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Perception Management In Nigeria: Gladiators, Challenges And Prospects

By Jeremiah Agada & Janet Udogu
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Overview of Public Relations Practice in Nigeria
Public relations, PR, landscape is constantly changing. Over the years it has made a radical departure from being the regimented exclusive preserve of a prestigious few media gurus to becoming almost an octopal emergence of non conventional, daring young and smart individuals into the old mix. Has the old wine and the bottle been discarded?  Not exactly, but it is crystal clear that PR has since moved on from the days of the UAC‘s information office of 1949. Simply put, the bottle has a brand new look and the wine tastes differently and fresh now.
There is no denying that the pioneers of Public Relations in Nigeria were predominantly journalists and broadcasters but things have since taken an interesting twist with the professionals venturing into solving marketing and brand problems. Olav Ljosne, former Regional Communications Director for Shell (Africa) sums up the Nigerian PR market as “driven by traditional advertising and social investments through events and other activities around those investments.”
Interestingly, the course of events has made a detour.  Yomi Badejo-Okusanya, Secretary General of, African Public Relations Association, APRA, opines that PR has evolved overtime. “PR today is all encompassing, deploying strategic communication tools applicable to specific challenges. The tools include: strategy, corporate social responsibility, content development, reputation management and crisis management,” Badejo-Okusanya says.
It is however saddening that some organizations in Nigeria do not appreciate the value of PR practice neither are they aware of its importance to their operation and general success. Olusegun McMedal, President, Lagos NIPR, corroborates this viewpoint when he posited that PR has been grossly undervalued by clients as a result of their poor understanding of PR as a strategic management tool. In his words: “PR is a management function, the benefits of the practice will not be maximised where it is not treated as such. The head of communication or public relations should be in the management team but this is not the norm in Nigeria.”
Sola Fijabi, Principal Partner, Brooks + Blake, however is convinced that organisations are beginning to appreciate the fact that PR is much more than a section in the marketing department. He explains that organisations that previously did not appreciate PR as an independent function have literally made a U-turn. As such, he cautions, “As the ranks of organisations that are embracing PR swells, it behooves on PR consultants to continuously improve on service delivery to ensure that they add measurable value to the businesses of their clients.”
Tola Bademosi, Managing Director of BD Consult, predicates the increasing acceptance of PR and the advance in PR practice on the advent of digitalization. He reiterates: “Multinationals who understand the need for PR know that PR is the life blood of every business because it helps to create the right perception in the consumer mind about a brand and what the brand is about. Indigenous organizations have followed suit. They are beginning to embrace PR. Although we are not at the desired destination yet, we can say that we have moved a long mile ahead from where we used to be.”
McMedal lends credence to Bademosi’s position with his views: “Trend suggests that companies and government are increasingly recognising the value and importance of public relations practice in Nigeria. This means increasing budgets is being allocated for the function. This may be largely due to the increased presence of multinationals and conglomerates who know the value of PR.”
He puts this down to the increasing appreciation and recognition of PR to increased aspiration for corporate excellence and the need to imbibe global best practices. In fact, he points out- a good indicator for the rise of PR in Nigeria is in the increasing number of people joining the NIPR on a regular basis.
Coming from this perspective of offerings, it is essential to says that the growing acceptance of PR practice is predicated on the improved offerings of PR agencies in the industry. That is why John Ehiguese, President, Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria, PRCAN, said it is not yet uhuru for the industry.
“Obviously there has been some progress in the recent past, but PR in Nigeria is not growing as fast as it should, or as it is in other parts of the world. There is a lot of work to be done if we must catch up with the rest of the world,” he emphasized.
The various problems facing the PR industry did not just crop up today, some of them have been around for a long time. The past twenty months obviously has not been easy for the industry following the economic downturn that has impacted adversely on all sectors, PR inclusive. According to Fijabi, “In recession, clients are more stringent in their spending and unfortunately, experience has shown that the hammer in such times usually falls on PR or Communication budget.”
Experts have also observed that there is an increasing dearth in the basic requisite knowledge needed for PR practice in Nigeria. More succinctly, the BD Consult’s Managing Director buttressed that dearth in knowledge and the almost nonexistent system of knowledge transfer are big challenges for the industry. He puts it down to the absence of a school on PR in Nigeria.
“Knowledge transfer is one of our major challenges. That is where we need to ensure there is a change. How do we ensure that knowledge is transferred from the older generation to the younger generation and then you are able to combine the traditional PR with the new platform of PR and deliver a superb solution to challenges faced by organizations?
“There is no PR school that offers professional education on Public relations. I had to go to London school of Public relations to increase my knowledge. I also had to become a PR member of America and constantly attend seminars so I can be in tune with what is happening globally. We don’t have such here,” Bademosi laments.
