After years of misconception about public relations and its practitioners, the profession is beginning to earn credibility and attract local and international recognition. Raheem Akingbolu reviews key public relations activities last year as a yardstick for what to expect in 2012
2011 in Retrospect
Public relations in Nigeria took one major leap in 2011, building on the giant strides of a few years earlier, when it got Africa-wide peer endorsement for work done by professionals in Nigeria. Take a bow the corporate communications team of Nigeria LNG Limited. They won for themselves and Nigeria the Africa Gold Quill Award for Excellence on the strength of the crisis management of the ruckus surrounding the Nigeria Prize for Literature. The Gold Quill is the global awards competition of the International Association of Business Communicators recognising excellence in communication and the sector's best practitioners. The Gold Quill Awards programme has for 40 years running rigorously tested and rewarded all aspects of work undertaken by business communicators. The NLNG corporate communication team received the Gold Quill on April 13, 2011 at a ceremony at Foxwood House, Houghton, South Africa, and represented Africa at the global competition in San Francisco, United States. This was the first time any organisation or individual outside South Africa was representing Africa at the Gold Quill event. NLNG narrowly missed winning the global award, largely due to failure to document the social media aspect of their work.
Nevertheless, their victory underscored the growing significance of public relations and business communication in Nigeria. Growth also occurred simultaneously on both the corporate and agency side of the business. The NLNG team made an impressive presentation en route to the Africa Gold Quill to members of IABC Nigeria in November. A key take away was the need for well-articulated communication campaigns, documentation of same, as well as monitoring and evaluation. Documentation in particular is important as many organisations in Nigeria have run outstanding campaigns that would do well in competitions such as the IABC's Gold Quill or the Golden World Awards of the International Public Relations Association (IPRA).
In 2011, the Nigerian Chapter of IABC formally took off as well with the NLNG team providing the bulk of initial members. The distinguished head of the corporate communication team of NLNG, Sienne Allwell-Brown, emerged president of IABC Nigeria but chose to relinquish the position a few months later because of the relocation of NLNG's headquarters to Port Harcourt. Vice President Mr. Chido Nwakanma, head strategist at the strategic communication firm Blueflower Limited, stepped in as president with Ifeanyi Mbanefo of the NLNG as vice president. Similar several undertakings on the corporate and agency sides indicated increasing acceptance of the role of public relations in the corporate firmament. Major players engaged public relations firms to provide strategic and tactical support to in-house teams. They included firms like PZ Cussons and its sister company, Nutricima Limited, while there were major changes of account handlers at places like Nigerian Breweries, Cadbury Nigeria, Guinness, Etisalat, Airtel and more.
The umbrella body for firms offering public relations as a specialist service grew in numbers to 35, according to John Ehiguese, general secretary of the Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria (PRCAN). Many more firms are awaiting enrolment with PRCAN. The body has continued to support the growth of the profession by insisting that key executives of member firms have relevant qualifications and are registered to practice public relations with the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations.
In the year under review, PRCAN launched a continuous professional development programme - the Mastering PR series. Workshops were conducted on Effective Public Relations Account Management and Effective Writing in PR, among other key areas. PRCAN remained committed to capacity development of its members to enable them deliver first class services. During its inauguration in the last quarter of 2010, the PRCAN Exco had announced a three-point agenda - corporate social responsibility, capacity development and expanding the pie.
A major setback in 2011 was in the minimal or even non-utilisation of public relations by political parties and candidates during the elections. There were very few structured political communication campaigns properly anchored by recognised agencies under the PRCAN fold.
2011 also witnessed further growth in public relations in government agencies across the country. Even so, most efforts at government level focused primarily on information dissemination rather than communication management. Initial efforts had centred on converting erstwhile journalists to media advisers or publicists. Experts believe that as the public increasingly demands accountability and a say in the affairs of institutions that affect them, government or private, stakeholder relations would continue to grow in importance and institutions would have to organise properly for it as well as engage professional organisations set up to render that service. A profusion of platforms in traditional and new media underlined the increased need for professional management of communication by public and private sector organisations. The social media scene also threw forth a variety of challeges that required careful handling.
Growing numbers in the traditional media presented an opportunity as well as a challenge. Lagos alone now boasts 26 radio stations. There are effectively two television networks and four radio networks of varying spread and connectivity across the country as the National Broadcasting Commission allowed more radio stations - Raypower, Rhythm, Cool FM, Hot FM and Brila FM - to establish stations outside their initial base. The stations offered simultaneous broadcasts from those new locations, a network service of varying capacity. Similarly, the key print media organs began simultaneous printing in three locations across the country both for timely delivery and deployed technology effectively to manage costs and deliver value. Commercialisation of broadcast news however means it is difficult to gauge efforts using that medium in strict public relations terms since it is paid publicity.
Ethical issues in media relations also posed a similar challenge to Nigerian public relations professionals. Indeed some print media organs went the commercial news route with consequences for definition of news. For instance, the orientation in some media houses is such that journalists are surcharged if they write a positive or laudatory story about a company. Yet the same media organs do not hesitate to write negative accounts. They also publish positive stories about companies from the international media. Rather curious, eh! In 2012, the communication industry - media, advertisers and agencies - would need to debate the concept of commercial news and its overall implications for the credibility of all parties. Opportunity beckons again for public relations professionals as IABC has called for entries for the 2012 Gold Quill. It is expected that this year the profession should record increasing relevance as well as being benchmarked against the best globally.