AT the send-forth party held in honour of the former Minister of Information and Communication, Mr. Frank Nweke (Jnr) late May 2007, two issues were raised as the high points of his tenure in office as minister.

Overwhelmed with joy, Nweke cited the breaking of the perceived monopoly in the cable TV operation as well as the retraction by the CNN, of the negative report the cable TV outlet earlier carried about the Nigeria’s Niger Delta impasse, as accomplishments that he would personally cherish forever as minister.

At the occasion facilitated by the media agencies under the ministry, participants were surprised that little or nothing was said about the country’s Image Project supervised by the Information ministry with Nweke as the chief executor.

The project, which was later re-christened Heart of Africa Project, was launched in 2004 when Mr. Chukwuemeka Chikelu was the Information Minister, as the answer to negative perception of Nigeria projected by the international media especially. The federal government voted N600 Million for the project.

But barely a year after the project was launched, in July 2005 precisely, Chikelu was removed and replaced with Nweke. At that time, there was insinuation that the project was about to enter implementation stage when the minister that could be described as the initiator of the project was removed.

Today, the overwhelming belief is that the project lost focus with the exit of Chikelu. It was even claimed that Chikelu’s successor, Nweke couldn’t drive the initiative successfully, perhaps, because he did not have the deep grasp of what could take to manage such huge endeavour. Another minus, which has, more or less, become a public opinion, was the perceived exclusion of the professional reputation managers, especially Public Relations experts from the activities of the project.

This line of thought was emphasised recently during an encounter with the Sub-Dean, Lagos State University, School of Communication (LASU-SOC), Dr. Rotimi Olatunji who confirmed that he had written series of articles on what went wrong with the project. One of such writes-up appeared as a chapter recently in the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR) journal.

The university teacher whose area of specialisation is Advertising and Public Relations, asserted that

“one thing that went wrong was the concern mainly about the external image. We did not look at our internal image from the point of view of internal stakeholders. We devoted our time and attention to the external communication, rather than designing, not just internal communication, but internal PR programmes that would turn around government image.”

For the project to record the desired objectives, Olatunji explained attention would not be focused on communication alone. “It is like we have forgotten the internal component of programming, which is crucial and critical to addressing the Nigerian image project. 

“The perception of people about Nigeria remains 419, corruption, armed robbery and so on. We have to address these critical issues and the government need to do more of practical thing. The debate is sustained much at talk level. We need to actually demonstrate that we are committed to wiping out corruption.

“If Nigerians believe that Nigeria is credible, then the outside world we see it like that. It is what you called yourself that people would call you. The external media do claim that most of the information about Nigeria, is derived from what is published or broadcast here locally. So, if you broadcast good thing about Nigeria, that is what global media will re-echo. And we can’t publish something good about ourselves, if things are not happening well.

“Nigeria media are articulate, we must put better thing on the table in terms of political atmosphere. Leadership from top to bottom, must be committed to wiping out corruption. When we do that, other issues about using icons – Gani Fawehinmi, Prof. Soyinka and the likes – will fall in place. But we can’t say it is good, when it is actually bad.”

Olatunji regretted the absence of the NIPR on the team that is implementing the project, largely because of the leadership crisis that has engulfed the institute in recent years.

But with the forthcoming Annual General Meeting (AGM) of institute in Lafia, Nasarawa State between November 7 and 10, 2007, the PR teacher is optimistic that a born again NIPR may emerge from the meeting.

Specifically, he canvassed what he termed internal cleansing and institution of an enduring succession plan that will facilitate smooth transition from time to time.

“One thing that catches my attention is the fact that, as a body, NIPR, is still tied to the apron string of the government. There is no clear-cut distinction or dichotomy in terms of the regulatory functions of the practice of PR and the professional involvement in PR activities. As it is, you have NIPR regulating and NIPR a professional body.

“It might be a better arrangement if, for instance, the APCON model is adopted. You have the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON) which is not one and the same with the Association of Advertising Agencies of Nigeria (AAAN), which is an association of agencies practitioners.

“We might look at PRCAN as the Public Relations Consultants, although they are also members of the NIPR and they are regulated by the NIPR. But if we have a distinctive body or council regulating the practice of the Public Relations, separate from a professional body of PR professionals, it would now be much more democratic and we would be able to extricate the institute from the stronghold of government control which has been the bane of contention all these days.”

Olatunji decried the present situation whereby the government, through the Information and Communication Ministry as the supervisory agency, has direct control over, “even mundane issues as who becomes the leader. This tends to tear the institute apart as a body. Therefore, the institute does not operate as a professional body, but more, as an institution that takes patronage from government in terms of money and some other things.”

He advocated a separate council that will regulate the practice of the public relation. He explained, “NIPR professionals must be stakeholders, members of that council, but NIPR professionals, should be able to be decisively in control of that body or institute. 

