By Kalu Okoronkwo Jnr.
The role of Public Relations “PR” as it is commonly referred to in the life of businesses, nonprofit organizations, individuals and institutions transcends the misconception associated with the noble profession. PR is now gaining more global acceptance than ever before, hence the need to harness its potentials professionally for the benefits derivable therein.
While the delusion of Public Relations is not the focus of this discourse, it is however imperative to analyze some of the malaise mostly associated with it as a body of knowledge contributing its quota in molding positive perception and brand building endeavors.
In the Nigerian parlance for instance when one talks about doing PR, it evokes bribery or appreciation for doing one a favour commonly referred to as “good PR” but that is far from the truth. This is what prompted the then Minister of Education Prof. Fabian Osuji during the National University Commission’s (NUC) bribery scandal to attest that the N50million bribe he got was for PR.
That was unimaginable for a chief executive and political appointee of a federal ministry with a supposedly very organized Public Relations unit and should be a repertoire of knowledge. To further buttress the mediocrity associated with the profession as at then, there is no evidence anywhere that the Nigerian institute of Public Relations, whose role is to regulate the practice of Public Relations as empowered by enabling decree raised a voice against the denigration of Professional PR practice.
The question that readily comes to mind is, could he have derogated other professions such as law, medicine, accounting, architecture, engineering or even marketing among others that has the same statutory backing as he did Public Relation?. This and most other cases are just some major reasons why Public Relations have not assumed its pride of place like other professions.
Several other reasons abound why PR practice is relegated. The skepticism with which advertising practitioners view Public Relations also accounts for the reason why its acceptance is still low keyed. I once heard a very senior advertising professional describe PR as simply arranging girls for Chief Executives of Organizations. I was shocked to the marrow, but being a very senior person, I didn’t allow arguments which will spoil our outing knowing that he already has a mindset, or wishfully wanted to stir up an argument in that direction with intention of affirming superiority of advertising over PR.
But truth must be told. The way and manner most PR people conduct themselves especially those on paid employment, lends credence to this insinuation. You can’t blame the man that does not understand, what you rather owe him is education and enlightenment but most times, out of overzealousness, the wrong signals are presented against the norm.
What however surprised me most was the fact that the fellow was a graduate of Mass Communications, thereby prompting the question about what students are being thought in school. Before the University of Nigeria, Nsukka Marketing Department started a post graduate degree in Public Relations (the first ever degree awarding program in Public Relations), PR was studied under mass communication and other communications studies including Marketing, how come these senior citizens now joined the band wagon of strange bedfellows who want to call a dog a bad name just to kill it. Or is it the long drawn battle albeit ignorantly by some advertising people that PR is just another form of Below the Line (BTL) activity.
The most disturbing of these distortions comes from some organisations management who most times see Public Relations as some form of protection, means of influencing the media via brown envelope with a view to obtaining cheap or free publicity; hence most PR people are seen as telling lies about their organizations or clients. The fact remains that Public Relations is based on truth and full information (as we will get to know much later)
There are needless and countless other appendages to Public Relations that need not be mentioned here for reason of tedium. In the of course delving into the main PR issues, I will try and do justice to them perhaps as case study. The aim is to provide guidance to those requiring PR services in one way or the other to enhance public acceptance.
With this background, it is obvious that readers understand what PR is not, and to a large extent could differentiate between real practitioners and quacks.
It goes without saying that organized Public Relations in Nigeria and other developed countries of the world has become strategic management function as most organizations and governments either operate full Public Relations unit or hire services of PR consultants to handle their Public Relations and Communications issues.
I am also optimistic that for those who are yet to embrace PR as strategic service unit of their organizational lives and per chance have opportunity and patience to follow through our discussions, reason will prevail for them to integrate PR services towards their goals of achieving social, economic, cultural and political targets of their various organizations.
Having set this background, let us try a functional definition of Public Relation with a view to better understand the subject matter and set the right ambience for the discourse.
According to the British institute of Public Relations, PR is defined as “the deliberate, planned and sustained efforts to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organization and its publics”. Put in another form , Public Relations is that management function that reconciles public opinion and interests with corporate interests and policies for their mutual understanding, acceptance and benefits. The original definition specifically noted that Public Relations is a management function, connoting that it is in that same class with other management functions such as Marketing, Accounting, Finance , Production, Personnel and among others. But the question is, how many institutions have embraced Public Relations, how many of them treat it at the same level as other management functions where the PR Adviser or Director sits on the board?.
What is rife in most cases is where Public Relations people in organizations and consultancies are treated like press release merchants, especially among banking institutions where they plant and ”unplant” stories in the media. The effect is that policies and management decisions most times fall short of expectations without adequate communication counsel “as he who pays the piper dictates the tune”. At most, some of these PR Strategists in such organizations are mere errand boys or glorified house boys and girls. In fact most of them have no or little input on the final material that goes to the media.
The definition also emphasized the need to use Public Relations intervention to manage public opinion and interests. It is also a tool to build internal consensus between management and employees. But what we have most times is where organizations spend billions on uncoordinated, less impactful and target-less communication. Most times this could just be on external communications neglecting internal publics who most times are the geese that lay the golden eggs. The result is what is common and known as Public Relations liabilities. The implications are that these employees are not good ambassadors of their organizations. Almost 90% organizational staff derogates their employers in the wider public causing brand erosion in the process.
Again, the need for Public Relations to be deliberately planned was emphatic in our working definition. However, most organizations treat PR as touch and go, chance affair or hit and run operations, needing its services only when crisis erupts or major launch of a product, which most times are misplaced and haphazardly done. But Public Relations should be planned and organized effort carried out as an integral part of the organization for effect and value.
It should be emphasized therefore that there is need for Public Relations to lead our communications intervention efforts , because the decision of prospects to go into relationship with any organization are actually based on how the organization manages its perception or how people see its products and services in their minds commonly referred to as positioning .
That function of building and sustaining the desired positive perception, image or reputation of the organization in the mind of prospective and potential customers is in the purview of Public Relations Managers. Once, neglected as often done, it becomes difficult to convince stakeholders and mold positive opinion.
It is therefore imperative that during feasibility of start ups, Public Relations should be in the plan no matter the area of service, be it health institutions, law firms, building and construction, chain stores, NGOs, educational institutions, among others. The spate of collapse of businesses hinging on economic downturn can also be attributed to wrong positioning resulting from wrong application of communication strategies to targets as competition has done some of them in.
In subsequent articles, we will begin to explore special uses of Public Relations and its applicability in our effort to create the right image. We will also try and resolve some of the confusions associated with mixing Public Relations with other functions such as media relations, advertising, marketing, journalism, among others.
This column will also entertain case studies and brand personalities in its bid to ensure practical knowledge of the subject matter while readers enquiries, emails and short messages will be dealt with and most times published for the benefit of all.
We will also do our best to offer tips to help your public relations efforts as small businesses, non profits and individuals, while topics relating to each might also come up in future.
Kalu Okoronkwo has over 15 years hands on experience in PR practice gained from Consultancy and at other time, as employee in a leading financial services institution in Nigeria. He was at a time an instructor with the now rested NIPR Diploma class where he handles Media Relations.