The Managing Consultant, Quadrant MSL, Uche Ajene-Ayere, speaks to Raheem Akingbolu, on the current development in the public relations landscape and the need for practitioners to follow the trend to remain relevant in the market. Excerpts:
As a practitioner who has operated on both client-agency sides, what’s your view about the marketing communications industry in Nigeria?
The communication industry has many facets and is very important for both practitioners and business owners to understand various angles and where to draw the lines. For instance, there are agencies and there are journalists but unfortunately, those who think the major function of public relations (PR) is to put stories in newspaper or broadcast media think that PR, blogging and journalism are the same. PR performs many functions and media is just one of the tools or vehicles that can be used when necessary to provide some of the solutions. In recent time, the issue has taken a different dimension with the digital revolution that allows individual platforms. To this end, some now see bloggers and other influencers as PR practitioners. In terms of the agencies or the activities in PR, the general public sometimes is not aware of what PR really is; they feel that anybody that writes anything online is in the PR space. And quite frankly there is an art to PR and the extent to which there is an art in PR means it needs to be better regulated. This becomes necessary so that people that come into the PR space to report things know there are certain thresholds of things they should be able to do and if they fail to do it, there could be sanctions.
At this point, I think professionalism comes in. PR practitioners are trained and most of them went to school to study related courses, worked hard, learned writing and most of them are professionally certified. You can then imagine how one will feel when the industry you so much treasure is reduced to the man down the street that just decides to write something and put it on a blog. This is where government is important as the institution with political will that can create policies that makes it hard for every Dick, Tom and Harry to come forward and present him or her as a PR person because he attracts some followers on social media handle.
What should the practitioners do to compliment government’s effort in the regard?
For us that are authentic, the real practitioners, it is now dawn on us to stand by what we say. At every forum and in anything that we handle, stakeholders should be able to see professionalism and ethical approach to issues. In today’s market, we should not forget that the medium by which we engage customers has evolved. While traditional medium was the way it was 10 years ago or more, online industry has come in and change the way we report news and the way consumers receive news has also changed. Today, customers don’t want to read, they just want to watch a video to get information, they don’t usually want to deviate from where they usually go to get information which means that those that put out the news have to be creative and adapt to the way consumers absorb the news that’s the number one thing. But a lot of practitioners understand that, they are also changing, it also means that you have to do a lot more work to evaluate consumers, you can’t just assume that people are reading whatever you put out there. Again, data has become important, if you are putting anything out there, you need to know who is reading it and who you are targeting. What are they getting from it? Is this the right medium?
But there are still some people that traditional media is important to, especially those that don’t have access to online information either because of infrastructure, money or what have you. They too must be factored in. The bottom line therefore is that PR has evolved and the medium of passing information has also evolved. As things are, holding each other accountable in what is being said is a lot more important and hoping that the associations which we belong to and even the government can create more firm policies. I think it should be harder for people to just come out and say they are in the PR space. I have always insisted that it’s one thing to be in the entertainment space but if you say you are in the PR space I need to be able to hold you accountable from the branding point of view because we are actually very serious people. So, there are a couple of things we need to do to position it. It’s an exciting time, because it means we are sitting down and thinking of data, it’s no longer enough to just put out news, consumers are looking out for something more you are saying, so I think we have definitely evolved.
What role do you think PR could have played in communicating government policies?
I think that communication has a huge role to play in government, not just from the talking but from the planning and from the dimension of the stakeholders or audience being able to sit down and say you want to put out something. First of all, understand the impact hence there is no crisis management. If you’re trying to put out something, be it a policy or regulation that is going to impact some stakeholders in a certain way, how do you deliver it? There is also the need for government to put in place measures through which relevant teaching and training will be provided for the people that are even delivering it. PR plays a lot of roles in government because what you find is there are a lot of gaps. In most cases, it will be as if government is expecting citizens to fill in the gaps because is either they are not told or there are a lot of misinformation going out. So if the communication is not structured not even only from the presidency but across board, whether citizens agree or don’t agree, they should know where they can go to, to get the real information as to what’s going on. In delivering that real information, it is the job of the PR practitioner working for the government to help them recognise the issues of the various areas. They will let it be known so that when it is being written, the message is still passed across.
How can the industry address the issue of differentiation?
The way you know agencies that are going above and beyond and not just doing a check box or focused on just revenue is agencies that don’t just care about revenue but also invest in themselves. When I look at agencies, what I’m after is, what kind of technology are you using? What kind of training are you giving your personnel, are you impacting the clients? Now when we talk about digital, there is no amount of reading that can make you understand digital like the millennial, so if you are an agency that has millennial but you don’t create the good working environment they won’t stay because they like certain types of environments. So you need to have an agency that has old hands because there is nothing like experience but you also need to have young hands that are fluid and fast. Agencies that want to produce a robust service to clients should understand the needs of the teams that they have, the older ones and the younger ones and the various tools that help them to be creative. The older ones are the ones that usually bring structure but the younger ones bring the innovative thinking and approach to seeking the products and then you can have a nice bouquet.
