PR People as Errand Boys

Public relations as a word which, was first coined by one-time United States President, Thomas Jefferson when he used the term during his address to the Congress in 1807, has metamorphosed over the years to become a profession, which interestingly everyone wants to associate with, although, its so-called professionals are mostly not respected by either clients or employers in Nigeria. 

Unfortunately and ironically, amongst all the decent fields of professionals, only PR, perhaps, is the profession where people you are supposed to be consulting for or advising, “know” so much that they teach you how to advice them, thus turning a supposed professional to an errand boy. Let’s do a check list. lawyers, doctors, accountants, Pharmacists, Surveyors, Bankers, Engineers, Builders, Teachers, to mention a few of other professions are seen first as advisers, because the client or employer assumes that he/she does not know as much as these professionals. Even when he knows so much, he respects them and their advice as professionals. But in PR, the same clients or employers assumed he knows so much that he wants an executor or an errand boy. To worsen the whole situation is in the thinking that “everybody can do PR; after all, it’s about good talk, fine dressing and just media relations”.

Just recently, journalists were invited to a function organized by a multi-national. It took a protest walk from journalists after two hours of waiting with no information on when the event was to take-off, before the people to address the press surfaced with all sorts of apologies. Yet the event was to hold in their office. Yet the event was packaged by a PR consultant that was helpless. One begins to wonder whether the consultant is not competent, bold or professional enough to tell the client that keeping journalist waiting for more than two hours, without apologies or information on reasons for delay are all counter-productive vis-à-vis media relationship. This scenario is one of myriads of cases of PR mess up that all the PR people are made to do is to beg the “jobless” media men. While making the client feel like “he who pays the pipers dictates the tunes”.

What of a situation that a Company decides to wrestle with the media against the advice of the PR person, only for the PR man to be at the receiving end of clearing the mess? What a pity!

In the evolution of PR, corporations use marketing public relations (MPR) to convey information about the products they manufacture or services they provide for potential customers to support their direct sales efforts. Typically, they support sales in the short and long term, establishing and burnishing the corporation’s branding for a strong, ongoing market. Corporations also use public-relations as a vehicle to reach legislators and other politicians, seeking favorable tax, regulatory, and other treatment, and they may use public relations to portray themselves as enlightened employers, in support of human-resources recruiting programs. Non-profit organizations, including schools and universities, hospitals, and human and social service agencies, use public relations in support of awareness programs, fund-raising programs, staff recruiting, and to increase patronage of their services. In an ideal situation, politicians use public relations to attract votes and raise money, and, when successful at the ballot box, to promote and defend their service in office, with an eye to the next election or, at career’s end, to their legacy.

Although public relations professionals are stereotypically seen as corporate servants, the reality is that almost any organization that has a stake in how it is portrayed in the public arena employs at least one PR manager. Large organizations may even have dedicated communications departments. Government agencies, trade associations, and other non-profit organizations commonly carry out PR activities.

From experts’ positions and from simple logic, public relations should be seen as a management function in any organization, thus meaning that it should not just be a job for a none-trained person. What do we see, instead? Banks, most especially, employ anybody, who is a journalist with little or no training in PR; while some companies put PR department under some funny unit. The supposed image strategists report to a lawyer or somebody who sees him as a mere conduit pipe. We forget that an effective communication, or public relations, plan for an organization is developed to communicate to an audience (whether internal or external publics) in such a way the message coincides with organizational goals and seeks to benefit mutual interests whenever possible.

PR has had many definitions over the years and since its early boom days of the 1980s has almost entirely redefined itself. This is probably because most clients these days are far too media-savvy to think that fluffy ideas and champagne parties constitute a good media service. Put very simply, good PR encourages the media (newspapers, magazines, TV and radio) to say good things about your product/service or whatever it is that you want to promote so that more people buy your product/use your services/think you’re great. But that is not all.

Of course, a complete PR person must be enhanced with a mixture of media backgrounds and may be able to offer all sorts of PR-related services such as branding, marketing, copywriting, advertising and strategies, to mention a few.

In the United States where public relations has its origins, many early PR practices were developed in support of the expansive power of the railroads. In fact, many scholars believe that the first appearance of the term “public relations” appeared in the 1897 Year Book of Railway Literature. Later, PR practitioners were and are still often recruited from the ranks of journalism. Some reporters, concerned with ethics, criticize former colleagues for using their inside understanding of news media to help clients receive favorable media coverage. Despite many journalists’ discomfort with the field of public relations, well-paid PR positions remain a popular choice for reporters and editors forced into a career change by the instability of the print and electronic media industry. PR historians say the first PR firm, the Publicity Bureau, was established in 1900 by former newspapermen, with Harvard University as its first client. So, it is a global phenomenon that is gradually changing, now that people continue to appreciate the importance of PR.

Public relations as a profession in Nigeria predate 1960. Another problem confronting public relations in Nigeria and indeed all over the world has to do with the misconception and sometime deliberate mis-classification as the smaller brother of advertising. In fact, in some quarters, it is seen as a fringe component of advertising.

This market mis-classification has been further fuelled in Nigeria by the structure of the advertising agency practice and the ‘master of all trades’ posturing of most business organizations. Advertising agencies here easily profess to offer public relations services and when rolling out their presentations, they tuck in their public relations capabilities.

This is usually no more than a basic media relations capability with one or two persons assigned to ‘deal with the press boys’ and squeeze out a few stories from an event. To them successful PR campaign means when their bosses are happy seeing their faces in the various news media. If they get a cover page, then it’s excellent, even when these hypes are devoid of strategies.

