PR in Nigeria is one of the reasons journalism is in bad shape

Why would I, for instance, buy more than one newspaper when I have it at the back of my mind that everything I read in one would be in the other? Almost word for word. It does not make sense. May be it would make sense for PR whose plenty media clips earn for it its fat retainer.

At the last Annual General Meeting of the Public Relations Consultants Association of Nigeria (PRCAN), it was reported that a paper delivered by re-elected President, John Ehiguese pointedly accused journalists of taking jobs that were meant for PR Consultants.

I was not invited to the event and so did not attend but having heard from colleagues what transpired, I reason it would be proper to put things in proper perspective. I have written about related issues in the past and till date, I am not sure the circumstances have sufficiently changed to necessitate a change in position.

Many people, including the players in the Nigerian PR industry are in total agreement that journalism began to slide almost at the same time PR began to grow in Nigeria. There was also this sinister conspiracy by publishers who would not pay staff salaries, leaving journalists to rely solely on patronage for upkeep and survival.

Many publishers have been known to have told their staff that having provided them with platforms; it was left for the reporter to exploit it “to make money.”

Such was the state of things. For the people in PR and influence peddling, it was good season. The newsroom began to lose quality and cerebral career journalisms began quick exits to the communication departments of banks. Others less fortunate took flight to PR agencies, either as a career option or a shortcut to more financially rewarding careers in banks, telecom and even oil and gas.

It became good season for PR. As the newsroom lost quality, PR gained and it became very easy for press releases to be planted in newspapers and magazines without the reporter interrogating the issues so raised or look at it from a fresh angle for added value.

As this trend grew, PR began a slow but steady overtake of the newsroom and would often influence who gets posted to which beat. I have witnessed occasions where “PR” visited the offices of newspaper organisations to complain against an uncooperative reporter to their editors. Some of my colleagues have been sanctioned on occasions as a result.

Fresh in my memory was in 2004 while I was working as Editor of Brands & Products magazine. A colleague then, the late Tumise Adekunle had written an article with the title, No Intention to Pay Rent (NIPR) over the failure of the Institute’s Lagos Chapter to pay its rent following which it received a quit notice from the landlord.

I am aware that even after late Tumise had left us at Brands & Products and began reporting for This Day, some elements in Lagos NIPR then did their best to make his work in This Day difficult by reporting him very frequently to the Editors.

Such was the growing power of PR over journalism and progressively, journalists lost the art and skill. They no longer write. PR was now writing on their behalf and would even query the reporter who dared alter the headline already cast by PR on behalf of clients.

They feel a strong entitlement to do this. After all, the reporter would have collected some token as “transport” from PR for the publication. He would have compromised a great deal more by those bags of rice, groundnut oil, Table-top fridge and even home theatre sets he frequently had been collecting during Christmas and Sallah. There are a few other “interventions” that PR also frequently makes when the wife of a reporter puts to bed or in cases he or she loses loved ones.

Notice that PR rarely responds when a journalist passes on. There is no compelling business case to justify this. The reporter had died. His relationship had therefore terminated and there is therefore no need patronizing the people he or she had left behind.

It is a transactional relationship and usually ends the moment you leave your job or when there are the frequent cases of newspapers closing down.

Many journalists saw the influence of PR on journalism as an opportunity and did well to take advantage. They commercialized the practice, to the benefit of PR. They will go out of their way to ensure PR gets his story and “photo ops” in. Wishy-washy stories with no bearing on public interest began to grace front pages.

PR became so pervasively influential that inside newsrooms, there was (still is) a name called “PR stories.” And when you turn in such stuff in volumes and with accompanying “support”, you get into the good books of editors.

As a result of this, some newspapers evolved reporters who became more influential that their line editors in determining what goes into the pages. And journalism was suffering.

PR gloated. Journalists began to make money. From PR. As a matter of fact, PR began to deepen their influence in the newsroom by encouraging and finally converting some influential journalists into newsroom branches of PR. These journalists began to interface with other journalists on behalf of PR and from there, because they have their hands on the levers of what makes the news the next day, also began to generate clients of their own. Yes. And at the expense of PR.

But in doing this, journalism began to die. People stopped writing. Good writers left the newsroom. And at press conferences, you’d hear stuff like, “Don’t worry, we will send it.” That is PR telling a reporter not to bother to write because even before he gets to the office, a one-size-fits-all, plastic press release would have been sent to his mail box.

If you open a newspaper in Nigeria any day, you find that over 90 percent of the contents are the same. Yes, I admit this can happen because the reporters go to the same beat and would turn in stories from the same event. But when the headline, the body copy are exactly the same, you know it was then PR doing its job.

It is probably why newspapers are no longer selling copies and many, including media owners have not bothered to find out why.

Why would I, for instance, buy more than one newspaper when I have it at the back of my mind that everything I read in one would be in the other? Almost word for word. It does not make sense. May be it would make sense for PR whose plenty media clips earn for it its fat retainer.

But where and how has this helped journalism?

I understand John Ehiguese when he complains. I am in PR. But I am also in journalism. I am in both worlds and quite profoundly feel the pains of the regression of journalism and the challenges PR now face, against a monster that was its creation in the first place.

Truth is beat membership and the camaraderie of the newsroom environment have combined to make today’s journalist (incompetent as he is in writing) better relationship manages than the average PR. He knows the  reporters much more personally, sees them every day and have built the kind of relationship that given him first call when he sends in a material.

He most often has to price his services lower so the client can have good justification to take the job away from PR and give to him.

I am sure some will ask me what PR should do.

I am not just going to hold brief for PR. If you have your job cut out to think on behalf of your client, why not find a way to think for yourself as well as you think for client?

But my advice to PR?

Stop agonizing

Start organizing

Stop agonizing about what journalists have done to PR. Stop agonizing that strangers you invited to your house have eaten your pot of soup.

Start organizing yourself and your team into superior skillsets that would make the flight to journalists less attractive to clients. Start organizing your team into best-in-class craftsmanship that will ensure the stories you pitch are genuinely earned for the values they represent and not for the envelope that transported them to the news pages.

It will be a great beginning that may even help our journalists to begin to think again. At the moment, it’s PR thinking for us in virtually all our newsrooms.

By Ikem Okuhu.