Wednesday, June 17, 2009

PUBLIC RELATIONS AND SOCIETY IN NIGERIA

This piece was written by myself and a colleague DANLADI MUSA

INTRODUCTION

Public Relations has been widely recognized as an essential tool in the creation of goodwill and understanding among customers, employees and the general public. In the execution of this responsibility, Public Relations has become a professionalised activity that is carefully guided by ethics and codes of conduct.

This chapter reviews the relationship between Public Relations as a profession and the Nigerian Society. This is done by analyzing Public Relations in a historical and social context. In other words we are looking at the historical forces that led to the emergence of public relations as a professional endeavour as well as the social issues it sets out to address and how it addresses these issues.

Two issues have been related to the emergence of Public Relations i.e., the World War and the Post War Economic boom. Governments also came to play an important role in the consolidation as well as legitimation of Public Relations as a profession.

Secondly, with an impoverished theory to inform the concept of ‘public’, the profession of Public Relations has come to function essentially through the use of modern communication media of broadcasting and the press.

Thirdly and as a result of its reliance on the mass media to deliver its services, Public Relations appears to work within the problematic confines of message/effect theory paradigm and therefore subject to the limitations of this paradigm.

The conclusions that arise from all these are that, neither the historical forces leading to the emergence of Public Relations nor the social focus of this endeavour imbue it with any liberative capacity.

Public Relations and Society in Nigeria

Public Relations is one concept that is widely misunderstood and misapplied in Nigeria. Many people have come to associate the term with the singular creation of a favourable image without minding the who, what, to whom, at what cost and of what effects the image will serve. Thus, the term is easily confused with propaganda and advertising. However, public relations is not any of them. It is all encompassing with components effectively combined for results.

Like any social science concept, public relations has several definitions. Despite the variety however, there may be observed common terms in most of them.

Kogan (1965:9) defines public relations as the continuing process by which business tries to win the goodwill and understanding of its customers, its employees and the public at large, inwardly through self-analysis and correction, outwardly through all means of expression. The German Public Relations Society defines public relations work as the ‘deliberate and legitimate effort to create understanding and to build and cultivate trust in public opinion on the basis of systematic research’. The German definition is close to that of the British Institute of Public Relations, which sees it as the “deliberate, planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organization and its public”.

Defining public relations Kanu (1985:1) believes that it is the “business of creating and maintaining public understanding and support through effective communication. In other words, PR is a continuous and constructive exchange between business or interest groups and its beneficiaries or clients.

From all these definitions, we could pick out a common understanding that each of them agrees to. For example, they all agree that PR is a:

Deliberate, Conscious and planned activity, whose goal is to achieve the:

Creation of mutual understanding and sympathy through acceptable or legitimate means, between an organization (public or private) and its workers, its clients and the public. This will boost the public image of the company or organization and establish confidence in public mind translated as high opinion rating.

The practice of public relation, according to Black (1976:6) in any organization is likely to center around the following:

1. Strengthening mutual understanding between the organization and any one who deals with it both within and without;

2. Advising on the packaging of the organization’s public image through credible activities;

3. Identifying organization’s practices that are likely to offend public opinion and work towards eliminating such practices.;

4. Working towards expanding the spheres of influence of an organization through appropriate publicity, advertising, exhibitions, films, etc at right times.

5. Undertaking any action directed at improving communication within the organization and between it and its external publics.

From the above, the objective of public relations is the achieving and retaining of goodwill, for the organization, safeguarding the gained reputation and ensuring internal members identification with the interest of the organization.

Perhaps, because of the nature of PR practice, it is often misconstrued to mean propaganda or advertising. A clear distinction exists between them. Propaganda is an instrument of politicians who use it for the manipulation of public opinion for ultimate control. Propaganda is based on self-interest, which may be distorted with falsehood with little modesty or ethical consideration. In it, the means should justify the end.

Advertising, on its own, means communicating to persuade the people to buy a particular product or patronize a given service. Advertising involves cost. It is not free publicity, nor is it exaggerated publicity about what is being advertised as to appear spurious to the intended audience. The advertiser must pay for his message and respect the ethics of advertising.

On the other hand, public relations go with responsibility, guided by ethic and truthful in persuading the people. Thus, PR scholars warn that public relations is not

1. Covering failures, mistakes or poor services of the organization to the public;

2. Projecting a point regardless of the truth, ethic, good taste and social responsibility;

3. Outright advertising, even though it can be useful in sales effort;

4. More praise singing and gimmickry. Over usage may even prove counter productive to the organization’s image;

5. Unpaid advertising;

6. Only press relations, this is only one of the aspect of PR, and

7. Non-political especially if it is emanating form government organizations.

Historical Emergence of Public Relations

The practice of public relations is as old as the world. People and organizations had always sought to live at peace and mutual understanding with each other. Discord, bad feelings and chaos at whatever level are things to be avoided by individuals, organizations and governments.

