President, Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria (PRCAN), the umbrella body of PR firms operating in Nigeria, Mr. John Ehiguese, speaks on quackery and other factors hindering the growth of PR in Nigeria. Raheem Akingbolu provides the excerpts:

There have been debates over where public relations belong in the integrated marketing communication industry. What is your take on this?

It is ironical that we who are the ones that are supposed to project the images of others do not ourselves have a strong image. But there are a lot of factors that are responsible for this.
I think at the heart of it is a relatively weak regulatory environment. PR unfortunately in Nigeria has become an all-comers business. The level of quackery is simply unbelievable. I mean there is almost zero regulation; barriers to entry are extremely low, or practically non-existent.

That is a big issue. When you have that kind of environment; it is difficult to earn respect as a practitioner because if people don’t perceive your profession as being up there then you the practitioner cannot earn that level of respect and commensurate remuneration.

But we are doing the best that we can about the situation. As the President of Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria (PRCAN) I’m privy to the fact that we have a number of programmes that we are executing to see how we can grow the profession and the PR brand itself.

Elsewhere in the world, PR is highly regarded. In many Fortune-500 companies across the world, for example, the head of public relations occupies a vice presidential position and reports directly to the Managing Director, or President, of the corporation
That is because they understand the importance of PR in every single action that they take as an organisation. What I am saying here is that we don’t appreciate the function enough in this part of the world. I agree to an extent with you on the ‘weakest link’ tag because we should actually be leading in the IMC mix because we deal more with the core brand values, so we should play a leading role in developing the overall communications strategy.
PR deals with the image, perception and reputation and these are perhaps the strongest assets of any brand.

Consumers do not patronise a business. They patronise the brand. Let’s take a brand like Toyota, for example: how many customers concern themselves with how many cars Toyota sold last year? Who the CEO of Toyota international is; in how many countries Toyota operates? How many brands of Toyota cars are available and what is the profit of Toyota globally? Do you have the answers to any of these questions? These are business questions that have no meaning to you and as a consumer. What is important to the consumer is the brand. The brand is a promise. So, the Toyota brand for example, promises you a bouquet of benefits. You buy that brand because those benefits align with your expectations and desires. So, as a consumer it is the brand that you are patroniSing, not the business. Things that have to do with the business are more of interest to the investors; those who own the business. As a consumer, you deal with the brand and your perception of that brand is the number one driver of choice.

A brand’s image and reputation are a part of its DNA. These are at the core of consumer choice and patronage. And, theoretically, the more patronage you get the better your bottom line. That is the connection and ordinarily you would have expected that the people that deal with reputation, such a very important asset of the brand, should enjoy the pride of place in the IMC mix. But unfortunately, because of a number of factors, we don’t have that kind of advantage in the Nigerian market and it is unfortunate.

I hope it changes, I hope it gets better. We have done the bit that we can. My generation is phasing out and I hope the younger ones will work harder to grow the PR profession and to make it occupy its pride of place in the IMC mix.

Would you subscribe to mergers and acquisitions as solution to the challenges facing the industry?

There are fundamentally two benefits of M&As – scale and synergy. Globally, mergers and acquisitions are becoming more widespread; you want to have a bigger organisation so that you can do more and you can be able to service all your clients efficiently, especially the big ones. But the situation in Nigeria is a peculiar one because it is not a matter of scale. Scale does not guarantee you the biggest businesses in this clime.

The fact that you are a big PR agency does not mean that you will get the biggest PR accounts; and if as a big agency you don’t get the big accounts, you may not be able to sustain your cost profile and that means that you cannot sustain the business. Going into mergers and acquisitions is not a bad idea where it delivers a lot of synergy because when you are merging it is not just about scale, it is also about synergy – what is one party bringing to the table that the other doesn’t have; so that when both come together, you have some fantastic synergy that helps you serve your clients better and more efficiently? That is one level.

The other level deals with scale. As you know, scale is size and the assumption is that if you are big then you can attract the big accounts and be able to do big-ticket campaigns. You can satisfactorily service a brand like Nigerian Breweries Plc that has 22 vibrant product brands because you now have the capacity, you have the size. But in Nigeria, it does not work like that. Scale is not necessarily an advantage in this environment. So, I don’t see how mergers and acquisitions, given the situation that we are in, would necessarily be a plus for the industry.

It is believed in some quarters in the industry that Nigerian agencies often hold the short end of the stick when it comes to affiliation. How have you avoided it to happen to your agency -Mediacraft Associates?

