‘Paying for pitches is a global practice that should be encouraged here’ – John Ehiguese
Mr. John Ehiguese is the Founder/Group Chief Executive Officer of Mediacraft Associates, a leading Nigerian PR consultancy and affiliate of FleishmanHillard South Africa. He is the immediate past President of the Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria (PRCAN.) He is a passionate perception manager who uses the right communication channels, platforms and messages to build strong stakeholder relationships and wholesome reputations for brands and corporate organisations. In this interview with Adetunji Faleye of Brand Impact, he assesses public relations in the past one year. He also bares his mind on quackery and other sundry issues. Excerpt:
What is your assessment of Nigeria’s public relations industry in the past one year taking into consideration Covid-19 and its related issues?
I think with reduction in cases of Covid-19 and its pressure because of vaccination and other mechanism put in place, businesses have started opening up. Although, I don’t know the rate of the reduction, but speaking for myself and my experience specifically, being that the recovery rate is high, we are almost back to pre-pandemic level in terms of patronage. Opportunities have started springing up as well. I think that the industry is progressing.
Quackery has been an issue in the industry, as a former president of Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria (PRCAN), how do you think this can be tackled or should the industry continue to leave with it?
Honestly, quackery is on the high side in the public relations industry because we have a weak regulatory environment. Regulation is either two ways – self-regulation and statutory regulation created by law. Interestingly, the industry has made effort at self-regulation through Nigerian Institute of Public Relations and PRCAN. Quite frankly, what the law says is that you should not practice without being registered by those bodies, but many people who are not qualified or registered by those bodies are practising because there is no proper enforcement. As long as regulatory environment is weak quackery will continue to thrive. That’s the reality and it’s quite unfortunate.
If you should project like how much is quackery taking from the entire industry?
I don’t have any figure right now, but I guess it must be as high as 50 per cent. It is pervasive. Don’t be surprised that the quacks even get the biggest businesses because they connive with some people who are on the client side. Apart from that, what also encourages quackery is that the barriers to entry in this industry are low, and because the barriers are low, the regulating environment is weak so, add the two together and you have is perfect recipe for high incidences of quackery. It is so bad that you don’t need to have an office. All you need is a friend who is a corporate affairs director to give you brief and mobilises you. To put a stop to this challenge clients have to take decision by embarking on due diligence on agencies they want to work with. That will, proverbially speaking, help to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Successful governments both at the federal and state levels do appoint journalists and politicians as their spokespersons, is it because politicians don’t have confidence in PR professionals or they believe that journalists are better for the job?
I think they don’t understand what we call public relations. They also don’t understand that journalism is different from public relations. These are two different careers, and once you cross from a career in journalism to public relations you have to unlearn some of the things you have learnt in journalism and acquire prerequisite knowledge in PR because public relations is a profession, with its body of knowledge and expertise. The worldwide trends used to be that you progress from a career in journalism to career in public relations. I think the trend of appointing journalists as spokespersons will change eventually because journalists are to report news. We have seen from experience that some of the journalists they appointed have failed woefully in most cases. I guess the situation will change once they start giving real PR professionals a chance.
Also, what will you say about government or political parties appointing overseas publicists or PR professionals for their job? How do you think professionals can project themselves so that parties and government will start looking inward instead of employing foreign PR agencies?
Government has to consider that expertise they are looking for resides within the borders of this country, and we are trying our best. It is quite unfortunate that some people have this inferiority complex. They have the belief that if it is not foreigner, it’s not good quality. Sadly, that is a challenge we have to deal with, but I hope that it’s going to get better. In fairness to the foreign agencies too, they have an edge over us in the area of research. They invest a lot in research. However, that’s does not mean that we cannot also do it. We can always partner with them. Let me tell you what is happening in other climes. Governments in these countries give the jobs to their nationals, and when these nationals desire extra expertise what they do is to hire one and work together, but the original project is given to their nationals. Honestly, when situation like this begins to happen in Nigeria, it will develop this environment. I hope government gets it right because, it is the scarce foreign exchange that is being wasted.
APCON recently launched Advertising Industry Standard of Operation and there is a section in the document which talks on pitches where brands are mandated to pay certain amount to agencies they invite for pitches. Can that be applicable to the PR industry as well?
