Press agentry and Public Relations practice in Nigeria

Journalists and public relations practitioners are products of the extensive and versatile mass communication field. In fact in most institutions, students of the various disciplines in mass communications are trained together until the third and fourth year when they begin to specialise. Hence there is a strong nexus between journalism, public relations and advertising.

Because of the closeness and some level of dependence of one on the other, PR practitioners and journalists all over the world have a peculiar love-hate relationship. The situation in Nigeria is however worse partly due to the evolutionary trend of PR practice and partly due to the environment of work of the two professionals. Public relations practice in Nigeria could be linked to the press relations by the colonial government and multinational companies.

For the avoidance of doubt, PR grew out of journalism for it was an adaptation of journalistic skills to write special reports that shaped public opinion in the news media that resulted in what we know today as Public Agentry; the precursor to Public Relations as we know it today.

PR has however evolved and grown into a wide discipline that press agentry is but an aspect of Public relations practice.  Strengthening mutual understanding between the organization and its publics; advising on the packaging of the organization’s public image; identifying and eliminating organization’s practices that are likely to offend public opinion; expanding organization’s spheres of influence through appropriate publicity and striving to improve communication within the organization and its external publics are aspects of public relations that are deeper and more capital intensive than press agentry or media relations.

Rotimi Oladele, National President, Nigeria Institute of Public Relations affirm the above in a telephone interview with this reporter. According to him, modern public relations practice is about purposive communications, crisis management, relationship and reputation building. To be successful at these, the practitioner require in-depth knowledge, good communication skills and a good understanding of the profession. The practitioner also need a good grasp of the trends and developments in the profession. “Public relations is long past the era of noise making that public service believes is the ‘be all and end all’ of public relations”, he said.

Mike Oparah, director, corporate communications & CSR, Airtel Nigeria, also wrote, “Public Relations, based on my experience, should focus on communication, perception and reputation management without dabbling into the more mundane details of organizing events and producing calendars, diaries, Christmas hampers and “killing” stories in the media (a task made extremely difficult, if not impossible with social media and citizen journalism). The question here really is: What is PR and what is NOT. Or who are we and what do we really do?”

Other challenges bedevilling practice in Nigeria are; digital disruption leading to the blurring of boundaries of professions in the Integrated Marketing Communication mix; poor regulatory framework by the regulatory authority; quackery that further erodes professionalism and public perception and the alleged incursion of journalist into the PR business.

Meanwhile, despite the efforts to address these issues by concerned PR practitioners like Yomi Badejo of CMC Connect, Kunle Ayeni of Black House Media, Emeka Oparah of Airtel, Muyiwa Akintunde of TPT  and the leadership of NIPR; some practitioners are fixated on the last; incursion of journalists into PR business.

These group have a strident voice and able advocate in John Ehiguese, Managing Director, MediaCraft Associates and President, Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria (PRCAN). To him, “We have a situation that is an aberration in Nigeria where a journalist also pretends to be a PR consultant. That is absolutely unacceptable. It is unethical, it distort the whole PR structure and paradigm”.

Their argument: “As PR consultants, we and the media are partners. We help them by giving them content for their platforms and we need them to provide a means for our clients, our brands to express themselves. So there is a symbiotic relationship. But where the journalist now becomes the PR officer, then you have distorted the whole arrangement.”

Ehiguese argued further that some editors have PR agencies on the side that they run.  What such journalists are doing is called press agentry. Press agentry, he said, is a sub-set of Media Relations which has to do with being an agent for the media; in order words distributing press releases. So they get press releases from their clients, edit them and call some of their editor friends to help publish in their papers. From the clients’ point of view the job is done and from their point of view, they have made money. But this distorts the whole gamut of Public Relations profession.

“So the clients say to me as a PR agent, ‘why I am talking to you, why should I contract you when Editor X will collect a far cheaper rate and do the same job for me.’ It distorts the whole thing. It is not right and Nigeria is the only country in the whole world where you have that kind of thing going on”, he said.

“This is happening because the ethnical environment in Nigeria is very weak. I have seen a practicing journalist in one of the major newspapers in Nigeria write Reporter/Media Consultant on his official call card. Can I compete with that kind of person in terms of offering Media Relations services? So, he has the best of two worlds but it destroys the PR business.”

Some practitioners however believe that press agentry is not as big a problem as it is being made to look.

To Rotimi Oladele, the development is not new and its effect is minimal. “You cannot use table knife to cut a forest.  Journalism is not PR and PR is not journalism. The speed, purpose, target and style of communication is not the same.” To drive home his point, he used the analogy of chef and waiter. “No matter the number of waiters in a hotel and not minding the fact that they are the ones that serve people, they are not the same as the chef. PR practitioners are ‘chefs’ while journalists are ‘waiters’”, he said.

Consigning the encroachment claim to the realm of absurdity, Ikem Okuhu of Brandish wrote, “It will be very absurd for any PR person to complain of alleged “invasion of space” by journalism and journalists when there are over 12 branches of PR most of which areas non-PR members of the journalism profession can hardly operate in.”

Qasim Akinreti, Chairman, Nigerian Union of Journalist, Lagos State believes the claim is spurious. According to him, PR is an adjunct of the press because historically, public relations evolve out of journalism. He said further, “in terms of training, all mass communications students have the same basic training until the third and fourth years when they begin to specialise”. He also pointed out that journalists who go into media relations are most of the time certified by NIPR as members. “Is it logical to deny anybody certified by NIPR the right to practice public relations, he asked”?

On integrity and ethical conduct, he said that the Nigerian Union of journalist (NUJ) has a code of conduct which every journalist is expected to comply with. He also averred that it is on record that the Union has disciplined erring members of the press who were found wanton and ran afoul of the code of conduct in the discharge of their professional duties. Instances are documented in the book entitled The History of the Nigerian Press.

In spite of the forgoing, it is incontrovertible that public relation practice is facing a lot of challenges. From quackery, weak regulatory environment, digital disruption, skill inadequacy to inelasticity of practice and economic downturn, public relations practitioners are being buffeted from all sides. It is in this regard that one can empathise and understand the scapegoat-ism of some PR practitioners. They should be told the hard truth however that the blame game and ostrich-playing will not solve the problems.

“I do not think there is Crises Communication in the Nigerian PR. In a volatile market like Nigeria, crises happen to brands every day… Again, where is Public Affairs in our PR? Most companies doing business in Nigeria have serious public sector issues. But where is the professionalism to do this? Social Media communication has also become so huge it is making some people smile to the banks”, wrote Ikem Okuhu.

PR practitioners need to gird their loins, re-tool and re-equip themselves with the requisite knowledge, adapt and be adept at PR practice in the digital age and they will be on top of the game. Indeed we are in the knowledge world and the information age. The knowledge gap between what used to be and what obtains now in the practice needs be bridged for PR to seat at the table in Nigeria. We must also not forget that our world is now ICT driven. So should businesses that intend to thrive in the ICT world we live in.




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