After successfully launching the fourth edition of the Nigerian PR report, aimed at giving insight into the PR industry, Ayeni Adekunle, CEO of leading PR firm, Black House Media, discusses with BusinessDay analyst MICHEAL ANI, on the challenge, opportunities faced by, as well as how the industry is evolving with current trends
On August 29, 2020, you announced the fourth edition of the Nigeria PR Report, why did you decide to embark on this project?
The problem we saw was that the industry was struggling in a lot of ways. Agencies were not doing very well, quite a lot of the clients were not getting value for their money, employees were not getting well paid, the practice was not being respected and globally we were not even being seen. So we asked ourselves, do we keep on complaining like many do, or do we try and intervene?
The Nigerian PR report was one of our ways of intervening in the space. To do some sort of research to get data that consultants can use to make better decisions, that clients can find useful, and that agencies can also use to have an idea on how the industry is growing and what the practice area is.
Also, so those international companies who say they don’t take us seriously because they barely find data about our industry, can have access to these data, and stop having a reason or an excuse for not taking us seriously.
So to me, I feel it is our way of giving back to the industry that we are operating in.
Since the first edition what has changed?
We still have some problems but not as much as we had in 2015 when we first launched the report. Revenues have grown significantly, the perception of PR has changed positively and compensations have increased abruptly. Some agencies pay 4-5 times more than they used to pay five years ago including my firm Black House Media.
Globally, we command more respect and even locally compared to advertising. Before now, PR used to be seen as the poor cousin of advertising, but now, PR is taking its rightful place.
So, I will say respect has increased; compensation has increased because revenues have increased, and clients use PR better.
How has the pandemic impacted on the industry?
Covid-19 has had a very significant impact on organisations and countries, bringing the entire world to a halt. I don’t think any person or organisation is immune to the effect of the pandemic, including PR.
However, what I know that has happened to PR is that: we have heard an opportunity to help our clients. Covid-19 brought with it a multidimensional crisis for organisations and governments, so we have had to work harder, and it has been like a litmus test for us, a time for us to bring value to the table.
So a lot of us, I mean agencies around the country, have had to work day and night to deliver value. We have had to work 4x more than we did before the Covid because we have had a lot to do.
Companies are trying to ensure that their staff are well informed and are healthy. So the bulk of the work we did between February and March is to sort of guide our clients on how to make sure that the great idea that they have in helping their critical stakeholders is well-executed, and seen to be well executed.
So, I would say that it’s been a busy period for PR, it’s been a period to show value. But despite that, we are also suffering the same challenge that every organisation is suffering due to the pandemic. We also bear the burden to ensure we provide the right kind of support to our suppliers and employees to make sure that they navigate this period well.
What factors were behind the decrease in revenue for PR firms?
Part of what happened in the last 10 years was that new storytelling platforms emerged, eating deep into the revenue of PR agencies.
For example, digital marketing. What happened was that a lot of budgets and assignments that were coming to PR staff in government, PR agencies, and to in-house PR teams were going to digital marketing because of the growth of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the likes.
PR did not lead that venture into social media, and it almost looked like we were late to the party. So for a minute, a lot of PR budgets went down, PR agencies were not being paid, and they were also not paying well.
Some of the most brilliant minds who would have come to transform the PR space were not willing to come. They were going to advertising, going to work on the client-side. That was responsible for the loss of revenue, the loss of trust and the loss of business that PR suffered in the past decade.
However, what has changed in the last few years is that a lot of PR agencies who are super competent and have experience in telling stories with digital platforms have emerged.
The second thing was that a lot of the old agencies that appear to have been caught napping woke up quickly and put their houses in order.
The third was that a lot of companies realized that the social media guys were marking their own scripts, as it emerged that a lot of data they were using to make decisions, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram may not have been as credible as they thought it was.
Fourthly, the convergence of all these media platforms meant that people needed an advisor who understands the good strategy for communication, not just who understood how to use a particular media.
So what we have seen in the past few years is the fact that more clients are looking for PR agencies to guide them on the use of social media, and then because PR has started attracting and retaining great talents, they now can do the work better, earning the trust of senior management.
I expect the growth to continue, and by 2025, we will be in a place where PR will be the communication driver for government and companies in the integrated marketing communications space.
What can PR agencies do to increase their revenue?
Because we are now the ones guiding the government on how to use Social Media, we are now the ones guiding companies on how to make sense of what is happening in the media space, we now have a bigger pile of responsibility.
10-20 years ago, there was nothing like social media, when we started it didn’t occur to us, but it sits with us now. So I see PR agencies commanding more revenues either from an advisory role or from a crisis communication space, or a content strategy space, from an asset management space or a community management space.
The pie is getting bigger, and the PR remit is going to increase. PR agencies are adding skills that were not important to the industry 10-20 years ago.
We are hiring product managers, we are hiring analysts; things we did not have business with some 10-20 years ago. This was why I said that in the future, organisations will trust professionals who understand strategic management and can assist companies in behaving well and avoid troubles, and who can help them in telling stories no matter the medium as opposed to those who are just specialists in a particular medium that could go out of fashion tomorrow.