I agree it should apply to our industry because it is a common area. You know it takes a lot to prepare for pitches. Apart from time, we are also talking about the resources. Sometimes we commission research at a very expensive rate to gather insight that will drive our proposal. Apart from that, paying for pitches is a global practice and it should apply here. When brands pay pitch fees, not only does it give agencies respect and the motivation to work harder, it will also put an end to the clients calling for frivolous pitches. We have instances where clients call for frivolous pitches where they just go through the motions and they assemble many agencies, extract their ideas and then run with them. I think the introduction of pitch fee is a very good idea and I support it.
What is your projection for PR industry in the year 2022?
I am optimistic that the industry will get better. The trajectory is upward now because we are getting lot of invitations to pitch for new businesses. That is a healthy sign and because the economy is recovering, the business sector is also recovering. These are positive indicators that the year 2022 will be great.
Kindly tell us some of the public relations campaigns your agency deployed in recent years and how effective are they to the brands?
One of the brands we work for is the Stanbic IBTC Group, which has been winning awards all over the place. We also work for Interswitch, which is arguably the biggest tech unicorn in Nigeria today. Also, we work for Olam, the biggest player in agro-allied industry in the country as at today. Interestingly, our biggest campaign is the protein challenge. The United States Soybeans Export Council (USSEC) commissioned us in 2019 to do a protein pull campaign. The idea is to draw attention to the issue of protein deficiency in Nigeria, and to position soya beans as the most cost-effective solution to it because soya beans is the most complete plant protein. We are trying to build that campaign which is in its third year now, hopefully when we finish that we will move on to another phase of the campaign. Frankling speaking, that has been our biggest campaign so far in terms of size, scope, size of the budget and profile of the client.
What distinguishes Mediacraft Associates from other PR agencies in the country?
What distinguishes us is that we have a strategic approach to our business. We also have a culture of excellence. I can tell you that most of the new businesses that we get are as a result of referrals from people and organisations that we work, or have worked for, and of course we have a foreign affiliation, which gives us access to their tools and their global resources. That is also really helping us.
How is your agency leveraging on digital to remain relevant in a fast-involving industry?
You cannot prosecute a PR campaign today without a digital component. We have a fully staffed digital marketing department and we are hoping to grow it. The campaign I mentioned above, the protein/soyabean campaign is largely digitally-driven. Why digital is especially essential nowadays is because Nigeria has a large population of young people and that’s where they play. So, if you want to reach the critical mass of the population there is no way you will not employ digital. That’s why we are investing our resources into that.
Recently Mediacraft launched PR Academy programme in partnership with the department of Mass Communications of University of Lagos, what is the rationale behind that?
PR Academy is our Corporate Social Responsibility initiative that we put in place. We observed that the single most important challenge in the PR industry today is quality talents. That is the reason we are investing in growing that skill of upscaling people and catch them young when they are in school. What we have now is just a pilot scheme which is for final year students, and we are planning to expand it by moving it round the country as time goes.
What is the criteria for selecting the students?
Apart from being students of Mass Communication, they have to be in their final year. We also put into consideration their interests. For instance, students who are interested in broadcasting will not gain as such from the programme. So, that programme is not for them. There is also a screening process put in place to determine who qualifies. It is a whole lot of things. As time goes on, we will extend it to the West African region.
What should we be expecting from Mediacraft in year 2022?
Our strategic vision is 1-in-20, which is to be the Number one PR agency in Nigeria by the time we reach 20 years in the next two years, that’s 2023 to be precise. Our objective is to be number one PR agency in Nigeria by that time, and we are working towards that.
What is your advice to the young people who want to start career in public relations?
First of all, they must have and build their writing skill. That’s not negotiable. If you don’t have a good writing skill you don’t have a business being in PR. Quite frankly, 80 per cent of what we do in PR is writing. Basically, that is the skill they need to have, and grow in terms of their learning attitude. They must have attention to details. They must also have ability to work hard in the industry and be diligent as well. The wrong conception a lot of them have is about the glamour around PR. Most people outside see the glamour part of it which is misleading. They must understand that PR is a tough work and when they are hardworking they will have a brilliant career.