The history of organized public relations could be traced to the industrial revolution in the 18th century. As industries expanded with more goods and services to offer, the need for wider markets and favourable public image necessitated the rise of public relations.

President Thomas Jefferson of the USA was credited with the first usage of the term Public Relations in 1807. It was in the United States that PR as it is known today developed. Of course, European countries like Britain placed great role in transforming PR into what it is today.

Leaders in the United States like President Jackson (1829) and Abraham Lincoln (1861) recognized the worth of favourable public through their utilization of public relations techniques. For example, Lincoln was reported to have said that:

Public sentiment is everything… with public sentiment nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed. He who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who executes statutes or pronounces decisions.

One person who had contributed to the development of the modern principles and techniques of PR is a graduate newspaper reporter, IVY Ledbetter Lee, who left his job in 1903 to work as a press agent. By 1919, he has fully understood public relations through the promotion of two-way communication between clients and the press. He emphasised honesty on the part of PR clients, because the public has a right to accurate and instant information. Lee is fondly remembered for his success in changing hostile public opinion against America’s richest man, John Rockefeller to that of a kind old man.

The First World War boosted the practice of PR in the United States. Woodrow Wilson, US President during the wartime set up the George Crest Committee on Public Information, which organized publicity in support of the war efforts. In 1923 a member of the committee, Edward L. Barnays wrote the first PR book, Crystallising Public Opinion. Even since, PR continued to expand in all public and private organizations.

In Britain, there were organized PR activities by individual public corporations like the Railways and the Insurance commission. By 1918, government bodies have effectively mounted national and international “mixture of public relations and propaganda” against the enemy in the First World War. Gradually, ministries and private organizations introduced press or public relations offices, in addition to the activities of the ministry of information.

By 1945 the practice of PR has taken roots in the industries. And today, “PR is an integral aspects of industry, government and voluntary organizations” not only in Britain but in most countries of the world.

Modern Public Relations in Nigeria

The history of organized public relations practice in Nigeria could be linked to that of press relations by the colonial government and multinational companies. Government PR activities began in 1940 during the war period (1939-45) when an office was established in Lagos for propagating war messages through the media. In 1944, the office was renamed government public relations office and acquired the status of a department in 1947.

Regional offices were also set up in Ibadan, Enugu and Kaduna in 1947 under a colonial officer, Mr. Harold Cooper. The department undertook function of a government information office. Ever since, government publicity is being handled by this ministry at both state and federal level. For example, the federal ministry of information operates three publicity divisions, Domestic publicity, public enlightenment and external publicity in addition to the film division of the ministry. The various divisions handle government-press relations, public campaigns and other publicity activities of the government both in and outside the country. Ministry and Prastatals have their individual PR units, in some cases, managed by information officers form the ministry of information.

In the private sector, the multinational company, United African Company (UAC) was credited as the first to start an information office in 1949, with the responsibility of disseminating company information and monitoring public opinion particularly as it affects the UAC. Today, PR units can be found in most government establishments, private enterprises, religious and educational institutions.

According to Offontry (1985:3), public relations activities in Nigeria revolve around eight pillars.

These are:

a) Corporate Relations

b) Government relations

c) Community relations

d) Financial Public relations

e) International Public Relations

f) Media Relations

g) Employee Communication

h) Marketing support

The Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR)

The NIPR is the professional body that regulates the practice of public relations in Nigeria. It ensures strict compliance to professional ethics, standardizes training of public relations, conducts professional examination and seminars and importantly bring together all practitioners in the country. Even though the NIPR practitioners like Tonye Willie, Chief Kanu Offontry, Ikhaz Yakubu, Chief Ogboagu, Chief Alex Akinyele and Mike Okereke, it was in 1990 that the federal government promulgated the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations Decree 1990.

The decree enables the Institute to accredit all practitioners and bars non-members from practicing PR in Nigeria.

NIPR has a national council with branches in the states. Membership of the Institute can be in any of the following categories. Fellow (FNIPR), member (MNIPR), Associate (AMNIPR), student member, corporate member and Honorary members.

The Institute is affiliated to the Federation of Africa Public Relations Associations (FAPRA) founded in 1975 in Nairobi, Kenya. The federation brings together public relations bodies in individual African countries for the promotion of the profession in the continent.

