Innovation And Disruption: Unlocking Opportunities For PR Practice


Ayeni Adekunle, a seasoned professional with years of experience in the field of PR Practice, is the Founder and Group CEO at Black House Media (BHM). In his recent keynote address, delivered as a guest speaker during this year’s Lagos PR Week, he shared valuable insights and perspectives on how the principles of innovation and disruptive strategies can create new avenues, possibilities and opportunities within the perception management business.

The last time I had the opportunity to meet with you, it was, I recall in 2020. I was invited, I think by our great chapter, to provide some context to the data in the Nigeria PR Report, which at the time was to use the then chairman Mr. Segun McMedal’s words, ‘causing a bit of excitement’ in the industry. It was a good conversation, and I am happy to tell you today that that report continues to be published and has now been expanded from covering just Nigeria to covering 29 countries across Africa. It is the only report of its kind, and I am proud to say that that report originated from Nigeria, from BHM, with incredible support from a lot of PRCAN member agencies, NIPR members, well-meaning media practitioners, and members of the academia. We’ve received praise from all over the world, and all of us here today in this room can take credit for that. Thank you.

I must also say that, since the last time I had the opportunity to meet with you, we’ve been privileged to kickstart a couple of other initiatives which tie into our mission to develop not only our organisation and the Nigerian industry but to help the industry across Africa take a suitable role in the global scheme of things.

World PR Day, which we conceived in 2020, is now being celebrated every year on the 16th of July around the world. This year, we had almost 20,000 participants from 63 countries – over a 200% increase from year one. There is still a long way to go, but I am proud that we can stand here today, bearing witness that initiatives like these are originating from our country and from our continent.

The company I run, BlackHouse Media, was founded in a very interesting way. I had a journalism job, which I did not plan to have because in University, all I wanted to do was go back to music promotion, which was my first love. But I found interest in writing, so I told myself after school it would be good to have an opportunity to build and share knowledge – so I settled for music reporting, and it was fun.

I had an opportunity, thanks to Mr. Azuh Arinze and Mr. Kunle Bakare for giving me a platform at Encomium; and to Moses Jolayemi and Nseobong Okon-Ekong for giving me a platform at THISDAY; and, of course, Steve Ayorinde and others at The Punch, who also gave me a platform at the Punch. I had an opportunity to practise journalism in my own way. Lacking a journalism or mass communication background, I had in my head this stubborn idea of how a page should run, of what can pass as news and how to combine celebrity journalism with art journalism; my editors and publishers let me do my thing, and I think I did a fairly good job.

But, I wasn’t making money, and I was restless, and I kept getting requests from musicians and actors to support them in their careers through writing profiles and preparing electronic press kits (EPKs) and all of that. Then my friend, God bless his soul, Sound Sultan, wanted me to be his manager.

Sound Sultan and his brother, Baba D were old friends, and I recall them taking me to their label boss at the time, Keke Ogungbe saying “we want Ayeni to be our manager, he knows the media, he knows the people, he knows the industry, he actually came into journalism from the music industry so he knows the space.” But, Keke did not agree. He said to us, all three of us, that “Ayeni should be your publicist, not your manager. He turned to me and said: “Go and find out what it takes, and if you like it, I will give you your first brief.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, that is how I ended up here today. I am starting with this story to let you know that everything I have done, everything from when I was a kid, to when I went to university, to my journalism years, is what led me here today. I am here today because I have had the opportunity to apply innovation, to be naive, to be stupid a lot of times, to be crazy and creative and to have the opportunity, the courage, and the privilege to do things differently at times out of fear, at times out of curiosity, at times out of innocent ignorance, and at times, because I just had no other choice.

But we are here today, and I am grateful that I can stand here today and tell you we’ve built what is considered one of the most successful public relations and communications consultancy in this part of the world by billing, by revenue, by thought leadership, and by client category. We are now a top-five firm in Nigeria, and we are comfortably sitting at the top 10 across the continent. We are a proudly Nigerian company that was founded by this skinny, stammering, scared third-class graduate standing in front of you today, almost 17 years ago.

But how did we do it, what lessons have we learnt, what does tomorrow look like, and what do we need to do next? I am going to tie that with the theme of my keynote, which has to do with innovation and creativity and the future of our practice, and I am going to add another layer on the back of that because BHM does not stand on its own, it does not exist for its own sake. Public relations and communications does not stand on its own nor does it exist for its own sake. We are doing this for humanity, for democracy, for nations and countries and organisations, so whatever we discuss here today, it is my fervent wish that it would tie back to how we can make humanity better, how we can help mankind, how we can help fix Nigeria by playing our own role and how eventually every living being on the surface of the earth can understand the power of ethical communication and why we all should be communicators.

So when we think of Public Relations, tell me what do we think? What comes to mind?

I realise that oftentimes, we think about classroom textbooks, we think about agencies like BHM and CMC, we think about ministries and departments in government, think about so many things.

When we think about Reputation Management, what do we think about?

