As Africa's most populous country, one would expect Nigeria to be a natural hotbed of PR innovation. Instead the PR industry has languished behind advertising, hampered by a risky commercial environment and slow strides towards professionalism.
Economic concerns over the past two years have not helped. Most famously, the ‘Sanusi Tsunami' saw the sacking of the chief executives at nine banks, because of corruption and abuse of office.
The consequent credit freeze saw marketing budgets of the biggest spenders – banks, telcos and FMCG – slashed, according to Tim Newbold, MD at africapracticeR&B, part of the africapractice agency network.
The other story to captivate audiences both inside and outside the nation surrounded the health of President Umaru Yar'Adua. After he was rushed to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, the country remained in political limbo for two months, before Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan eventually took interim power.
After good years in 2006 and 2007, Nigeria's PR market hit the skids over the past 12 months. The credit squeeze saw PR cut first from marketing budgets, according to a report compiled for PRWeek Global by local agency The Quadrant Company.
This has been compounded, continues the Quadrant report, by ‘the fact that clients still do not understand the basis of professional PR practice'.
In particular, a more activist trade body is called for. ‘The Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR), the institution set up by the federal government to regulate the industry, has been engrossed in the last couple of years in its internal wrangling over leadership,' reads the Quadrant report. ‘It has not been able to tackle the problems facing the industry.'
Key sectors include food and beverage and telecommunications, says Shell's international operations senior comms manager Olav Ljosne, formerly regional comms director for the oil giant based in Africa.
‘It is a country where the majority of the population lives on low income, and where the elite know each other or about each other well,' says Ljosne.
‘Thus, the Nigerian PR market is driven by traditional advertising and social investments through events and other activities around those investments. The industry has several good PR practitioners, a couple of well established companies, and the tools used are rather limited.'
The media environment is vibrant and competitive. Terrestrial TV is dominated by three broadcasters: government-run NTA, Channels TV and AIT. NTA's state links mean that the latter two stations, alongside other private players such as Silverbird TV, ‘have profited from the perception people have of them to be independent and unbiased', says Quadrant.
Satellite TV has high penetration among urban audiences leading to the strong popularity of such channels as CNN, BBC News, Sky News and Africa Magic.
Radio is important for rural audiences. Press media, meanwhile, is particularly strong in the country's Christian South. Quadrant points to The Guardian Newspapers as the ‘most authoritative and influential media among the political class'.
For business audiences, ThisDay and BusinessDay are well regarded. The Punch is the most circulated daily news title, while newer competitor Next plays an important role.
Nigeria's digital media are in an early stage of development, although influence is growing. Like many emerging markets, mobile is a critically important communications resource.
The country's massive oil industry means that companies such as Shell, Total, Mobil, Chevron and Oando play an important comms role. ‘Big Oil' has, though, attracted vociferous criticism for some of its alleged activities in Nigeria, and has invested millions in PR firms to defend its reputation.
Quadrant notes that Unilever and P&G lead in terms of CSR. The telecoms sector is perhaps the most active PR spender, led by MTN, Zain, Globacom and Etisalat.
Zain's pitch earlier this year for its multimillion dollar PR account was one of the country's biggest account reviews, with Blueflower eventually winning an account that was previously handled by Quadrant Company.
The banking crisis described above has put the reputations of the country's financial sector under intense scrutiny. ‘[It] has created a scenario where the banks are communicating their strength and playing down weaknesses,' reports Quadrant, pointing to Zenith Bank, Skye Bank, Access Bank and Guaranty Trust Bank as ‘strategic communicators'.
‘Intercontinental and Bank PHB were in this class, but they were affected by the Sanusi Tsunami and their new CEOs haven't settled in enough for people to expect the kind of communications they were known for.'
The financial sector's reputation has also been rocked by ATM fraud. ‘It is generally believed that banks have not done well enough to protect consumers from ATM fraudsters,' adds Quadrant.
Ljosne points to telecoms operator Glo, Zenith Bank and industrial conglomerate Dangote as key domestic brands that are building a presence outside the country. ‘In terms of reputation, launching a Nigerian product or a brand abroad can sometimes be a challenge as the connection to the general country brand is not always supportive.'
The agency sector is comprehensively dominated by domestic players. Indeed, the only international agency with an ownership position in Nigeria appear to be africapractice and Ogilvy PR, via a minority stake in Cutler Ogilvy PR.
Instead, international agencies such as Porter Novelli and Fleishman-Hillard have inked affiliate deals with strong domestic outfits such as Corporate and Financial, The Quadrant Company and CMC Connect.
Other strong domestic firms include PR Africa, Sesema PR, Edison Ross, Image Consultants, MarketingMix and Media Craft and Associates.
‘[It is] remarkable is that the international PR agencies have not engaged seriously in Nigeria,' says Ljosne. ‘I have challenged them for support, but so far none has truly integrated their operations into this large, risky, but potentially profitable market.'
The Quadrant report notes that international agency affiliations have had ‘mixed results'.
‘While it has exposed the agencies to international best practices, which is a critical competitive advantage, it has also created an impression of being highly priced in the eyes of clients, who have over the years perfected the art of shaving PR costs. Affiliated agencies have lost some major briefs to smaller agencies due to pricing.'
Because of the economic slowdown, most agencies have had to cut salaries because of margin pressure, and some have made retrenchments.
Government legislation is critical to business in Nigeria, but few agencies specialise in lobbying.
‘Access to government is vital for most businesses as regulatory changes can happen at short notice and without consultation,' says Newbold. ‘Industry groups are influential in guiding policy and preventing shocks while direct access to regulators, the National Assembly and the Cabinet is also important.'
Clients, notes Quadrant, tend to rely on in-house public affairs departments.
Government PR spend, meanwhile, is a major component of the market. ‘For example, the government itself launched a challenging campaign last December called Branding Nigeria,' points out Ljosne. ‘I expect that much will happen until October this year when Nigeria will celebrate its 50 years of independence.'