Perhaps, the present law that recognises PR as a profession would still be in operation as it is, but like advertising where APCON law recognises it as a profession and the different members of the council are drawn from the stakeholders -outdoor, media independent, government, print and electronic media. But the APCON activity is different from the activities of the AAAN. I’m trying to look at it from this perspective, so that there would be a council for PR and a professional body for practitioners.”

Once this problem is solved, the NIPR, he stated, would be able to take its rightful position in the scheme of national assignments like the image project.

On this, Olatunji has a suggestion. “Once the internal cleansing is achieved, the institute would therefore take up the project as its own corporate contribution to national development. The institute will now sit down to do comprehensive programming about how to deploy their skills, knowledge and contact, nationally and internationally, to project Nigerian image publicly in a very positive way.

“But part of the recommendation will be that the government must put in place programmes, policies and activities that will give strong support to efforts at projecting the country’s image abroad.

“They could submit proposals to government. They could do voluntary services without looking for the benefit in terms of materials. In fact, any time a government comes in, the NIPR should submit a proposal on what to do, programmes to be put in place, communication strategies as social responsibility contribution to the nation.

“When you do that without expecting anything, the government will be forced to look into your direction for even appointments. Most of the practitioners are concerned with just getting patronage, government clientele to improve their financial fortunes. But we are not acting in concert as a body. This is what we should do.”

He commented on the upper hand that journalism has always had over the PR to the extent of when appointment is being considered, especially at government quarters for the post of press secretaries or special assistant on communication, the focus is always on journalists with little or no regards for PR experts.

“At the inception, the orientation of those who taught communication was tilted towards journalism. Even NIPR started as Press Association of Nigeria before it became the Association of Nigerian Public Relations Practitioners and later metamorphosed to NIPR. There was much orientation towards journalism rather than having a clear consideration for other aspects of communication.

“As it is now, most of the institutions that offer Mass Communication, teach courses in PR. This is in line with the belief that PR and advertising are support of the media industry. Most people in academic still see it as that. Whereas, the orientation in the United States of America and some other developed countries is to see PR as a distinctive discipline that must be taught from the beginning of your entrance into the university, not just two, three, four courses, but you train in PR and all the branches. 

“Of course, that does not mean that you are only exposed to PR as a discpline. But you also acquire knowledge in other disciplines such as Geography, Sociology, History among others. The difference is that as a professional you must have trained in different aspects of PR as you go along. Now, there is too much orientation towards journalism and may be broadcasting to the neglect of others.

“Besides, early practitioners in PR were people with journalism background. The belief is that if you are a journalist, then you could just go on and become a good PR thinking that media relations is all about what the PR stands for.”

The experience at the LASU School of Communication, he revealed, “is to see the discipline as distinctive and worthy of being considered as a department. But we got to a brick-wall when we came to the regulatory body- National Universities Commission (NUC). They have a benchmark for accrediting programme, which does not recognise specialisation. It just recognises Bachelor of Science, Mass Communication. So, if you must be accredited, you must play along and have your courses as Mass Communication.”

As a participant at the recently held workshop on new curriculum for journalism education in Nigeria, Olatunji is optimistic that “the forum would chat a new orientation, whereby students spend their first year on general courses and the last three years on specialisation within communication which would have adequately prepared professionals for the challenges in this field.”

He discovered one area of deficiency in the present arrangement: “The emphasis on how of communication while we ignore what of communication, which is the content.” 

Communication, Olatunji asserted, is about something. “If, for instance, I had a background in Archaeology with my training in communication, I should be able to communicate culture, museum properly. If I read Geography, I should be able to communicate environment and stuff like that. This is the orientation we should give to our students. They lack understanding of issues. A new communication curriculum should focus on giving students much knowledge on different disciplines.”

He recalled his student days at the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University, OAU) when the concept of learning something about everything was deeply entrenched.

“In those days at the university, you had to learn a little about everything, later you can specialise which is better for the industry.”

On the preference to journalists for the PR job at government quarters, Olatunji said, “this is because journalism is the oldest aspect of the media. People have been used to it. They even tend to believe that journalists have rapport and contact with their colleagues in the media. And if there is an image problem, a personal assistant, who is a journalist should be able to manage it effective. Perhaps this thinking has been accounting for that largely.

“But when you look at the past and you saw when PR professionals were in-charge of Ministry of Information, the difference was very clear with what they did with the appointment and the way they deployed their skills for the benefit of the nation.

“If I’m considering a personal assistant I will not necessarily go for the journalist. I look for PR professional in the field who has all the skills to relate with the media. This is because the media will just orchestrate the information at their disposal. But PR professionals are always in charge of packaging you as a product. The assignment goes beyond issuing releases. It is about packaging the candidate – governor, President. This goes beyond journalistic skill.”

The Guardian October 15, 2007

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