Most of us here in this room today, still think about consultants, advisers and client service people. Heck, we think about This Day, The Guardian, Tribune, Arise and Channels. When we think about our practice, we still think about what it was originally designed to be and to do and how it was originally formed.

I find that oftentimes, we forget to think about the age that we live in, the society that we currently live in, and the reality of our time. We forget to think that when you bring it home to Nigeria, you are talking about communicating in an environment where 74.1% of the population is under 25 years of age. We are talking of an environment where the quality of education has continuously depreciated. We are talking about an environment where, when the first set of PR practitioners were minted in this country, there were no mobile phones laptops, or internet connectivity. The World Wide Web did not exist, not to mention all the great inventions built on it that we all enjoy today. Today, almost all of us in this room have at least one mobile phone with us, and most of those phones have internet connectivity. You either have a MiFi in your pocket, or you subscribe to a mobile data plan (which I hope is MTN).

We almost always think of public relations and reputation management from a theoretical point of view; from a limited scope of practice experience, whereas we could benefit from adding from and demonstrating an understanding of, the sociology of today’s world; the psychology of individual and grouped humans today; and agenda, policies, and techniques pulling it all together.

We’ve done a great job in the past. We are not doing horribly in the present. But, and that is a big BUT, if we will perform excellently in the coming future, I’d like us to leave here today with a total overhaul of how we picture and practise Public Relations and communications for today and for tomorrow.

I’ll explain.

When you look at the leaders on YouTube and TikTok, the thought leaders, the trendsetters, the advocates and influencers, you’ll struggle to find public relations people there. When you go to Instagram, it is the same thing, when you go to Facebook, it is the same thing, even when you switch on the TV and Radio or flip the pages of newspapers and magazines, it is the same thing.

What I find is that we’ve continued, to a large extent, to teach and perfect the theory and the traditional aspect of what the profession requires. But behaviours have changed significantly, habits have changed, society has changed. The world’s population was only two billion in 1928 when Edward Bernays published the definitive PR journal ‘Propaganda’. There are over seven billion humans on Earth today. Bernays and others deployed public relations to support the war. Let me quote a paragraph; an excerpt I believe will provide a good anchor for debate:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”

One century later, the entire world is in conflict. Democracy is in danger; wars are tearing continents apart; companies and governments are behaving badly; we are lost. The world we know is changing dangerously right under our noses, and I doubt we can even see it.

You know what I think? The world is losing a lot by the PR industry is not being very deliberate about being behind these changes that we see; the world is losing too much when the custodians and gatekeepers of trust, honesty, and ethical communications are not the drivers of the national and global actions and narratives we are witnessing; of foreign policies and organisational priorities and citizen actions. We, the people in PR, lose influence, revenue, and opportunity if we are not doing this. But the world loses more – far more – if we are not aggressively merging our theoretical knowledge; field expertise, and professional training with current trends in international relations, diplomacy, technology, sustainability, and everything else, in guiding principals, clients, and partners to not only do what is right morally, legally, and ethically, but to also communicate same in order to achieve positive impact.

But we cannot give what we do not have. We must not attempt to fix this issue without going back to the foundation. So it all starts with how we are trained. In a meeting just a few weeks ago with a member of faculty from the Lagos Business School, we discussed an opportunity for a BHM and PAU intervention, and I said to them, ‘We are facing today what the banks faced at the peak of their performance’. If you recall, then the banks would hire anybody, mostly Engineers and Lawyers and Doctors, and they would have to spend almost a year retraining them on banking and finance and sales and marketing. Almost every bank had a training school, and I am seeing today that the trouble that PR faces is that the quality of talents that are being churned out from the academic institutions is not necessarily bad, but they are not exactly what the doctor recommended.

Unfortunately, departments, ministries and agencies are too small and too poorly funded to be able to embark on the kind of extensive training the banks would normally do for their new hires. So what do we do?

We need to talk about ongoing learning and development. That’s where we start from. So, if you ask me about innovation, my wish would be for us to approach it from this prism. How do we first innovate our practice, how do we innovate the teaching of the subject of public relations?

Oftentimes, we talk about Artificial Intelligence, we talk about all these buzzwords, we talk about machine learning, we talk about all sorts of things, and I am like, ‘guys calm down’. We need to even go back to the basics, to measurement, right to the actual art of consulting. We need to start from there, we need to get the basics right and make sure the fundamentals are in place. Therein lies what we can build on. The innovation that I long for, that I thirst for in PR, is my wish it would start from the way the profession is being taught in colleges and universities. I know this is not peculiar to PR alone, but we are here today in this room as PR professionals discussing the past, the present, and the future of our great profession.

This is the most influential chapter of NIPR in Nigeria. I dare say this is one of the most influential chapters of a PR body across the continent and guys, I have seen the CIPR, I am a member of PRSA, I have worked with the PRCA, and I see how they work, and I dare say that, gathered here in this room today, what I have seen here in terms of the quality of talent, the quality of expertise and the profiles I can see here today, this may as well be one for the most influential, one of the most significant chapters of a PR association anywhere in the world. This means that we have an opportunity to drive the change that we need, and we have an opportunity to drive the innovation that we speak of. Not only for Nigeria, but for the entire Africa, and the rest of the world.

