With Digital, the Practice of PR has Changed Radically – Bolaji Okusaga

Bolaji Okusaga was the Managing Director and lead consultant at The QuadrantMSL, Nigeria’s first full-service public relations consultancy. A seasoned public relations expert with extensive experience in government relations, corporate communications and investor relations, Okusaga is one of the few advocates of knowledge-based and capacity building policy in Nigeria’s public relations consultancy practice. Okusaga in this encounter shares his experience in PR practice, the state of communication consulting in Nigeria.

From the Beginning: The Founding of Quadrant

I reckon that the owners of the business at a time were looking at extending the part of campaigns beyond just advertising in the marketing spend but to also add value to clients’ businesses through public relations, another arm of the marketing mix. As a result of this, they added PR as one of their basket of offerings. And moving this beyond thought The Quadrant Company was founded in 1990.

The Brand Offerings

Beyond the normal corporate or brand PR, we also offer services such as Digital PR. And in Digital PR, we do platform development and community management. We also offer high-end PR services like investors’ relationship and financial communications. We also do litigation obligations and also manage other portfolios like tech PR and Health PR. Beyond that, we also do PR rights, issues management and crisis management.

Impact of Digital or ICT on PR practice

What I will say is that the environment has changed. The fact is that the incursion of digital or ICT has affected the way we do our business. And it is even more than an incursion because digital is here to stay. If you look back, in the eighties and the early 1990s we literally did everything manually. But now the way we do things is digital: through emails, social interaction in the media and even the fact that people are now able to do citizen journalism, blogging and merchandising through e-commerce. And in a lot of ways, our profession has been greatly impacted. For me, it is not so much as an incursion but I see it in the perspective that virtually in all our offerings we factor in the digital platform before we do the activation. And why digital? The digital peradventure is by far the most extensive platform now, given the inhibiting factors that have affected the traditional media. For example, the rising cost of newsprint has affected the cover prices of newspapers and magazines and thus slowed down the circulation figures of publications. Also, epileptic electricity supply has also affected the efficacy of the television as a medium of family entertainment which a cross-section of the population bought into. And coupled with this is the fact that radio which would have been an alternative has witnessed too much proliferation that it has become very difficult to track issues on radio.

But with digital media, there’s the immediacy of feedback. There’s a community sense. There’s a social feeling and there’s also the business side of it. So you will find out that PR practice has changed and radically too. Digital media has not only come to stay, but it has also changed practically everything we do. Can you believe that before now nobody would have imagined that when you are going to have a press conference you invite bloggers. Nobody would have imagined that one would one day be sending press releases on social media. But that’s the reality now. Ordinarily, when you send press releases to the traditional media, you send photographs along with it as a separate entity. But now, we send audiovisual press releases on the social media platform. We do this because the online forum has the capability of broadcasting audio-visual and relaying it, just as the television would do. Even now, when we do campaigns online, we get immediate, prompt and direct feedback from consumers without embarking on any form of research and waiting for the outcome of our campaign. If the campaign is successful, you see the result online, with people running along with it. If it’s not successful, you’ll know because there will be no talkability on the campaign in the online community.

In fact, without commissioning any research, when you just click on Google Analytics, you will see the number of visits and hits about the campaign. You’ll see the roll rate. You’ll see your drop rate. Through this, we are able to measure the performance of a campaign. But we never had this until now. However, since the mid-1990s when digital made an incursion into our lives, things have been changing. Even now, when you mention new media, people will look at you, wondering what’s new about new media. This is because it has been with us now for well over a decade or almost two decades.

Challenges in PR Consulting

Part of the problem today is that the industry is still seen as a taker industry and not a giver industry. How do I mean? Right now, the industry cannot name its price. And this is because the barrier to entry is very low. So the clients end up dumping price on us. And we live by whatever the client is able to pay us.

In fact in the middle of a campaign, midstream the client could even re-negotiate our professional fees. And why would this be? It’s because the barrier of entry is very low. And this has made it very difficult to raise the bar of practice. Because since we are unable to demand the right price for our effort, we are unable to build a platform for sustainable growth.

However, what we do at QuadrantMSL is that we’ve consistently engaged in building capacity. Because everything we do is knowledge-based. So we try to create a sense of superior understanding of the problem; a sense of superior solution to vision, a sense of superior strategy and a sense of superior execution. Because we’ve been able to nestle this practice, we are engaged in continuous learning. But beyond continuous learning, we’ve also diversified our portfolio of offerings. We don’t just look at PR as media relations alone. But rather, we deploy PR engagement on other platforms. That means we’re getting actively involved in communities. We are getting actively involved in activations both in-store and in markets, such that we’re able to connect beyond the use of media. That also helped us to differentiate our offering.

Another thing is that we are playing so heavily in the area of digital. In fact we have just set up a full digital section within our organization to add value to our practice. So that when we roll out campaigns on the digital platform we can pretty well go to sleep. Because we’re sure that people are watching, reading and reacting. It’s in these ways that we’ve been able to improve our practice and offer value.

Standard of PR Practice in Nigeria and Abroad

Certainly, we are still lagging behind. And a whole lot of this has to do with development and the size of our economy. But if we have more companies using PR services, the practitioners will be forced to raise capacity. But in a situation where all of us are cleaning out around a few clients, then you cannot grow that industry. And if you cannot grow the industry, you cannot raise the bar of practice. Given this scenario, it’s obvious that PR as practised here and as practised in the UK or US is a different ball game. I once went to an agency in Brussels, and that agency alone has over 200 staff. And doing just basically public affairs which is just an arm of PR. And this is because it’s operating in Brussels which is the headquarters of the European Union. So they are there only to represent the interest of their clients or seek endorsements on behalf of their clients in E.U.

But here in Nigeria, we do not have specialized agencies. All of us are claiming to be full-service agencies. But how can all of us be full-service agencies? Abroad, what obtains is this: You can have an agency claiming to be a specialist in technology, such agency will stick to Tech PR. Another one will claim to be a specialist in financial services, and they too will stick to Financial PR. But here in Nigeria, you have a one-man agency claiming to be a full-service consultancy. That will never happen abroad. Yonder, what you see is this, a full-service agency works in portfolios. And a portfolio could have over 100 staff who have deep experience of the portfolio they are working on.

Difference between PR Practice in Public and Private Sector

Well, there’s a difference between the two. In the public sector, the goal is for the public good but in private practice, the target is profit. This is not to say that you cannot make a profit while thinking of public good but essentially, the private sector is geared towards profit making. But in the public sector what they’re wired to deliver is not profit. They’re wired to do public good. In which case, what they offer is social service. For example, say you are made to play in the area of waste management as a PR person in public sector, profit will be the last thing on your mind, except, if you are doing so under a Public, Private, Partnership (PPP) arrangement. Hence the objectives of a PR outfit playing in the public sector and that of a private sector operator are fundamentally different.

Qualities of a PR Professional

People talk about being extroverted, expressive and being a power dresser. I think those are not bad qualities. But above all that what marks out a good PR person is not dressing or the fact that he rides a Rolls Royce or any other big car. This is because people tend to confuse this image with that of a PR impresario. For me, I think a good PR professional is the one who has across industry experience. One who looks at a situation and comes up with a perception of how to address the situation by creating a value platform. That to me is the ideal PR person.

Editor’s note: Mr Okusaga is currently the MD of PrecisePR

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