Charity, they say begins at home, has TQC keyed into this?
That is what Quadrant went through from when I came on board. The way we even engage journalist for instance changed. Before, there was no structure and you could get away with it, but now there is more demand, not just from customers, but even all our partner are looking at you and saying ‘you need to have a better structure because I have a lot more options’. So the idea of Quadrant today is to sit down and dimension all our stakeholders in terms of staff, the owners of the business, but more importantly, my partners, influencers and media houses. All of those people are very important to us. So engaging with them and how we engage with them is important. Based on how PR has evolved and what I am trying to put out there, I need to make sure I have staff with the required skills. So in hiring, it important to have people with a very diverse background, it is important that I have in my team, different components of people. I need a creative people; I need content people that write well, I need my media guy to write well, my business director needs to understand business and finance, my strategy people need to be well rounded. Together we can deliver value. The way we were before was that we were all communications people. So, when we are driving solutions, it’s not as deep as it should be. That is why I said consumers and clients are asking for a lot more. The way it was before, the client will call you and say, I need a press release. So the client has already decided what they need. You then agree just like a runner to deliver the information as instructed without any input or impactful advice.
Does it mean today’s practitioners should not adhere to the brief specification of the client?
Not at all, what I’m saying is that as a professional, you should be able to see ahead and add more value to your client’s business by widen the scope of the brief to enhance better result. In the past, let’s say five to ten years ago, if you tell me you have a press release all that I would do is to put it in the newspapers. That is why I said PR is dying, it’s not that it’s dying; it’s that it has evolved. So what makes me different from the next PR guy is that when I say that to a client, the guy will look at me and say, I didn’t even think about that. I will tell the client you can’t launch without thinking about how to counter-balance if something negative comes out. There must also be the need to also rub minds with the CEO of the company you are working for on what to say to the press during interviews. That is value added. It is thinking for the client. In the same vein, I may ask, have you tested it? And if they say no, I can advise the client not to launch yet, and maybe consider doing soft-launch. That is how we have changed and how we have evolved. We no longer think from a revenue stand-point. We do a lot more to help the clients business. At the end of the day, value to the client is more, but values to us also grow.
How do you commoditise all the values that you are now bringing to the table?
The way we commoditise it is to have what we call strategy. That is why I said Quadrant has also evolved from being a PR agency to a strategy communication consultancy. So within the strategic communication consultancy, there are certain products that we have defined within us. For instance, if you want us to launch something in Maiduguri around women, I will tell you before you do that we have to carry out a brand audit. We will try to know the perception, so that we know how to communicate to those women. Or maybe I need to do a segment audit, so that if I am communicating with those women, I know how to communicate. Because they are Northern women and there are certain nuances about them that we need to know. And if the client is targeting women between 20 and 40, we have to know if those women are allowed to use the clients’ products. That means we have to customise our medium, communication and approach based on that. All of that are under the purview of a strategic communication framework and that attracts individual cost. So we have commoditised all the segments of our offerings in terms of size and scope. Once we do that and we offer the clients the solution, it is customised. It’s not just that I am running with the clients’ ideas, it now customised. And guess what, the clients can now hold me accountable as an agency to say based on what the objectives are. The objectives can be in terms of awareness, conversion or hard sales. The way we did things in the past, the clients couldn’t hold the agency to anything.
What informed your agency’s recently published intelligence report on the financial sector?
We do media monitoring and get different analysis. So, I am always asking what else we can do in terms of data analysis. Therefore, in evaluating all of that I realised that we have a huge data base on our hands. We have been doing it for the past 30 years; you can imagine that we have enough data. But data is one thing, but the way you mine it is another. So based on some of the questions I was asking, we realised that we can actually do a quick analysis and come up with deeper insight on how the different industries operate and how they spend money and the different campaigns they do that can actually help to position their brands in a better light. We started with the banking sector because the banks cut across every segment. Being a maiden edition, it was important that we get the attention of clients across the board. We have some brand owners that are already our clients so it was easy to engage them. Like anything else, the first one was a little bit more challenging but by the time we do the subsequent ones, we expect them to be a little be easier. The good thing for us is that based on what we have learnt from doing this report, the guys in the media monitoring have already started mining data in a way that makes sense to data.
The report is in the public domain, how has the feedbacks been?
It’s actually been fantastic. A lot of people have given us a lot of kudos for embarking on something different, given them insights that they haven’t even thought about. Some of those I spoke with said it’s good for them to see what other people are doing, in order to know areas, they need to improve on in terms of spend and strategy. Another bank said they didn’t realise that all the other banks are doing mentions according to products.