Knowledge gap is killing PR and those blaming Journalism need to do a reality check

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The future of PR is not in big offices and smart suits. While these are important, some people making the money in the country today just have three tools that they can fit into their small bags and the pockets of their T-Shirts and Jeans.

  • By Ikem Okuhu

On April 5, 2017, we published an article that attempted to counter the position advanced by the President, Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria (PRCAN), John Ehiguese, that claimed that journalism, and journalists for that matter, have become major threats to the practice of Public Relations in Nigeria.

When we decided to write the article, it was our idea to merely set records straight and get the industry to begin to think of how best to improve the practice instead of indulging in blame-mongering.

Quite expectedly, the industries (PR and Journalism) reacted quite heavily. A vast majority of people who penned their responses and those who called us disagreed with the position of the PRCAN chief. One person, Eugene Queen, responding on the Social Media, said the two, Journalism and PR are so closely-knit that one cannot do without the other.

Another person like Ijendu Iheaka stated clearly that it was impossible for PR to say Journalism was eating into their space when PR as an industry rose out of journalism.

Presenting a historical perspective, Iheaka wrote: “Journalism was there before Ivy Better Lee and Edward Barneys, former journalists began using their communication skills to write special reports that shaped public opinion in the news media and resulted in what we know today as Public Agentry and later to Public Relations. So it must be noted that Journalism was the platform upon which PR was borne and being the mother of PR, it cannot steal from its child. Today PR has grown beyond communication in the news media alone and has improved its means of shaping perception and public opinion through methods that are “alien” to a journalist. So why should it be said that journalism stole from its child, PR. It will be very absurd for any PR person to complain of alleged “invasion of space” by journalism and journalists when there are over 12 branches of PR most of which areas non-PR members of the journalism profession can hardly operate in. In terms of job spaces, if Nigerian employers really know what PR means, they will not give a journalist who is not a PR professional more than a media relations office in their outfit. So for me I think there is nothing PR has lost to journalism in Nigeria. We sure can talk of improving PR practice in Nigeria but not in relation to what journalism has taken from it. It must also be noted that every PR personnel is supposed to be a very good writer which quality good journalists must possess. Abroad, there are core PR people who excel in their jobs being good even at writing and yet they never worked as journalists. PR in Nigeria needs focus and understanding of its terrain to progress.”

PR is a lot more than Media Relations

PR is a lot more than Media Relations

You see, I never wished to flog this issue, but a response from a senior player in the industry is ensuring that again, I attempt to straighten the records and add a few other things we all should know.

Less than 12 hours after we put up the article, an industry player, apparently not in agreement with the PRCAN President, sent us a long response and prayed we do not mention his name. We respected that and published the article, first because we felt the entire industry needed to learn from it and second because, well, he validated the point we tried to drive home.

But in the comment section of that article, Ehiguese posted a response that I feel I need to address.

His comment? “First off, someone who does not have the courage to put his name to an opinion publicly expressed should not expect to be taken seriously. Second, is it normal for a professional to “straddle both the divide – PR and journalism”? Is it ethically acceptable to be both a journalist and PR practitioner at the same time? And these are the people who pontificate about PR – a profession that they really know next to nothing about!”

It is not my beat to defend a person who sends an article and prefers to not be mentioned. I am a journalist and one cardinal thing we respect is the protection of our sources where they so demand. But I am not sure what we wanted to read was the name of the author as we needed to know and interrogate what the author had to say.

The other bit is about my person and how I come to claim I am both in Journalism as in PR at the same time. Anyone need my curriculum vitae to understand why I could straddle both at the same time?

I studied and graduated (with a decent degree) from the University of Nigeria. I got a degree in Mass Communication. This alone professionally qualifies me to function as a journalist and a PR person. I went ahead to practice journalism for a few years before joining the Public Affairs department of ExxonMobil before joining the Media Relations unit of the United Bank for Africa (UBA). I was to leave UBA to head the External Relations and Sponsorships unit in the Department of Corporate Affairs and Communications of Ecobank Nigeria. I left Ecobank and set up shop to publish BRANDish and we have had both print and online editions. And we have also managed to get referrals for PR briefs and no one who has passed through us has ever said we are unprofessional.

Does the person who has the above mentioned qualification and practice not qualify as a journalism and Public Relations Practitioner? Could someone ever validly claim that I “know next to nothing” about PR?

If my sense of history serves me correctly, I recall that back in 2004, when John Ehiguese was starting out his Mediacraft after leaving Corporate and Financial, he had approached me to help him with the interviews and scripting of the stories for his very first brief as a media consultant.