Over and above the dearth in knowledge, Ehiguese added that another challenge facing the industry is the inability of practitioners to diversify their offerings. He explained that they seem to be doing almost entirely Press Agentry, a sub-set of Media Relations. He enumerates other challenges to be generally low capacity among practitioners, very weak regulatory environment, leading to very high levels of quackery, poor ethics across board and inadequate attention to research.
Another expert, Meka Olowola, Managing Partner, Zenera Consulting, lamented this development, adding that a good number of PR agencies only specialise in media relations and not necessarily strategy. “In my experience, most clients would prefer that agencies serve as extensions of their marketing departments and provide strategic advisory services when needed. Obviously, agencies that do not fit this bill will have a hard time keeping clients and consequently struggle to stay afloat” he says.
Yomi Badejo-Okusanya puts this conundrum down to PR identity crisis. “Most publics are unable to discern the difference between public relations, journalism and perhaps advertising. The other professions mentioned seem to have tangibles of trade such as newspapers, jingles and layouts while PR appears somewhat amorphous. In addition, PR in Nigeria has often been equated with bribery, protocol and ‘hospitality’, further compounding the identity crisis. All these have combined to threaten the relevance of public relations in the league of professions in Nigeria,” he explains.
According to Badejo-Okusanya, it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between a PR practitioner and a journalist as the latter erroneously claim to do what PR professionals do. He added that on the other hand, the lines between public relations and other tools of marketing communication such as advertising and branding are becoming increasingly blurred, a development he was quick to assert as not bad.
The influx of quacks into the industry has also been fingered as another challenge plaguing the industry. As McMedal notes, public relations is a professional discipline. However, quacks have been plaguing the industry for years because there seems to be free entry. Bademosi agrees to this position by asserting, “The industry has become an all comers’ affair. There are lots of quacks in the industry today. Anybody can wake up tomorrow and set up a PR agency.
“There is no barrier for entry. All you probably need to know is someone in a high place and then have the right connection, then you get a contract and walk out of the door. PRCAN has been doing quite a lot over the years to battle this but I don’t think they are winning the battle just yet. Until the client begins to understand that there are professionally registered agencies, only then can we begin to say that we are winning the battle. For instant, you can’t just pick up anybody on the street and introduce him or her as a lawyer. There are certain requirements, procedures and standard that should be met.”
Another major challenge facing the practitioners in the industry has been how to make billings reflect the quantum of work done. Till date, there is no record of the amount that enters PR industry unlike what is obtainable in other IMC sectors. Badejo-Okusanya opines that the PR budget in Nigeria has been consistently declining as clients struggle to figure out a scientific way of determining the actual impact of PR on their bottom-line, bringing us to the issue of measurement and evaluation. Coupled with this also, is the dearth of relevant data not just in Nigeria but across the African continent.”
McMedal agrees, “We used to have the challenge of measurement and evaluation; how to determine Return on Investment, ROI. Measurement and evaluation are critical elements of every public relations practitioner’s professional competencies. Traditional method is longer applicable as the lines between digital and traditional media are merging. We now have scientific ways of measuring ROI. Emerging new models use big data to gain insights to generate informed strategy.”
Like an errant stubborn fishbone that is stuck in the throat which has refused to be dislodged and will not be swallowed, the industry is stuck with almost nonexistent patronage from the government. Recently, the federal government through the ministry of finance engaged the services of a PR firm outside Nigeria, an action that was decried by Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria, PRCAN, leadership. The refusal to patronize indigenous PR firms has brought low confidence, capacity and experience of local players.
Added to these impediments in PR practice is the disposition of client to PR in Nigeria. According to Jaiye Opayemi, “the PR practice anywhere in the world is shaped not just by the practitioners but by the clients. No matter how daring the practitioners are in terms of big ideas, if the client wishes to stay within the realm of the familiar, there is very little the practitioners can do. Let me expatiate on this point a little more. One of the reasons we may not see much of disruptions in PR campaign ideas within the PR echo system in Nigeria is not because of the absence of disruptive thinking on the part of practitioners but because most times the big brands don’t want to experiment with big disruptive ideas. For the big multinationals too, a good number of the campaigns are also largely iron cast from abroad with very little room for local creativity in the local market.”
Lack of capacity and inability of professionals to spot and follow trends is also a debilitating factor. Bolaji Okusaga emphasizes, “capacity is a principal challenge in this industry because while you are busy raising your capacity in this area, another threat comes up. For you to stay at the cutting edge of your practice, you have to be not just a trend follower but also a trend spotter. You don’t get it as a laggard but as an early adopter who is ready to roll. You will certainly have to continually learn and relearn.”