Clients who give such ‘agencies’ these jobs have never had good stories to tell, yet, due to ignorance, miserliness, greed on the part of officers on the client’s side, lack of qualified personnel on the client’s side and blatant abuse of office, the trend is on the increase. It may also be due to these clients not being too fussy and usually preferring to deal with one agency instead of distributing the PR and advertising portfolios to different specialists. One wonders when some of these clients and employers would know the difference, and see both functions as different and not the same.

The Public Relations companies are not just folding their arms in self pity. Several of the PR agencies also profess to do advertising. Whilst they play up their PR hand more prominently, they are quick to take on advertising business under the same umbrella and of course, they mix up the brief and rubbish the campaign.

When will the end justify the means syndrome end? When will professional insincerity end? Who will bell the cat?

Public Relations practice in Nigeria is yet to wrestle out of the dominant wings and shadow of advertising which is clearly bigger and more glamorous. But the trend in the last few years gives cause for optimism for the PR industry. Public relations consultancies are now drawing up large budgets that they never dreamt of before. Some PR agencies are also collaborating with advertising agencies to milk the value from synergy and get a huge slice too of the advertising action without over diluting their public relations identities.

The PR industry still has many hurdles to cross and several key strategic issues to address. Top on the list is that of manpower and self esteem. Except for a few PR consultancies, most PR practitioners in Nigeria do not walk and practise with a great deal of self confidence. Clients have turned them to glorified errand boys by giving them briefs and telling them what and how they want it done. Everybody seems to know PR. It is even more embarrassing when one finds out that the man giving the brief and supervising the consultant has never gone through PR training, talk less of understanding what it entails, yet he/she finds his or herself there due to what the organisation erroneously believes PR is. He supervises what he does not know; all in the name of he who pays the piper dictates the tune. He writes you a press release that keeps one wondering whether he went to school, at all, and yet, he is the supposed image adviser for his company. Who would respect such a person? How would he help in raising the bar of PR practice? My PR consultant friend, all in the name of survival turns errand boy in the hand of an ‘illiterate’. One wonders if these errand boy PR gurus understand their role as extremely pivotal the way that of lawyers, doctors and accountants are. On the other hand, the level of manpower of PR consultants oftentimes does not match the client in intellectuality, exposure and industry knowledge. Clients send their staff on periodic training locally and abroad. How many PR outfits can boast of achieving the same feat? Another challenge involves definition and discipline required in specialisation. It is an image supermarket situation where PR firms claim to do everything under all sorts of nomenclatures under the guise of so-called repositioning. Only a handful of PR agencies can rise up to the intellectual level of the client and sometimes indeed above it. Only a few PR agencies have the ‘guts’ and the confidence to decline a client’s business if it falls outside its core area of competence or core values.

It is much worrisome when the professional umbrella of PR practice in Nigeria, the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR) appears non-existent. Credit, deservedly goes to the founder of public relations in Nigeria, late Dr. Sam Epelle and his colleagues in 1963 that founded what is today known as NIPR, the only professional body recognized by law to regulate PR practice in Nigeria. But the activities of the Institute in recent times, has not really helped its image. No website, talk-less of members data base; NIPR has allowed PR to be a free-for-all.

It is either one face-off today or another tomorrow. The leadership of the Institute in recent times has not really operated in a way that would command the respect of other professional bodies from some of our rascally governments. Our Institute and practitioners need to brace up to the challenge of improving on our image, in order to earn respect of others and governments on issues pertaining to public relations or image management. It is about the only professional body so weak to regulate who practices; it is about the only professional body in Nigeria that does not care for its members, talk-less of having a befitting register of members; it is the only professional group in Nigeria with an embarrassing identity; it is the only professional body without a website; it is about the only profession that people who are not qualified to practice ab initio, finds themselves in the fold, make so much money using its name and do everything to put it on its kneels; it is about the only profession not respected by even its supposed members; it is about just a body that has chosen to exist by name; and it is about the only professional body that organized training for members, with people who really needed to be trained, as trainers, just because the few real professionals have been alienated or put off by the image of the Institute; it is the only professional body, whose meetings at national and chapter level had been made attractive to a lot of people looking for jobs or for some that wanted to just relax, based on the content and agenda of such meetings. What else can one say? But if by accident, a group of people come out to float a rival group to salvage the PR profession, it becomes a dirty war, just like it is in the marketing profession today.

If proper regulation is made, more than half of people giving PR a bad name would no doubt, be yanked off. When would PR people stop being seeing as errand boys?

As we all know, our country is a country that is peculiar. We have so much in abundance, yet little to benefit by the citizenry. Public relations principles have been abandoned for publicity. Government’s actions and communications are not emanated from the citizenry, but rather by some “wise men” that think for us, thus negating the whole essence of public relations and deliberate, planned effort generated from the citizenry by government to introduce policies that are satisfy the needs of the citizenry. In all these, a couple professional groups have been very active in voicing their opinions. Yet, NIPR and its group of practitioners have been silent on salient issues affecting Nigeria’s image, just like they have been in recent past. How then do we want people to appreciate public relations by our own definitions? The Nigerian Bar Association, for instance has consistently come up to speak legal issues, irrespective of who is involved; the accountants, engineers, doctors and host of other proud professional groups have been vocal on issues affecting their professions, yet, NIPR the supposed body on image related issues has remained in our cocoon.

One is not also surprised that a lot of crises companies find themselves in are caused by people who do not appreciate professional advice or advise given by a lot of quacks around. It’s really a cross-road situation that only re-definition of public relations practice in Nigeria can solve.


(Culled from Thisday 08.26.2007)


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