That was during the change of name of Oando Plc from Agip. I am not even sure I was fully paid my fees then as issues of how the Head of Corporate Affairs of Oando “slashed our fees” came up later.

I also recall that nearly all the stories and interviews for his second ever account was handled by me. That was when he handled a television production company producing some programmes on love and relationships sponsored at the time by Bacchus Tonic Wine.

Perhaps it did not occur to him at the time that I was not a PR professional. I was only a journalist hired to do a job for a PR professional.

Now tell me, if a PR professional hires a journalist to help him do his job, what is that PR professional saying?

I leave the matter here.

But in pushing this matter further, it is important to state that the problem of PR in Nigeria is not journalism. It is the PR people themselves who have refused to grow the industry in such a way as to earn the respect of clients. The problem with PR in Nigeria is this perennial entitlement mindset that blinds them from noticing the changes and disruptions taking place in virtually every space and calling.

There is a Digital revolution going on in the industry and that is the greatest threat against PR practice. Same threat faced advertising and I have noticed that most agencies in the country have responded rather swiftly by warehousing competences in that space.

It is instructive to note that the Digital revolution has also narrowed the gap between PR and Advertising. Matter of fact, a whole lot of Digital campaigns handled by PR agencies have the makings of what traditionally were advertising briefs. There have also been many campaigns handled by advertising agencies that are more PR than Ad.

But I have not heard any advertising agency grumble that PR has been eating into their spaces. If they do, they won’t make it subjects of conference topics. On the contrary, they would most likely discuss it at retreats and boardroom meetings and the action points would be what to do to ensure briefs in that area are not allowed to flow out but captured for the earning opportunities they provide.

The threat of Digital to PR in Nigeria has been clear and present for a long time. I am aware of some companies that have slowed their traditional Media Relations budget to just trickles. That is because the greater community of people, especially the young are on the mobile almost 24 hours in a day and smart brands sure know the cost effective way to capture them is to meet them in their virtual ecosystem.

But I am not sure the average PR in the country is thinking this way. Scapegoat-hunting is the strategy and it is a strategy that will never work.

The field of PR is vast and still growing. We need to begin to think in the directions of fundamentally understanding every professional field so as to enable us either specialize or develop faculties that can professionally respond to clients.

We need to understand that that our clients need solutions to Thought Leadership issues. We need to lift our game to enable us use data to help clients know market trends and use same to make our jobs better and our share of the marketing budget a lot more decent. We need to appreciate that as said earlier, digital is narrowing the gap and that in the industry, there is an emerging IMC field that enables PR do just about everything.

According Tyler Lehner while writing on GRANDPR, “Integrated marketing communications is the process that brings in all forms of marketing and communication (Marketing, advertising, public relations, web development, design, etc.) and morphs it into one, consistent communication channel. This process is a new idea that is taking off in the industry and is bringing much success to firms and corporations around the world. A perk about IMC is that across all channels, the receiver/consumer is seeing the same message, therefore is easier to remember a brand, product, campaign, etc.”

Is there an opportunity for PR here? I am sure the answer is yes.

Apart from one or two, I do not think there is Crises Communication in the Nigerian PR. In a volatile market like Nigeria, crises happen to brands every day. MTN had its issues when the NCC fine was imposed on it. But because of lack of capacity, the brand had to hire a gamut of PR companies to solve the problem. That included calling in Corporate and Financial, one of the agencies it had fired in the past. But it had two incumbents that just did not know how to engage.

Again, where is Public Affairs in our PR? Most companies doing business in Nigeria have serious public sector issues. But where is the professionalism to do this? It is an opportunity begging to be filled. But even when PR gets jobs like this, they still go back, as I have witnessed in a number of instances, to journalists who by virtue of the relationships they have built, covering one government agency or the other, can pull some strings.

Social Media communication has also become so huge it is making some people smile to the banks. But I recall a senior PR person recently telling me that he had to open a Facebook account because clients are talking about how social media conversations are affecting their brands.

This means this PR person has not updated his knowledge of the industry and needed a client to tell him what he already should have known. If clients are telling PR about trends and threats to their business, what then is the point hiring and retaining a PR agency?

Again, I will end this with the call to action I used in the first article I did on this issue.

Stop agonizing. Start Organising.

Organising around knowledge and acquiring as much as possible to enable us solve problems for clients will earn us our pay.

The future of PR is not in big offices and smart suits. While these are important, some people making the money in the country today just have three tools that they can fit into their small bags and the pockets of their T-Shirts and Jeans.

A laptop, a tablet/phone and answers to the problems of clients. And that is really what matters to the client with communications problems that need solving.

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