Those who have in-depth knowledge about Twitter, Google, Facebook and the likes, will get hired by PR agencies. Those who have broad base skills and knowledge on how to help companies better communicate, help companies behave well and help companies prevent crises will be relevant.
What are some of the skill gaps you believe exist in the Nigerian Public Relations industry?
One of the most important skills that you need to succeed in PR is creative thinking, being able to approach a problem from a creative perspective.
The second is data analytics. It is very important to take data and interpret and analyse it to help businesses or governments make the right decisions.
It is also very important that PR agencies have a product management perspective. So instead of thinking only in B2B, we must also think in B2B2C. We have to offer value to a broader range of customers, and we have to offer services beyond those guaranteed by RFPs.
We work with clients round the clock whether we are dealing with the government or investors, employees or communities.
How do you approach a particular project, what does success mean?
Something very important that I would like to note is on understanding content beyond writing. A lot of communicators are stuck in thinking that the first language of communication is writing. Text is a very important means of communication and I don’t think it is going away anytime soon. But if you want to reach young people on TikTok, I don’t think you will need text alone. If you want to reach young people on Snapchat and Instagram, you cannot think of text first.
So, understanding communication from the point of view of the recipient of the communication not from what we are trained with or from what we think is right. I will say that it is important for us as agencies to keep what we have learnt but also learn new things. This is because with the way media is going, it suggests that a lot of people we will be communicating with are not going to be newspaper readers, rather they are going to be listeners because they are listening to Podcasts, they are going to be viewers on YouTube, Instagram and the likes. Also, people don’t want to sit down and be communicated to, they want to participate actively, so understanding this mindset will help to guide in the kind of skills that we prioritize in the industry, and it will also guide the kind of resources that we advise our clients to invest in.
In the next 10-20 years, we foresee a collapse. There will be advertising, marketing, media, communication and education, we will not need to unbundle them. In fact in the next 10-20 years, what we know as PR today would have morphed into a new practice; and that knowledge is what we are basing the future of our company on. It’s why we are building Plaqad, which is first-of-its-kind for any PR company on the African continent.
The same it was 30 years ago, there were no content management systems for newspaper publishing. To publish in a newspaper, you need to have a web offset press, and then you have your newsprint and others. So in the nearest future, PR is going to be digitised in such a way that you can carry on everything that we do in your pocket wherever you go, and you will embrace a DIY model in combination with the consultant and advisor model that we have, as opposed to the Brick and Mortar model that we have now that I think it’s out-dated.
How do you strike a balance between ensuring that the interests of your clients are protected and speaking the truth to the public?
A PR agency is not following global best practices when it starts lying or when it covers up the truth, deceive or try to manipulate. Any PR agency that does that is a quack and does not belong in the profession.
All the ethics of the practice, all the codes of conduct that we signed up for, mandate that PR is about honesty and integrity. It is when your clients have deviated the most that you need to be the most honest.
I will give a good example. The Ethiopian Airline that crashed many months ago. Most Airlines have struggled to recover from such an incident but I was studying a report a few months ago, and I saw that they were one of the few Airlines that recorded a growth in revenue and profit despite the pandemic.
They didn’t try to cover up the incident of the crash when it happened. They were not defensive. The first image released after the crash, their CEO was on site and he never for once pushed the blame on anyone. The airline acted responsibly, showed empathy, and demonstrated sincerity. And as we all saw shortly after, it was not even their fault. The error was from Boeing. But Ethiopia right there gave us all a masterclass in crisis management and I think it will be taught in PR classes for many years to come.
What causes even more problems is when you try to cover the truth. Human beings will make mistakes from time to time. Organisations are run by human beings. There is not a single perfect company in the world.
The job of public relations is to advise the business or government on the best way to approach an issue, and the best way to do that is to make sure that an issue does not disintegrate and become a crisis. Even a crisis can be averted or can be converted into an opportunity when we speak the truth.
When you do wrong, it doesn’t mean things have gone bad or worse, it just provides you with an opportunity to do better. So if you start covering up lies, you are not helping the situation and things can only get worse, whether in the immediate or mch later.
You can’t build a successful organisation on lies, falsehood or scam.
So our job is to advise our clients to make sure they do the right thing so they prevent things from going wrong. But things will often go wrong, and it is also our job to prepare our clients on how to behave when certain things go wrong.
The problem often happens when the clients don’t listen. Any PR agency giving wrong advice, covering up stuff for their clients are not only digging their own grave but are also digging that of their client.
You announced the first-ever World Public Relations Day, do you think a Nigerian agency can make a global impact?
We are very optimistic. We are just a little Lagos PR company like I will say but we have big dreams and big ambitions, and we think it will be in the best interest of the World to listen to us.
We are not trying to make money; we are just trying to play our role in creating a positive World.
I have no cause to think that we won’t get the support that we need, but I am also aware that ‘Rome was not built in a day’.
It is going to take time for anything that is perceived to last long, to be built. What we are doing is not for today but the future.
According to you, “PR is more than a misunderstood, poorly appreciated, and thus poorly remunerated practice”, how will World PR Day improve this perception?