I think that it is important when you go into any kind of affiliation to be very clear about what it is that you want out of the arrangement, as well as the terms of engagement. This is very important. Some people are so desperate to get affiliated that they just sign off their birthright, if you know what I mean. I was in a sense prepared when I did, and I knew what I wanted. I would say that I have probably one of the best affiliation agreements you could ever have. It is a fantastic relationship. I have no regrets; no complaints, whatsoever. I have benefitted tremendously from the relationship and when I even hear what some of my colleagues are going through, I just thank God that I don’t have that kind of an experience. We are privileged to have a very fantastic affiliation agreement, incredible partners and they don’t give us any problem at all; they give us full support and, in fact, treat us every bit like a part of their global family.

Let’s talk about PRCAN, the umbrella association for your sub-sector which you have been privileged to preside over for a second consecutive term?

It could be better but, of course, you can understand that the environment is challenging on so many fronts and at so many levels. I am sure you know that the membership of PRCAN is corporate. It is for organisations, not for individuals. It is for practicing consultancy firms. Now, our members have generally suffered a rough patch recently, largely because of the recession and also because of encroachments into our business.
We have a situation that is an aberration in Nigeria where a journalist can also pretend to be a PR consultant. That is absolutely unacceptable. It is unethical; it distorts the whole of PR consultancy function and paradigm.
As PR consultants, we and the media are partners. We support them by giving them content for their platforms and we need them to provide their platforms for our clients, the brands we work for, to disseminate their messages. So, it is a symbiotic relationship. But where the journalist now becomes a PR practitioner, then you have distorted the whole arrangement. It is not right, and Nigeria is probably the only country in the whole world where you have that kind of anomaly going on and it seems to have been accepted as normal.

So, you find a working journalist who also runs a PR agency on the side. Essentially, he is doing what is called press agentry. Press agentry is a sub-set of media relations which has to do with being an agent for the media; in other words, just sourcing for, and distributing media releases. This is happening because the ethnical environment in Nigeria is very weak. I have seen a practicing journalist in one of the major newspapers in Nigeria who has the title ‘Reporter/Media Consultant’ on his official call card. Can we compete fairly with that kind of person in terms of offering media relations services? So, he is enjoying the best of two worlds; but it destroys the PR business. Thank God that situation is changing now largely because of the influence of social media and online platforms; but it is still a big problem in Nigeria.

Can’t this problem be solved by NIPR or PRCAN?

The ball is largely in the court of the NIPR because from an industry perspective, it is at the core of NIPR’s responsibilities to enforce ethics, as the statutory industry regulator. Although PRCAN derives its legal charter from a By-law of the NIPR, we can only engage in self-regulation, and we are doing the best we can, within the limits of the constraints we face.
We really have a weak regulatory system and it is affecting our business. Everywhere in the world, PR is growing but in Nigeria it is a different ball game altogether. The profession is not growing at the same pace when compared with other climes.

In commemoration of your 60th birthday, which you recently celebrated, would you like to give a message to the industry and to the nation?
To the industry, I will say that those of us that have chosen public relations as a profession must, as a matter of duty and responsibility, invest in perpetuating the business by making sure that the practice gets better and is sustainable and sustained beyond their generation.
It is a different thing if you are just a part-time PR person or just passing through as a survival strategy until you get the next job. To me, therefore, everybody has a responsibility to contribute his own quota to growing the profession one way or the other and I think that it is just a natural obligation that we all have. That is my message to all the PR practitioners in the industry. With regards to Nigeria, that is a very tough one because every day I take stock of this country and I ask myself: what does the future hold?

We had a PRCAN Fireside chat in November last year to which we invited a management consultant to come and talk to us about his macro-economic forecast for Nigeria in 2018 and how it would impact our business. One significant take-away for me from that session was the revelation that he made that the median age of Nigerians today is 18 years old. The Nigerian Bureau of Statistics says that the average age of Nigerians today is actually 17.9 years.
What that means practically is that 50% of Nigerians today are 18 years and below! This scares me. Since I got that piece of information in November last year, my heart has not been at peace. What is the plan that Nigeria has for its young population, probably a quarter of whom are probably out of school anyway?

I believe very strongly that if Nigeria wants to survive she must, as a matter of the utmost urgency, develop a 50-year ‘Marshal Plan’ for this teeming young population in terms of their education, health care, employment, housing, and so on. Otherwise we are sitting on a social time bomb!
A country that does not plan for its youth is not ready for the future. My message to Nigeria and the political leadership is that every development programme that they design for this country from now on must be youth-centric.