In an article written by Emeka Oparah, Director, Corporate Communications & CSR, Airtel Nigeria, entitled: ‘PR is Dead’, Oparah lamented poor content creation and lack of good storytelling ability which have become endemic in the industry.
According to the author, there are however, limitations militating against the creation of good quality content and effective use of story-telling as PR tools.  “One, lamentably, is paucity of skills, good writing skills on the part of the practitioners, and lack of interest in reading by customers as against the keen interest in deals, promos and freebies, which, on face value, are by no means illegal.
Digital Disruption In PR
A summit tagged: ‘The Future of The Digital Economy’ held at Davos in 2015 turned out some interesting observations. At the summit, Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Google USA, made an interesting observation where he said that new developments technology will make humans smarter as a result. He adds: “It’s because our smart phones are basically supercomputers.”
This position indicates that virtually all spheres of human existence, interactions and activities are affected by technology and Public Relations practice is no exception. Bolaji Okusaga also observed that technology has so much influence in marketing communications and has been driving convergence so much so that it is becoming increasingly difficult to delineate genres of marketing, advertising or PR.
Digital-Public-Relations-vs.-Traditional-Public-Relations-Experts say, modern PR cannot be talked about in isolation of digital and or social media. For one, social media is changing the way we communicate and the way we are perceived, both positively and negatively. Every time an individual updates a status or posts a picture, the person is contributing to their digital footprint and personal brand.
In Nigeria, digital disruption gave birth to the age of bloggers and social media influencers who stole the show, content and audiences from traditional media and PR. Public and private sector entities were, and are still forced to fall over themselves to follow, react to and engage the online celebrities, analysts and commentators that have fan bases on Twitter, Facebook and Blogger.
The need to innovate is premised on survival in the dynamic digital world as no PR professional can act in isolation of the social media and digital. Digital, according to Bolaji, is the new reality: “What you today call the real PR, the core of Public relations is probably a dying business. Agencies and practitioners should start retooling and refocusing their business in order to play in the new reality because mobile is the new reality.” In other words, Bolaji is saying, ignore social media at your peril.
Essentially, the challenge is how to make public relations practitioners leverage the burgeoning digital media in practice. It is a statement of fact that many of today’s practitioners cannot operate in the digital space. As Yomi Badejo noted, “audiences are adapting to new technology and PR professionals risk being left behind if they refuse to change with the trends. Public relations professionals would need to reinvent themselves as the future belongs to those that are talented, fast, nimble, savvy and collaborative. PR practitioners need technology to be effective but if you cannot understand it, how can you deplore it?”
Speaking in the same vein, Meka Olowola called for agencies in this regards to be dynamic in conforming with the digital reality of the industry. “I’ve also observed the need for PR agencies to embrace the dynamism that has defined the industry globally since the turn of the century. We are in the digital age and use of the Internet is growing exponentially. Forward-looking agencies have to latch onto this trend to effectively manage the reputation of their clients both on and offline since citizen journalism has come to stay.  The task for PR agencies is to align with this development and boost their in-house digital capacities or risk fizzling out of relevance.”
Emeka Oparah explained why social media has become that important. “The number of subscribers to Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram, to mention a few, are growing exponentially. When you juxtapose these numbers with the massive demographics of an active youth population, which accounts for over 60 per cent of the population or more, then you will understand why you can only ignore the social media at your own peril. Perhaps, the crucial thing here is developing a strategy for engaging the over 150 million Nigerians, especially the youth segment, via social media.”
This development has led to the evolution of traditional tools of PR and power has shifted from the hands of media companies and PR professionals to that of the consumers. Every new technology throws up new influencers, opinion leaders, community heads, and brand ambassadors. The power they wield has very little to do with educational or professional accomplishments.
Since power has shifted and consumers now have the loudest voice, the line between online and offline worlds has become thinner. One tweet, Facebook post, Instagram post can damage the reputation of an entire organization. Citizens on social media are constantly challenging the actions and press releases of government and organisations. Today, disruption continues apace, remaining both a blessing and potentially a curse for the PR Industry.
Therefore, PR practice will have to remain alert to cater to these new influencers, concurrently anticipating where the new ones will come from. Simultaneously, changing consumer tastes have made online reputation management and assets a formidable part of every brand, leaving some agencies struggling till date because they were averse to change.
Role of Regulatory bodies
Some of the above mentioned challenges are the premise on which regulatory agencies and associations were formed. Consequently, the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations, NIPR, was established in 1963 and attained the status of a Chartered Institute in 1990. Empowered to register members, regulate practice and development of the PR Profession and monitor professional conducts through an established code of ethics and professional conduct regime, the body is in 36 states of Nigeria.
