Shooting without taking any prisoners, Ekine Akonte, frontline PR practitioner and chief executive of Absolute PR, says he does not want clients but partners with whom he will grow together. He also tells BRANDPOWER, in his new office complex at Gbagada, central Lagos, that it is totally wrong for organisations to see their publics strictly through the external eye but also should also do same through the internal eye as represented by the staff of such organisations.
You just relocated to a bigger and more spacious office at a time when the industry is generally complaining of cash crunch. What informed this strategic move?
The idea of a new office came as a result of what we have been studying in the last three years. We have seen the potential to grow and we have clearly established that we have no choice than to grow. Some people reduce over-heads or resist expansion but in our own case, we are a young agency and the size of the building is a statement of where we are going. It is about a journey towards ensuring that we have the right ambience for the type of clientele we are seeking as partners. That is why we are doing this. And at the end of the day, we hope that it is not just the size of the building but the capacity in our minds to be able to handle bigger briefs.
You seem to be emphasising on partnerships rather than clientele. Is this a strategic move in terms of the way you give nomenclature to those you work for?
At the end of the day, an agency is not a silo or operate in isolation. It has to work with certain people in terms of groups and institutions. Instead of seeing those groups as clients, we see them as partners. The primary assignment we have at Absolute PR is to be able to enable individuals and corporate organisations to be to grow in terms of their income and bottom line and you cannot really do that by saying, oh, that man is my client. They are not our clients but our partners and strategically, partnership is the order of the day and not clients. The client will always hide something from you and you will always hide something from the client. But if you are partners, the two of you go to bed together with transparency in mind. It is not just a function of this is the brief and you work on it. No. you too should contribute to it and advising where necessary.
The industry you are operating in public relations, perception management etc. only very few seem to be visible and really in business. Yet we have a very big economy and a market that is widening every day. Ordinarily, we should have as many PR firms as possible servicing this market but the reverse is the case. What is responsible for this?
Visibility in the first instance is relative and it is also strategic. In this instance, let me say it is like medicine. There are so many graduates of medicine but not all of them are visible but there is a register for all practitioners of medicine. So if you go to the books, you see the names of all agencies registered to practise public relations. But that we are all registered does not mean we have the same goals and aspirations. In our own case, we want to be the best; we want to play at the top end of the market and we want to be a voice, the eyes and the nose of the industry. We desire to lead the industry; from knowledge position and not really in size. This is because we believe that we know that public relations is the best tool of marketing communications and we have been grooming ourselves in the right direction to enlighten, not just the clients but the entire industry. From the way people try to present themselves in terms of visibility, I think it depends on the strategy of their operations. That many are registered does not mean that we have same level of competence. This differs as where we want to play also differs.
Within the business we have over-bearing clients and we have clients who allow you to run the ship. Out of these two extremes, which one have you found yourself working for more?
Business is life and let me use medical practice again. A lot of us go to the doctor and tell the doctor: I know I have fever. The doctor will check and say let’s run a test and say oh, you have typhoid. A lot of clients are like that: I just need this service. But if you are able to get that client listening to you, that’s where partnership comes in. It is not just this service you need, you also need this. In our own case, we have had clients like that. Interestingly, there is one that is just walking in and it is a case of this is what we want but at the end of the presentation they had to tell us that we have to sit down. We have had cases where they call you and say: this is where we can work like this. It is the way the society is structured and it is not just the Nigerian society but all over the world. A lot of us going out saying we know what we want but in the course of doing that you discover you want more. It is given in the industry that organisations must behave in different ways.
I attended a programme recently where a resource from the United States of America who said PR must start within the organisation itself. You see some organisations that are very high up there in terms of perception but inside the chief executive is a slave driver who does not respect the sensibilities of his staff. Have you had the opportunity of working for clients that you have to ‘force’ perception management to start from within?
Honestly not so but I have had a situation whereby I had to offer such counseling to a client. The biggest challenge of public relations is that internal publics don’t even know that what they do is public relations. I have a case in my hand presently where the institution is always doing something wrong and at the end of the day, they will call the corporate affairs person to go and handle the issue. We got talking and I said to them gentlemen, I just read a book, Great By Choice by James Collins, and my total take from that book is that if you want to do something and you want to be seen to be doing the right thing what you need to do is that from day one, you are right about your attitude and that, to me, is absolute PR. For a man who doesn’t want to be criticised or questioned, you must address it right inside. When you don’t do that, and you end up sending the wrong signal, you already sending the wrong signal which is reputational damage. At the end of the day it will boomerang outside and you keep on having issues and crisis. My position: for organisations, both externally and internally, what you do is public relations and you must ensure that your internal publics are in tune with your culture and DNA and if your culture and DNA are not in tandem with what you write down as your vision and mission, at the end of the day you will have issues. Unfortunately for us in this environment, when we talk about public relations, we look only at the external publics. But honestly speaking, the first public of any organisation is the internal public.