Public Relations and Journalism

Public Relations is considered as subsidiary journalism. The two are about the dissemination of information, even if, at different levels and for variety of purposes. Journalism is concerned with the gathering, sighting, evaluating and spreading of news or commenting on current affairs. The journalist is involved in shaping the content of the media, in this case encompassing other categories of media workers like programme makers, press photographers, freelancers, etc. (Kunczick 1988:11).

By the nature of his responsibility, the journalist works in a network of media environment, interacting with sources of information, variety of weak and powerful audiences, at some time dealing with advertisers, media competitors, news agencies and over time turning versatile in the profession. With the versatility comes knowledge, contacts and credibility in the local environment.

PR on the other hand is described as “conscious and ongoing effort to build mutual understanding and trust, the aim being greatest possible integration of one’s own interest in the overall interest” (Kunctzick 1988:169). Public relations is geared towards explaining for understanding in the sincere belief that the effort will win sympathy, in the public opinion.

Thus, because of the relationship between the media and PR activities, and the former being effective outlets for the latter, it is often argued that a journalist can make a good PRO. While it is true that Journalism prepares the practitioner to be objective, tactical, sometimes diplomatic with the people out there, and also be curious, friendly and have wide knowledge of the media world, there are cases where former journalist became bad PRO’s. However, the listed characteristics ought to make them good PROs. Hence the reliance on journalist for public relations jobs. Furthermore, journalists may be closer to undertaking PR activities; they may require little practical experience to be able to master the job. Thus, in the absence of professional to fill PR vacancies, journalists become the immediate alternatives.

Public Relations and the Dynamics of History

Public Relations practitioners have always linked the emergence of the profession either with industry or Government as highlighted earlier. In Nigeria the historical pattern is the same in the sense that as a colony of Britain, the then colonial Government was committed to disseminating British version of the ward messages and therefore creating, “understanding” and “positive” attitude among citizens.

But even after independence Nigeria has fought another war, the civil war of 1967-70. Here the infrastructure of Public Relations inherited from the colonial Government especially the model of using PR in propagating war messages was used in disseminating official version about the war and its execution. It is this trend that has made public Relations difficult to be differentiated from propaganda in spite of claims to the contrary by the profession itself. The rationalization given to its assertion of it being not synonymous with propaganda by PR practitioners hinges around its admonition of truth as an essential ingredient of its ethic. This on the other hand is seen not to be the case in propaganda. However, two factors could account for the very thin (if any) dividing line between PR and propaganda.

Looking at the compartmentalization or specialization of PR activity into eight major areas, government and Industry or big business cover over 70% of this. Secondly, neither Government nor Industry or big business is a neutral disinterested party in the messages it disseminates about its activity. In the same way that Government through its messages is interested in consolidating power, so is industry and business committed to capital and its generation and consideration. Lincoln’s assertion as quoted earlier sums up the propagandistic element of PR when he talks of “moulding public sentiments”.

It is with this task in mind, following a trend already established by colonial Government that the federal Government established information offices in Nigeria’s foreign missions during the civil war for the purpose of disseminating Government’s version of the war.

Today, most Government departments, parastatals as well as industries have what they call media or Public Relations Departments. These departments relate with Journalists and issue periodical statements and accounts reflecting official’s position of their orgnisations. The effect of this on journalistic profession is that reliance on such official handouts has killed journalistic initiative of deep inquiry referred to as investigative journalism. What the organisation considers in its interest for the public to know is what is presented in the periodical releases. Curious journalists that often make attempt to follow up or verify claims through the head of the organization are immediately referred back to the media or public relations department. The activity of PR thus has come to insulate public officers from being interrogated or being made accountable to the public.

Public Relations and the Poverty of Theoretical Framework

An impoverished theoretical framework seems to guide the profession of Public Relations. Two observations reveal this shortcoming.

The term ‘public’ as a prefix to relations conveys the impression of a simplified uninterrogated concept. The purpose could be the commitment to address a general, monolithic public as a target of sentiment moulding or as consumers of goods and services coming from the industry. For only this way can the profession justify huge investment from corporate clients.

Secondly, the reliance of public relations on modern communication media of press and broadcasting for dissemination of messages to the public indicates a subscription to the earlier model of powerful media that get the message across to an undifferentiated mass that passively consumes such messages and is affected by it in a similar fashion to the hypodermic needle.