The truth is that if you don’t understand a thing, you won’t be able to extract value from it.
The question is what is PR? We asked five years ago, and the response we got shows most people don’t understand what PR is.
Many called it advertising. So, if we can draw attention to Public Relations on World PR day, what that does is that it provides a better understanding of what we do.
What this also does is that it helps those we serve understand better what we do so they can extract better value. Everybody needs PR no matter their occupation. We all need to understand how to communicate with our stakeholders.
So if we can draw global attention on what PR could be and what it should be, it makes those who currently use PR, justify why they must continue using PR. And it makes those who do not currently use PR understand why it’s important for them to consider it.
But the most important thing is that when you draw people’s attention to a thing, it makes people better understand the value of the product, and when the value goes up, what follows is premium.
So, what we are doing is that we are doing public relations for PR, if you get what I mean.
PR and communications are too important to not be understood by everybody. There was never any company that is a global brand, religion, government or product that did so without communications.
So what we do is so essential to the global economy that it hurts and scares me that it is misunderstood, undervalued and not even being interrogated enough let alone it being well used.
Countries including Nigeria have gone to war because communications broke down. Countries will be stagnant and full of unrest when the leaders do not understand effective communications.
To extract value from something, you need to understand it. So for me, we want understanding for certain areas we feel that if they are abused or manipulated can harm the World. There is a lot of communication work that needs to be done to make the world a safer and better place for everyone.
We believe it will raise the bar and that practitioners will extract value. But the value that the industry will extract is very insignificant, compared to the impact it will have on international relations, democracy, education, healthcare, and so on.
Can you speak on Global day of influence November 22? What inspired it?
We want to shift the discussion around influence, from influencer marketing to actual influence.
We shouldn’t think that influence can only be used for good, it’s been hijacked now by marketing people, it’s good but how do we come back home and readdress the discussion around what young people should aspire to be like. Who are the guys changing the world for good, for better? If I’m to raise my children, what should they be following? What should they be consuming? We are trying to create an agenda around the positive role of influence in society.
We want to highlight all the horrible times we have had and what have led to them, also, all the great times that we’ve had and times that have changed the world, and to move that discussion beyond the vanity metrics of likes, retweets and comments where it seems as if it is he who has the loudest voice, he who is more popular, gets heard and can move things forward, to the point of impact where we all can make an influence on our streets, in our homes, in our offices, in our corners.
So how can we bring ourselves back and understand where we are? And where the world needs to be going to and determine what areas, what practices, what people, what inventions, what ideas need to be given prominence to create the kind of youth and the kind of world that we are in.
So it’s time to start a conversation around the kind of world we want to live in for the next 10, 20, 30 years and we need to do now to start building that world.
You also announced the second edition of the Concept of Virality report, what is the rationale behind the publication?
Concept of virality was a case study to show brands on how conversations trend. The concept tries to explain why some things go viral and some things don’t? Why do some people get heard and some people don’t? How does it happen? What can we learn from it? A lot of brands are cutting corners because they want to break through the clutter and we are saying, you don’t have to cut corners, you don’t have to engage in silly practices, you can do things right.
How did Jumoke and her story go viral? How did Josh2funny create his “don’t leave me” global challenge? How did the ice bucket challenge go viral? How do brands get heard? How does somebody say something this morning and in the next 48 hours it’s all over the world? That’s what that report is all about, we often take a case, dive into, analyse what happened right, the brands that jumped in, you as an advertiser or you as a PR person…. What tools you can use to get your voice heard, that’s what concept of virality is about.
You disclosed that BHM is committing an initial N100 million to build the BHM Qomms platform. Why is this important?
Because we are trying to build the future and the best time to start building is when everything is collapsed…. We think there is no better time to build investment, to build a resource centre to solve a lot of the problems that we have identified over the past 5 years. We have a big educational and training challenge. We are not being supplied with the people who are ready for the work. So that’s why we have a huge talent problem in the media and how do we solve it? Do we keep complaning? No, so that’s one problem we want to solve.
Measurement is another key value there, how do we show value? How? Beyond numbers, how do we show sentiments and all of that. Look at jobs, we identified some of the most important problems there. Standardization is one of them, what is good? What is bad? How do you stop being subjective? So what we are doing is, we are putting our money where we feel we can provide an opportunity for everybody to do better, you run a PR agency, you’re going to find value there, you are PR practitioner, you’re going to find value there and your value may be that you’re just coming there to look for work, you’re coming there to hire people or you’re coming there to take a short course or you’re coming there to use your dashboard, how can we create solutions to the problems that the reports have highlighted.
We expect to complete the project by 2021. We think that when Covid-19 is gone, a lot of professionals are going to need a new set of tools, a lot of companies are going to need a new set of skills and the world would be in charge of new ideas, we have a chance to prepare people who will be ready when this time comes.
Where is the money from the project coming from? Is there going to be some sort of fundraising?
We always take risks with our own money. We have never raised funds. We hope sometime soon, we might go to the market, but for now, we put our money where our mouth is when we take a risk.