Regulatory BodiesThe need to delineate professional consultants from the general PR practitioners also led to the formation of Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria, PRCAN, in 1993. The association draws legal backing primarily from Bye Law Number 3 1993 of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations Act. The primary objective of PRCAN is the promotion of professional reputation management in Nigeria within the public and private sectors.
How much influence have these regulatory bodies wielded in the industry? Bolaji Okusaga believes that with digitalisation and the growth in social media activities, regulatory bodies are paralysed in regulating the industry. “I think even the capacity of institutional bodies to actually regulate the PR sphere is getting limited by the realities confronting the industry. How do you regulate people writing online when in fact, a Linda Ikeji is more successful than a conventional online newspaper?” he quisses.
Industry professionals affirmed that despite the influx of quacks in the industry, perceived incursion of journalists into its sphere and blurred lines between PR and other sectors of the marketing mix which have posed fresh challenges to the industry, the regulation bodies are still making some headways. For Sola Fijabi, NIPR is successfully tackling these issues.
“The Nigerian Institute of Public Relations is gradually tackling the issues around professionalism in the industry. Overtime, there have been serious concerns about ‘arm-chair’ or ‘brief case’ PR practitioners whose activities to a large extent have contributed to why the PR profession has been undermined. The engagement between the Institute and the stakeholders on this front in the past four years is quite appreciable.”
Tola Bademosi believes that PRCAN has also been doing well in this regards. However, he feels clients, rather than regulatory bodies are the solution to these challenges. “PRCAN has been doing quite a lot over the years to battle this but I don’t think they are winning the battle just yet. Until the client begins to understand that there are professionally registered agencies, then we cannot say we are winning the battle.”
Regulatory bodies in Nigeria as well as international bodies like African Public Relations Association, APRA, need to step up their game to better regulate and move the industry forward. It is expected that they get stronger as their membership increases, in tandem with influence. Otubanjo and Amujo anticipate that: “in the near future, majority of industry turnover in public relations consulting services will be controlled by PRCAN members.”
Way Forward
Solutions to the multifaceted problems of the PR industry as highlighted by industry professionals are not infeasible. As Badejo-Okusanya notes, the responsibility of revamping the industry lies with every individual practitioner in the industry. “The sum total of Public Relations is ‘telling a compelling story’. As a practitioner, I can see the resolve to chart a new course for our profession on the continent and as the relevant professionals when it comes to reputation management, the prime responsibility of changing Africa’s narrative rest squarely with us and we must rise to that occasion. It is no one else’s responsibility but that of the PR practitioner.
“PR practitioners need to realize the important role which the profession plays in helping to build trust and respect. We must rise up to confront the issue of identity crisis by showing the skill sets available to us as professionals.”
Embeded-Customized-SolutionsFor Emeka Oparah, the solutions are as simple as the problems are complex. “Practitioners must go back to the basics. One of the core competencies of a good PR professional is good writing skills, which is powered by reading and a sharp analytical mind. You cannot give what you do not have.”
Establishing a school for PR as Bademosi asserts, will be a good place to start tackling the industry’s problem.  “PR needs to be structured, it needs to be institutionalized. PR is a process. We need a Nigerian school of Public Relations. Even if we cannot build one for Nigeria, we can build one for Lagos. The study of Mass Communications is not enough as students are only taught very few PR related courses and that is it. What we need is a professional institute of PR not an Association, a school. These are ways we can ensure we move the industry as a whole.”
John Ehiguese observed that for the industry to move forward, practitioners at all levels must engage in more training. He also calls for more stringent enforcement of the Codes of Ethics and Practice; largely by self regulation. He is also of the view that agencies should incorporate research into the PR execution process and an integrated approach to PR management; Traditional and Digital.
Badejo-Okusanya sums up the way forward thus: “Government across board must engage practitioners, it must stop from treating the profession with disdain by ensuring that people with the prerequisite capabilities are given task to handle. Our job as public relations practitioners and consultants is not an all comers one to be handed out to relatives and cronies and those who are difficult to place in the organization.
“On talent and creativity, PR practitioners need to ramp up significantly in these areas as there exist huge opportunities to anyone with talents, skills and the ability to tell a compelling story. Operating in silos, will be recipe for failure as the new business environment is for those who can collaborate and meet the multi-faceted needs of clients. Clients are looking for creative solutions and do not care much if they get it from public relations practitioners, an advertising or branding expert. They just want to have their needs met and will pay a premium for it.
“Also as PR practitioners, we need to specialize as the era of generalist is giving way, we are going to see more of specialists’ public relations practitioners in banking and finance, agriculture, tourism, entertainment, legal, IT etc. A direct consequence of this will be an increased collaboration among different agencies and consultants and this will lead to more creative briefs.”

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