Someone said staff discuss within themselves in their corners in their respective offices. Part of the things they discuss is management and they are the eyes and nose of the organisation and what they discuss with the outside world goes a long way in defining the image of the organisation. Do you agree with this?
Absolutely! The first person that you meet is the man that works in an organisation and he is a reflection of that organisation. Let me use an example of our minister of information, Labaran Maku. He recently made a statement that the federal government or should I say the executive arm, is not bound by the resolutions of the National Assembly. And the man came on national television and said he said he did not speak as a minister but as an ordinary citizen of Nigeria and I told myself if I meet a man who works in the civil service, his behaviour, dressing and speaking say a lot about his existence. A man is nothing without the office he holds because he is a representation of the office. If you go down to what you are saying, on the average, where you are and what you wear is a reflection of who you are. The total combination of these elements is who you are. The organisation is just a building; you are the human being so as I see you, I should be able to say that this person I am seeing is true reflection of Leventis, Ecobank, Unilever etc. there is a character trait that must be part of you and that is what public relations is all about. Public relations management starts from the security man to the chief executive.
Public relations and media relations seem to be too inter-related but I must also admit that it is becoming scientific both in planning and execution. But when there is crisis, the first recourse is always media yet silence might even been better because more damage could be done if a press statement is issued. At what point does media relations end and direct engagement take over?
What I will say is that media relations happens to be the most known visible aspect of all the elements of public relations. This is what is known by everybody. Some people even say please, do some PR for me. But the subject matter is that every passing moment, an organisation is close to crisis all the time. But what needs to be done from day one is that there must be certain rules and regulations that guide the existence of the organisation. If they go against these rules, they are treading the path of crises. In case a crisis occurs, due not to any deliberate action, there should be a blueprint somewhere on how to address these issues. The idea of running to the media when there is crisis is a function of the knowledge base of the people. But in public relations practice in Nigeria, the idea of using the media to address crisis is becoming thinner and thinner because of the platforms we call new media. Public relations is not just media relations. It is involves so many things.
The balance of the marketing mix is tilting towards PR because of the advantage of third party endorsement. Is PR actually taking over from advertising?
It is just an evilving thing. You can never take away the power of advertising in spite of what we say about the fall of advertising and the rise of PR. Advertising gives you instant attention, audience and what I say intrusion into the privacy of the man. For anyone who is doing this thing called communications, it is the stage that the product is that will determine which tool will be used and which one will be preferred. And the reason being that even if you have the biggest of budgets, the consumer is your target and he is a moving target and you deploy your tool in that direction. The ultimate tool of PR is direct engagement even if they call it activation. You want the consumer to see the product and take a decision straight away. The problem we have in this part is that few of our PR campaigns are targeted at attitudinal and behavioural change. Take the Unilever hand washing campaign for instance. It is a behavioural campaign which should be consistent. And there are so many behavioural campaigns we should be doing in the country rather than announcement based campaigns.
In a business that is becoming scientific and an audience that is more discerning and having alternative accesses in form of the new media. Where does Absolute PR come in?
Let me tell you that at Absolute PR, we are setting up a new unit called the new media communication that warehouses all the media through which people operate. And we are also moving from where you do measurement based on advertising value to objective driven value. Before you go into a campaign, you should be able tell us where you are and where you are operating. Now, your campaign, from the PR perspective is that you want to grow either your market within the time frame of your product introduction to when you break fully into the market; will it deliver those numbers? The answer is either yes or no. That is why we are talking more of partners. Some organisations want to do one thing and stay back but we want to go back to them and say that based on what we have done, we want to know the result in the market. We don’t want to invest in research. If we do that, we are spending money we ought to use to do so many other things for you. You already have a research unit so you should be able to give us the result of your research. For us, the dynamics of the society is also helping us to reshape the entire business landscape. Everyone is a newsmaker now unlike when you say some is a key opinion molder, today with twitter, facebook and Blackberry, we are all opinion moulders. What we do is that we play in the minds of where we all opinion moulders.