But talking about message also rises another issue, i.e. message as text and audience as readers which will necessarily lead to the issue of the relationship between intended message as put together by the professional and the actual message as interpreted by the audience, or what Hall (1980) refers to as coding and encoding of messages. For in any message or text there is a language and intended meaning (denotation) as professionally put together but they way the audience could interpret the message (connotations) may be different from the early meaning in which the message was packaged.

But the reliance of PR industry on the modern communication media as conveyor belt of its messages introduces a fourth level of problem, which is also limiting to PR’s capacity of reach. The problem of English as the dominant language in PR messages as well as the cost of access to modern media clearly limits the capacity of PR as a shared public resource.

Since historically the profession of Public relations has emerged to service War and industry as in the World War and 18th Century Industrial Revolution in Europe and America, or in the Civil War of 1967-70 and the Oil boom economy of the 1970s in Nigeria, the business can only be executed if the entire public’s mind and sentiment is targeted. Claim to reaching everybody with an assumed powerful message that has the capacity to influence attitude will justify Government as well as corporate investment in the PR industry, hence the use of the term ‘Public’ in the prefix of PR.

Two observations that emerge from this is that PR messages are homogenized to appeal to everyone, and that the public is seen as what Carragee (1990) calls ‘free floating ahistorical mass’. In reality we know that PR messages will appeal to the public differently because messages as discourses will be interpreted differently precisely because the public is massively differentiated and therefore bring in different cultural capital and competencies in the interpretation of these messages. However, this is not denying that PR messages are not dominant messages, they are dominant message disseminated through dominant discourse within a dominant structure of power relations, but all we are saying is that:

before this message can have an ‘effect’ (however defined), satisfy a ‘need’ or be put to a ‘use’. It must first be appropriated as meaningful discourse and be meaningfully decoded. It is that set of decoded meanings, which “have an effect”, influence, entertain, construct or persuaded (Hall, 1980:130).

And a differentially constituted public with varied cultural codes of interpretation can not all at once decode the message “meaningfully” or as intended.

But differential access to PR messages in Nigeria is also accounted by two other factors. For instance whereas, dominant language of PR is English a larger part of the Nigerian public does not understand English, and where the message is disseminated in the press or as hand bills a large part of the population is illiterate thereby excluding this large population from the “mutual understanding” the PR is claiming foster. Secondly, where PR message is disseminated in the broadcast Media of radio, television or the new cable and satellite channels or computer networks another problem of massive exclusion is created as majority of the citizens are prohibited from taking part in a dispensation dependent on what Marley calls “cash nexus”. Golding aptly summarises this when he observes that,

entrance to the new media playground is relatively cheap (as a percentage of total income) for the well-to-do (and easy adjustment in spending patterns, Conversely, for the poor.,. the price is a sharp calculation of opportunity cost, access to communication goods jostling uncomfortably with the mundane arithmetic of food, housing, clothing and fuel. (Golding, 1989:90).

The model of a PR Industry that relies heavily on the modern communication media reveals two other problems. First, the Industry operates on a vertical one-way communication model, as there is no provision for the public to participate in the communication process thereby rendering PR an undemocratic regime in the process of creating ‘mutual understanding’ and “goodwill” among the public.

That the PR industry relies on modern media to retransmit its messages the belief of achieving the desired result of making impact by creating goodwill and understanding indicates the subscription by PR to the view of the media consumer as passive, waiting to swallow the media diet and respond to its action through a change of behaviour or attitude. Communication research has proved the fallacy of such a claim and now “we think in terms of interaction or exchange between the medium and audience, and it is recognized that the viewer approaches every viewing situation with a complete set of filtering equipment” (Halloran 1970:20).

Our position here is not that we are equating audience activity with media power rather we are trying to show the assumption that guides PR’s vertical flow of information through the media. For we know too well as Morley observes that, the power of viewers to interpret meaning is hardly equivalent to the discursive power of centralized media institutions to construct the texts, which the viewer then interprets. (Morley 1992:31).

The power of the media and that of the PR Industry is not unreal in so far as defining the agenda of discourse is concerned. This agenda is usually reflective of dominant consensus, and issues against such dominant consensus will seldom be in the mediated message of PR. Wages cut for instance, is most likely to be explained by PR message as a necessity for the good of the economy while workers’ resistance to that through strikes, is most likely to be explained away as strike, unpatriotic action etc. Such is the kind of message expected to foster “goodwill and mutual understanding”. This is the process of distribution of ideological message by the Public Relations Industry, i.e., brining certain issues to the forefront of discourse and understanding and obfuscating or relegating others to the margin, when they are seen to be challenging dominant framework of thinking. (See Hall et al 1973, Mc Combs and Gilbert, 1986, Noelle-Neumann, 1974).

