence of smoke and so all fire engines and personnel received the alert only to discover that it was an unusual pall of exhaust. The affected generator has been rested and normal work has been uninterrupted, while the engineers are working to rectify the issues with the generator. We hereby assure the general public that there has been no fire at our building,” he concluded.

The release was widely shared on WhatsApp and other social media. By the following morning, most of the conventional and traditional media avoided the use of “FIRE” to describe the CBN’s incident in their publications and broadcast while other social and online media dropped their initial reports and updated their stories accordingly.

Isaac Okorafor as the CBN spokesperson was not only accessible for media enquiry through the period, his response was timely, and he demonstrated crisis communications tactics through effective coordination of his team, the sincerity of purpose, consistency and clarity of message that was terse and unambiguous.

Apart from having existing cordial media relationship, in crisis management, an experienced spokesperson can work with minimal supervision in taking critical and timely decisions when bureaucratic red-tapism could be dangerous.

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