Public relations in Nigeria has unarguably experienced considerable growth, especially when you juxtapose present realities alongside what obtained some decades ago. The profession has had moderate advancement as, at least, the practitioners have been able to assert their ‘professional status’ to a large extent. But how is the profession perceived? What comes to mind when you tell people you practice PR? What thought does the term ‘PR’ trigger when mentioned? PR suffers critical misperceptions and, therefore, needs to set its records straight. A profession designed to manage perception is itself a victim of a ‘perception crisis’.

The ‘reputational conundrum’ associated with PR is not peculiar to Nigeria, but my searchlight is on motherland. We, PR practitioners, need our own medicine. To put it simply, the PR profession needs serious PR.

Eric Yaverbum et al, in their ‘Public Relations for Dummies’, wrote: “It’s ironic. One purpose of PR is to get good press and avoid bad press, but PR itself has had pretty bad press over the years. The public image of PR has been produced in part by corporate flacks who made their living covering oil leaks”. Yaverbum and his colleagues believe that the image of PR today has been shaped by the use of covert propaganda and the Big Lie by PR professionals in the oil and gas sector. These practitioners do a lot of ‘whitewashing’ to cover up oil spillage perpetrated by their companies. But true PR isn’t cover-up; neither is it ‘greenwashing’.

The Hand of History

We can hardly discuss the trajectory of PR in Nigeria without ample mentions of Bob Ogbuagu. He’s regarded as one of the founding fathers of PR in Nigeria. Bob and his contemporaries set the tone for the model of public relations we practice today, with, of course, some novelties introduced along the line in our PR journey. In one of his writings, Bob defined PR as ‘the art of building bridges of rapport’ between an organisation and its publics. Even though the PR of then was principally press agentry and publicity-based, Bob’s definition still has validity today but the prevailing popular definition, or should I say notion, of PR today reeks of parochiality, and this can be nauseating to core PR professionals.

I understand that history has a way of shaping the present, but I believe that by now, the PR community in Nigeria would have been able to influence public perception about what public relations truly typifies. During Bob’s era, people conceived PR as nothing more than press relations or publicity creation. That’s fine because that’s what predominated those times. But our PR has come a long way, with the course being offered in many Nigerian tertiary institutions, the emergence of PR academies, and the formation of the Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria (PRCAN) and the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR), the umbrella body for PR practitioners.

We now have very qualified professionals who majored in Communication disciplines practicing PR, unlike when only practicing journalists were allowed entry into the profession. With all these positives, the profession still suffers a reputational deficiency. Most people still see PR practitioners as mere publicists, pernicious propagandists and corporate megaphones. Some even use PR and advertising interchangeably, something I consider misnominal. The fact that people confuse PR with other forms of marketing communications reflects the need for Nigerian PR practitioners to develop creative strategies for truncating this misconception and putting PR in the right perspective in the public sphere.

What Fosters Misconceptions About Nigerian PR?

Our PR. That’s the answer. Our collective reputation as PR practitioners is a function of the kind of PR we practice and how we communicate the profession to the uninitiates. It’s that simple. When a client gives you a brief requiring a 360-degree communications approach and your response is nothing but a press release-based plan, you’re inadvertently making the client believe that’s the only thing you know how to do. In fact, you give the impression that PR equals media publicity.

In my article ‘PR Beyond Publicity Stunts’, I stressed this same point: “It’s time to look beyond publicity stunts, which is only a fraction of PR. It’s time to drum it very stridently that PR practitioners weren’t trained to only draft and syndicate press releases. It’s time for business owners to make PR a must-have, not a nice-to-have or a stopgap activity. It’s time for PR professionals to practice more of broad-based public relations. That’s the only way we can earn and retain our seats at management meetings and entrench our relevance”.

There’s more to PR than what some of us practice. We need to become more strategic and extensive in our response to briefs and how we approach a client’s challenge or address a need through the instrumentality of communication.

Dealing with ‘Bad PR’ for PR

Tackling the various misconceptions about public relations requires disciplined and concerted efforts. Every PR practitioner, whether in the agency or corporate space, should approach PR like a strategic communications specialist because that is what PR is- employing strategic communication to build and sustain mutual lines of understanding between an organisation/brand and its stakeholders so that both parties can exist in harmony. This definition looks simple and succinct but encompasses so much when explicated. It evidently captures the place of stakeholder relations management in PR. In fact, that’s what you do- essentially. Every PR professional should consider himself/herself as one managing the expectations and interests of an organisation’s stakeholders and aligning them with those of the organisation, making the latter look great in the public sphere. PR is deep and broad. Let’s appreciate this fact.

Mitigating the trend of misperceptions about PR also means PR tutors in higher institutions must teach their students that PR is more than syndicating publicity releases and securing media coverage. Tutors must stress that students think profoundly about PR and be open-minded. Students should develop strong skills in research, trend-spotting, -analysis and -leveraging, writing, online reputation management, crisis communication, news management, PR evaluation, campaign management, thought leadership development, and other practical functions which fall under modern PR job description. Students should be made to understand that businesses are operating in an increasingly VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) terrain now, with many intricacies, and this is taking its toll on PR, as brands expect a PR specialist to be a well-rounded, ‘all-knowing’ communications professional.

Also, stakeholder bodies like NIPR and PRCAN, especially the former, need to do more in changing the flawed narrative people peddle about the public relations profession. NIPR houses the PR community in Nigeria and should lead in this PR campaign for Nigeria’s PR, to elevate the practice. The PRCAN, on the other hand, should organise more trainings aimed at making practitioners embrace PR as a robust communication discipline rather than a publicity field.

It Behoves You, the Practitioner

Lastly, the onus ultimately lies on each PR professional to practice PR right. And to practice PR right requires that you constantly read, upskill, take digital PR courses, attend trainings on strategic communications and eschew that constrained understanding of PR to mean mere publicity creation. Extensive PR education is the way.

Stanley Olisa, a Strategic Communications Consultant, writes from Lagos.

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