But wait, why is it important for PR to innovate to be successful? Why do we need to actually plan for this future? The theme of this session: why should it be important to me, and why should it be important to you?

Well, because our country still has a terrible reputation out there. Nigeria, one of the greatest countries on earth, one of the most gifted nations on planet earth, with incomparable natural and human resources… The country that gave the world the hottest pop music right now, one of the top three biggest film industries in the world… The country of Ankara, Paystack, Jollof rice, Adire, Chimamanda, Wole Soyinka and so on and so forth. Yet she is still regularly seen, almost everywhere you go, as the country of yahoo yahoo, as the country of crime, as the country that is described often – if you were to quote that former US president – as a “shit hole”

Why do we need to innovate? Because our practice, despite all the work that we do, and the promise that we have, is still being seen as inferior to similar practices in management consulting. Clients, organisations, governments are willing to compensate – ten times more – agencies like Deloitte, McKinsey, Ernst & Young and Bain Consulting and so on than they would pay a PR agency.

How does an industry that purports to help the world build its own reputation have such a bad reputation? Why do we need to innovate? Because our governments need it. Government after government, you can see the impact of failed public relations and reputation management on not just that government but on the state of our democracy, and on the citizenship.

You’ve seen propaganda hijack government communications machinery, and we’ve seen the result of that. Right now, we have a new government in power that has a very, very strong reputation problem, and you’ve seen the effect. We have an opportunity to help because it is in our individual and collective interests for the government to succeed, whether we approve of who’s in office or not.

So why do we need to innovate? We need to innovate because the world is counting on us to provide guidance, to provide counsel, to show the way and lead, if we are to have a world without war, a world without disease, and a world without crime. It looks like it is impossible, but my training and my understanding of public relations are about honesty and truth and stakeholder management, and just working with stakeholders and principals to uphold ethical behaviour and governance. To build trust across borders – that’s how you prevent the kind of senseless wars we’re witnessing everywhere; how you prevent the anti-science conspiracies and even the citizen rebellion against governments across Africa and elsewhere.

Now, if we are not at the table, if we don’t innovate, if we don’t earn respect, if our reputation does not lead organisations and governments to think that ‘I need to turn to this industry to transform how I am perceived, how I am seen, I need to turn to this industry to get the right counsel on how I must act, I need to consider this industry if I were to win with the electorate if I were to win with my board If I were to win with my employees if I were to win with my communities.’ That is why we need to Innovate. Meaning that we cannot afford to be stuck in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, in fact, we cannot afford to be stuck in 2023.

As we stand here today at the MUSON Centre on Thursday, September 21, 2023, the technologies of the future are already being tested and piloted. As we sit here today, behaviours are changing per second. Most of us here today would have young children who cannot imagine a world without mobile phones and the Internet. Most of us here today are familiar with Google Maps and OpenAI and, for want of a better expression, the Internet of Things. If you’re not already acquainted with augmented reality and artificial intelligence, I’m sorry you’re already too late. So imagine the next 20 years – the year 2043.? Where would our profession be? Would we be here discussing our chartered status, strategising about how clients could better compensate? Would we be here discussing the quality of talent that we attract, comparing notes about all these things that are sort of collaborating to hold us back? Or would we be celebrating a hundred years and more of this profession with our own Nobel laureates and Pulitzer winners and presidents and Fortune 500 CEOs in the room because one day in 2023, we all agreed to roll up our sleeves, put our heads together, go back to the basics and build the future?

If we go back to the basics, the beneficiaries would be you and I in this room today, all two, three, four, five hundred of us. But guess what? The beneficiaries would also be almost everyone not in this room today, over 7 billion people around the world.

Our work has a significant impact on every industry and every sector that you look at, be it Medicine, be it Law, be it Politics. We are the conscience of these organisations and practices. We are the counselors, we are the stakeholder managers, we are the reputational managers, we are the ones who should be there holding presidents by the hand, holding obas and chiefs and CEOs, guiding them towards the path that would not only help them do the right thing but that would help their stakeholders understand that they are doing the right thing.

I long for the time when we can play that role, that’s why we need to innovate. But how? I think that’s something I would like to touch on before I leave you here today because we can dialogue and discuss and leave here and still not understand the problem. In fact, I often find that it is not that people do not often know the problem, but we struggle often with the how. How do we innovate? How?

Hold on, and please give me your undivided attention because I’m going to put the answer right here on the screen.

Okay, I lied. It’s not an answer. It’s this video I found, which we’re all going to watch together, about another hugely important industry: Education. It won’t give us the answer we’re looking for, or maybe it will. But I’m certain it’ll get us all thinking.

Thank you! Ayeni, Adekunle Samuel

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