An important issue at this point is to consider what such PR message is intended to achieve, for what purpose and in whose interest. It is answers to such questions that will clearly show the reproductive capacity of Public Relations within the existing structure of social relations. For amplifying the agenda of social discourse as initially perceived by eligible sources is to set a premise of public discussion within a dominant perspective which is more often likely to consolidate prevailing order or (as in the PR message about wage cut), provide a conducive atmosphere to capital investment and regeneration. Neither of these is coterminous with the liberation of the common man or providing him/her a democratic access to deciding the organization of his/her material life and existence.

Of course, we have indicated earlier that what is meant, in a message at the point of its structuring by professionals (encoding stage), is not necessarily going to be interpreted and understood that way by the audience. Misunderstanding and even gaps could arise as a result of different cultural or competence that audience of a message between decoding and decoding. Such misunderstanding is the result of the difference of a message could bring with them in the process of interpreting given messages.

We are concerned here with the ways in which decoding is determined by the socially governed distribution of cultural codes between and across different sections of the audience. That is the range of different decoding strategies and competencies in the audience (Morley 1992:57).

While submitting that Morley is right in his observation regarding cultural differentiality in the interpretation of media message we wish to add that that position alone is limiting in so far as the understanding of the dynamics of interpretation of media messages are concerned. Such differentiality should be seen as imposed both by culture as well as by economics. Where one is economically incapacitated in having access to a range of media a severe limitation is already imposed aside or in addition to the one imposed by cultural codes.


Conclusion

This chapter has tried to look at the relationship between the profession of Public Relations and society in Nigeria. In doing this we highlighted on the historical emergence of public Relations in Europe, is as well Nigeria. We also tried to look at the functions of PR in historical and contemporary context.

Secondly, as an industry that produces and disseminates messages as goods and services for the purposes of creating “goodwill and mutual” understanding among the public, we have studied the channel through which this is done.

Three revelations came to light. First, that the historical context through which PR emerged i.e., the service of war, industry or capital does not prepare the profession to perform any liberative function or create goodwill and mutual understanding among Nigerians. For the service of War, Capital and State is not coterminous with servicing public or citizens’ interest. Secondly, that the industry operates on a simplistic concept of public which to us is the very problematic, as the Nigerian public is differentially composed and endowed, a differentiality in both financial capacity and cultural competence imposed limitations on their access and interpretation and of to, PR messages. Because of this, the picture of a socially stratified public Relations emerges which serve the need as well as it consolidates existing social order in society.

Thirdly, by relying on the modern communication media for the dissemination of messages we have analysed PR and society in Nigeria from the point of view of text/reader or message/audience. That PR operates on a vertical one-way process of disseminating message to people does not create democratic participation of citizens in PR activities.

That we have picture of a PR industry which claims to mould sentiment and foster goodwill’ among citizens indicates a severe limitation in the sense that the industry is still guided by the theoretical model of powerful media piercing the minds of a collectively loyal audience like the hypodermic needle which then makes them to respond by changing attitude and behaviour.

We have finally submitted that Public Relations produce and disseminate messages as discourse. And for the factors highlighted above, PR also operate like the modern Media by setting the limit of public discourse. This is done by focusing and amplifying certain types of messages rather than others. Those messages amplified by PR are certainly not those that will challenge the existing order but those that are supportive of it.

References

Black, Sam (1989): Introduction to Public Relations, The Madino press, London.

Careragice, K. (1990) “Interpretative Media Study” in Critical Studies in Mass Communication 7 (2

Golding, P. (1989) “Political Communication and Citizenship” in M. Ferguson (ed) Public Communication Routelge, London.

Hall, S. et al (1973) The Social production of News, in Cohen and Young (eds.) The Manufacture of News Constable, London.

Halloran, J. O (1970) The Effects of Television, Panther, London.

Kanu, O. (1985) Guide to Public Relations Practice in Nigeria, New Africa Publishing Company, Lagos.

Kogan, I.S. (1965) Modern Business Public Relations, Alexander I., New York.

Kuntzick, Michael, (1988) Concepts of Journalism: North and South, FES, Borno.

McCombs M. and Gilbert S. (1986) “News Influence on our Pictures of the world,” in J. Brigant and D. Zillas (eds.) Perspective on Media Effects iv. T. Erlbantu Hillsdale.

Morley, D. (1992) Television, Audiences and Cultural Studies, London, Routledge.

Noelle-Neumann, E. (1974). The Spiral of Silence: A Theory of Public Opinion. Journal of Communication. 24 (2).

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