Lead Strategist, Absolute PR, Akonte Ekine, speaks to Raheem Akingbolu on the need for government at various levels to redefine their communication strategies in addressing the diversity in the land
Considering the way public relations (PR) has evolved over the years, what has digital revolution done for the industry?
If you look at history, professions will always evolve. In the last ten years, digital technology has taken a greater toll on professions -PR is not exempted. I like to always tell people that yes, it’s all about additional tool and media channels. What you look at in PR is that the barrier of gate keeping has been eroded to a large extent. Though you have a UK law – General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – that has to do with people not just sending mail but have to have data approval. But PR in the last ten years has gone through series of transition and has impacted on everybody. Today, we talk about citizen journalism and influencers. We used to have influencers, but power of the influencer today is that he has the digital tool to create his platform and push his content. What a PR person now does is reverse his thinking to address the present situation to say now, I have more channels to do narrow casting instead of broadcasting. Between strategy and tactics for PR person is to look at what we have on ground and tap into it.
Generally speaking, how can you rate Nigerian PR industry?
Firstly, let’s classify the industry. In the UK, there’s a rating agency which exist for photography, cinematography and so on. In that regard, you don’t just come out and say you are a photographer. Even in medicine, people rate you. In our industry, do we have a rating agency? We don’t even have a rating institution in Nigeria. As a person, if I’m going to rate anybody, I will say these are the parameters. Here, what we do is say because we are able to work for certain clients, these are the first-class agencies. For us in Absolute PR, we’ve been privileged to work for clients in the oil and gas sector, FMCG, NGO and as I speak to you today, we have a client that takes us far and wide the globe. What I’m saying is that here, the industry is not rated. Government itself is not giving PR its right position. You can’t be among top government functionaries and beat your chest as a PR person because you don’t get the recognition you deserve. Had that been done, it would enable us to have primary training in the field of public relations. It’s wrong for me to see a trained journalist to function as a PR person without primary training. It is only in Nigeria that government relations person will be required, and we will settle for a journalist and expect the person to function. It is sad that the country itself doesn’t appreciate communication as a profession. And until we start to understand the impact of communication, we will not make certain progress because the communication you need for the Fulani man is different from what you need for the Yoruba man. Yes, he’s human but his psychographic analysis is different. You need an influencer for him to make him feel as part of the big picture of Nigeria. That aspect has been lacking in communication in this country.
PRCAN was established to carve a niche for professionals in the PR industry, will you say the professional body has achieved its objectives?
The profession is so big that you can work in any sector and be a member of NIPR, but there is a bye-law for NIPR which set up Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria (PRCAN). It is for public relation consultant in this environment to be a member of that association. And if you are a member of PRCAN which is a sub body of NIPR, it confers on you, certain status of competence in handling the job of public relations. I like what NIPR has been doing in recent time. We now have a voice trying to pass our positions and make it know to the government on how it can build the Nigerian story. One of those things we lack is how to tell our story. We allow our story to be told by foreigners. Nobody goes out to celebrate you if you don’t celebrate yourself.
So, you share the view that Nigerian government would have gotten things done better if they employ the services of professionals?
Absolutely! Even when you don’t have that knowledge base as a nation, you structure your laws to favour your people. That’s what’s happening in China and the British experience when Margaret Thatcher was in power during privatisation; they didn’t have everything. But you don’t take a job of British government without having a business entity that is of Britain heritage. Even in China, you can’t be a lawyer from US and because you want to start a conglomerate you are bringing only the US companies. A local company must be there. That’s what they call the local content. The dynamic in which the whites talk to blacks is different. We have our culture and it affects our thinking and disposition. The way I’m going to tell the story about Nigeria to the woman in the village is not the same way I would talk to the woman in Lagos. In my village in Rivers, what they see, feel and touch is different from what the man in Lagos see, feel and touch.
In recent times, some government agencies, especially at the state level, have embraced the need to have strategic communication in place. What do you think is responsible for this?
Yes, but some states are deliberately cutting the process of engaging professionals. Now in those few states where we see change, a lot of the people doing that were involved in private practice before going to that side. There’s an understanding of the values they are going to get from that process. It’s one thing to say I’m a professional; it’s another to have been engaged and imbibed in the process of being a professional. We can all carry certificates. It’s not the certificate that makes the man, it’s man that gives value to the certificate. Hopefully, as we turn the century over a period of time, maybe we will move up the ladder. If you talk about PR, when they list countries and agencies, Nigeria is not even on the radar. And that’s not limited to PR. The only thing we are selling to the world today is our number. But over a period of time, your numbers won’t count. What make your number count is the capacity in its head and the power in its pocket. Our president talks down on his population whereas he’s supposed to be the first PR manager of the country.
Beyond what PRCAN and others are doing, what other measures can we take to make PR appreciative?
Public Relations is a knowledge business. It’s a glamour business to some people though, but it’s absolutely a knowledge driven business. It is what you know that you sell. If you want to sell to the presidency and you carry superior knowledge to them, they will buy. The most important is that we should realise we are a learning nation. The unfortunate thing is we don’t learn well. Look at what’s happening in Oil and gas. How can a country that produces the largest crude oil in Africa not have a functioning refinery? Despite all technicians that have come out of this country and the number of whites that have come to train people. Relate that back to public relations in this country you will know how backward we are mentally. I don’t like to look at Public relations in isolation, I like to look holistically. Doctors are leaving because we don’t have the right environment. If we have the right environment, production will grow very fast.
Coming to your practice and your agency, can you share your activities in the recent time with us?
Recently, we have the opportunity to have relationship with a network called Network One – a global network of hundred independent agencies coming together to form an alliance in the course of running business. The other good thing is that our business is growing despite the challenges and we are looking forward to doing greater things in the industry. If you look at the Nigerian landscape, the industry is evolving. Engineering as business is evolving, medicine as business is evolving and so on.
It’s evolving no doubt, but recession also set negative impact on businesses. How did you weather the storm?
First is to face reality. You evaluate yourself and look at the situation on ground. It’s either you scale down or right. What we did was to scale right. We looked at our clientele; we look at those who are active and ready to expand, and those affected by challenges or recession. We did analysis and realised that the best way to stay afloat is scale down in certain areas and keep ourselves at the forefront of activities to arrive at where we are today. We ended up signing a relationship with Network One, an independent agency group based in London. And it’s looking beautiful now for us.