Since contemporary public relations became a fulcrum of how the world operates at the turn of the 20th century, the global rise and spread of Public Relations agencies have been remarkable.

While the phenomenon of maintaining a favourable public image by a famous individual, organisation or country is deeply rooted in the desire to remain bankable or marketable, public relations can be regarded as a core aspect of human life.

Anyone intent on maintaining integrity and reputation in society would at all times desire words of approval and admiration – whether from friends, family or the public. This explains why, for everyone particular about their brand, Public Relations represents a major getaway from situations with damning implications.

Like billionaire businessman Warren Buffet famously opined, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

In today’s world, where there exists a fine line between the public throwing up a thumb of approval or displaying blatant disgust towards actions and utterances, maintaining an admirable public image is beyond critical for anyone particular about their brand.

For decades, the realisation has necessitated the birth of Public Relations agencies that saddle themselves with the responsibility of building, sustaining and projecting positive and accurate images and identities of anyone that cares.

Public Relations holds the key as an effective tool in changing perceptions and influencing future decisions. Although many factors separate PR activities in today’s world from those of past years, the basics typically remain the same.

To understand the importance of PR, we’ll reflect on a little backstory on the earlier origin of what the world has come to know as the greatest tool of influence.

Ivy Lee, a publicity expert and one of the two forefathers of modern-day public relations, had been a significant figure in the reputation boost enjoyed by his principal, John Rockefeller. Starting from his appointment in 1903, Lee had been the cleanup general during a crisis caused by a series of strikes in the coal mines during Rockefeller’s glorified reign as an oil magnate. Lee is also credited with the writing of the first press release following a major rail crash in Atlantic City in 1906.

Lee’s contemporary in laying the foundation for Public Relations in the 20th century was Edward Bernays, whose PR strategies were greatly influenced by his uncle, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis theories based on behavioural psychology. Also fondly regarded as ‘The Father of Public Relations’, Bernays is popular for writing in his influential book, Propaganda, that “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society.”

Bernays’ position stemmed from his view of the impact of using propaganda to influence war outcomes, which he found significant in his advocacy for mass manipulation.

Although first used as a term by Dorman Eaton in 1882, ‘Public Relations’ can today be described as a friendlier alternative to Bernay’s war propaganda as a tool to convert consumers for businesses.

New digital tools and technological advancement in the 21st century also mean that the practice of PR has evolved from the time of Lee and Bernays and is rapidly moving towards newer strategies.

Due to the current digital landscape and behavioural change, Public Relations practice across the world has transformed from just writing a press release, planning an event or dealing with the media to sending out instant messages on microblogging platforms, connecting with influencers, analysing data, monitoring feedback and conversions.

Not only that, Public Relations has grown into a full spectrum of functions and as a strategic aspect of achieving business objectives, building invaluable relationships, preventing conflicts and crises, and pushing national interests.

But, in evaluating the practice of public relations in Nigeria (and Africa) in line with today’s climate and in comparison to the rest of the world, there are numerous grey areas yet unaddressed.

Challenges hindering the practice on the continent range from a poor understanding of Public Relations concepts, lack of adequate specialisation in the profession, language barrier, lack of technological know-how, infrastructural limitations, and a lack of ethics by existing professionals and organisations.

One could argue that of all the highlighted challenges, the lack of ethics by existing professionals in Public Relations agencies in Nigeria (and Africa) holds the biggest weight, and perhaps a solution to this specific problem would nearly solve the other drawbacks.

This does not imply that no professional public relations agency in Nigeria (and Africa) is standing shoulder to shoulder with their global counterparts, but it’ll be foolhardy to deny a dearth in the existence of such organisations that are truly worth their salt.

Beyond just keeping practitioners who are technology savvy on their roster in a fancy office space, the important criteria in ranking a Public Relations agency in Nigeria (Africa) would include factors such as credibility, capability, quality of services, trustworthiness and dependability.

Unfortunately, only a handful of agencies would successfully check these boxes. And it comes as no shock that over 50 per cent of Public Relations agencies in Nigeria report revenues below N5 million, according to a 2020 Nigeria PR Report, which also highlighted that 12 per cent of the agencies have been in operation for five years; 19 per cent of them for more than five years and less than 10; whilst only nine per cent have been in operation for over 20 years. Other damning statistics in the report indicate that 70 per cent of the professionals in the PR industry have less than five years of work experience.

These are alarming statistics from all indications, and for there to be a turnaround in fortune, every Public Relations agency in Nigeria (and Africa) would need to deploy smart strategies to attract and retain world-class talents.

One such no-brainer strategy would be the establishment of prime Public Relations teaching faculties across the continent for young PR enthusiasts to learn and grow. While Nigeria and the African continent need to step up in developing many of these learning institutions, it is worth mentioning that there have been worthy attempts in recent times by some PR organisations to fill the void.

For instance, the Future Project recently established an internship program to tutor young Africans with less than two years of work experience in their prospective area of expertise, including PR. A brainchild of Red Media Africa, the Future Project Internship Program (FAIP) is a critical response to Africa’s desperate need for capacity building among its teeming youth population in different career paths.

Red Media Africa’s idea of establishing the training project is not in the least surprising. The PR firm is one of a handful of professional Public Relations agencies from Nigeria with a footprint all over the world. Over the last decade, the agency’s practices have, to name a few, shaped the financial, energy, and entertainment sectors, having been responsible for the brand image of the biggest companies and institutions in Africa.

In terms of impact, Red Media Africa is in a classified league of agencies out of Lagos, Nigeria renowned for their world-class PR activities. A testament to its standing as one of Nigeria’s heavyweights in Public Relations is how the agency has greatly influenced socio-political discourse among the youth across the populous African nation in the last 10 years.

These strides signify that there is a variety of things the agency is doing excellently, the king of which, from the outside looking in, would be its understanding of the pains and demands of the country’s largest demographic. The PR agency seems to command a certain level of trust amongst the public.

Generally, the lack of public trust in the media in Nigeria (and Africa) is rife.

Peculiar socioeconomic and sociopolitical challenges in the country (and continent) mean lack of public trust is at an all-time low. Regrettably, this hurts corporate brands and institutions as much as it does governmental bodies. PR can and should help restore that.

Hence it is critical for every Public Relations agency in Nigeria (and Africa) to continue to command public faith and trust through genuine social gestures, especially at a time when it’s easy to see through pedestrian PR activities by many practising agencies across the globe. Every Public Relations agency in Nigeria (and Africa) needs to, now more than ever, transcend surface-level press releases by employing advanced media monitoring tools to ensure corporate authenticity through swift, empathetic responses to false reports and unsavoury incidents.

“There is a very important change in how we earn trust. A company’s competence– that it is good at what it does – used to be the predominant driver of Trust. Today, it gets only 25 per cent of the way, with the other 75 per cent now dependent on a company’s purpose, integrity and dependability,” Richard Edelman, CEO of the public relations company Edelman, says in his 2020 address to the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA).

To improve on the appalling statistics that describe the practice of Public Relations in Nigeria (and Africa), the time has come for more practitioners and agencies to take advantage of the untapped potential of PR and play a more central role in influencing global discourse.

Building more learning institutions where young PR devotees and professionals can learn the ropes on how to command public trust would certainly be a step in the right direction.