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As a global communicator, management consultant and President, Business Education Examinations Council, Mr. Mike Okereke, has over 30 years’ experience in public relations practice. He was a contemporary of Chief Ernest Shonekan at UAC conglomerate. He was pioneer president of Nigerian Institute of Public Relations from 1988 to 1996 and also president of the continental body, Federation of African Public Relations, now African Public Relations Association. He also served at the International Public Relations Association. He is the only African to be honoured by the Public Relations Society of America. He is the convener of Commonwealth Public Relations Congress scheduled for November 21 through 24 in Lagos. Okereke spoke with Anote Ajeluorou, Assistant Arts Editor
What is the thrust of convention coming up in Lagos next month? What will it achieve?
We have the Commonwealth Public Relations congress. It’s going to hold from November 21 through 24, and we think it’s a great opportunity for both the government and the private sector to keep abreast of public relations’ best practices. We are going to emphasise the importance of public relations in a strategic manner and for people to look at issues, the risks. What are the risks, which we are exposed to? How can we address them proactively before they become major crises? How should governments be looking at their policies? Do they do any research to know the thinking of the public before coming out with any policy? What are the likely reactions of the public to what they want to do, like the judges’ arrest? It should have saved the country a lot of embarrassment if government had done its public relations’ research properly. What is likely to be the reaction of the people to what government wants to do?
We think that the government and the private sector should lay a lot of emphasis on training and re-training of its personnel, who handle their communication and public relations.
These are what the congress will be addressing. That is why the congress has as theme ‘Strategic Management of Reputation Risk in an Interdependent World.’ It will look at the strategic system of addressing reputation risks and seeing how to manage them before they become crisis. We have speakers coming from the United States, an award-winning lady from the U.S.; we have speakers from South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana. It is an international event and we’ll like to see all those in the media attending.
One would assume that a country like Nigeria has reputational problems to resolve in which your field of expertise can assist. In what ways has government, over the years, consulted public relations’ professionals like you?
We think that something like reputation management is not something you do in a hit or miss method. It has got to be strategic. It’s got to be well-planned. I think the first thing government should do is to appoint independent consultants, who will stay detached from government and give them detached advice on what to do and not those who already work for government. The government people will work with the consultants in collaboration.
The first thing the government should do is to get these consultants to conduct a reputation audit of Nigeria. Find out, though research, what are Nigeria’s strengths? What are Nigeria’s weaknesses? What are the threats and what are the opportunities? Having found out all that, we now have got to decide on how to address the findings of the survey. Who are the target audience? Who are important to Nigeria? What countries are important to Nigeria? What business groups are important to Nigeria – chambers of commerce around the globe, governments around the globe? How do we reach them?
A communication plan is now drawn up based on the results of the survey. Based on what they are thinking, they then have a master plan. We then address the shortcomings, the imperfections in the communication masterplan and emphasise our strengths in the communication.
So that everybody in government and those in the embassies are singing the same tune. The situation at the moment is that there is no coordinated, clear plan. If you take a country like Rwanda, it had the worst kind of crisis in recent memory, which gave that country a bad reputation. But today, they have turned it around; they are now seen as an investment haven, a country where people should do business. Nigeria has a lot of strengths. We are blessed. We have crude oil, mineral resources, population, intelligent people; we have been blessed with all sorts of things. We are not capitalising on our strengths. We are not talking about them. All that is known about Nigeria is armed robbery, corruption, kidnapping, etc. The result is that there’s no coordinated strategy, a coordinated plan.
If I am taking my green passport abroad, when they see it what occurs to them is « oh, there they are, these are crooks, these are this, these are that! » We have got to realise our status. I have served with the Nigerian Economic Summit Group on the public relations committee. In that committee, we had the brilliant advertising man, ‘Biodun Shobanjo, a heavyweight. When we say, ‘oh, we’re fighting corruption and all that’ we have got to do it in such a way that we do not paint the whole country with one brush. We are going to be doing more harm than good if the impression we are creating is that every single person in the country is corrupt. If people are corrupt, tell them but let it be done in such a quiet way. In any country in the world, you have the good, the bad. In Europe and America, they have the good and the bad. In Nigeria, we have the good, the bad.
So in essence, Nigeria has only been amplifying the negative side at the expense of the positive, isn’t it?
What then will you attribute it to? Is it that those managing the country do not know what to do?
I think we don’t have a structured communication strategy.
You said you and your group had given recommendations that were ignored. So, what is the hope that in future they will heed whatever advice anybody gives?
We will continue to push. That is one of the things we expect the media to do: to help us push. We think that we shouldn’t overplay our negatives. Every country has negatives and we shouldn’t go abroad with it. We should decide the type of communication to give in Nigeria and the type to give abroad.
All I’m saying is that we must have a public relations consultant who is detached from government, who can tell government ‘you can’t do this or that. This is the effect of what you are planning to do’. A typical example is the policy we had at UAC. No general manager and no managing director can make a statement to the media without clearing with the public relations office to ensure that what they are saying is in line with the communication policy, is in line with what they should be saying.
Government means well. But the way they are communicating it brings problems. Side by side with what we are doing, we should have a crisis management plan. If we are going to take an action, we should think of the consequences of the action first, the public relations implication of what we are doing. How will it be interpreted? Will it be better to communicate and carry the people along before implementing or we just jump on it and start doing it the fire-brigade way?
So, which is the advisable option?
The one I would advise is for government to realise that for every action taken, there is a public relations implication. They should seek public relations advice before implementing. That way you are doing what is called ‘proactive public relations’ rather than ‘defensive public relations.’ You carry the people along so that when you implement it, they are aware.
In an Internet era, what is the implication of social media on public relations?
Before now, you just had a few traditional media. Now you have a thousand and one media that you can’t control. This is why it is important that you must start communicating to the target audience. At the moment, we don’t segment our audience. Government has got to decide on who are our target audience. Citizens are important. Foreign investors, manufacturers, consumers, all are important. So, there must be a segmented form of target audience and different messages go to them. You don’t give generalised messages to them. Like the social media. There should be strategy for reaching out to them. On reaching to them, on giving them information fast so that they are basing what they are doing on a balanced information and not one-way information.
And then you must give early information. I believe so much in proactive public relations than defensive public relations. I believe that the government and people in the Ministry of Information are doing a good job. But they need, at the background, consultants who are going to tell them ‘this is what you should do. This is how you should do this because of this and because of that implication!’
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