BrandArena: Ethics, Reputation & Technology in a VUCA Economy By Emeka Oparah

Tuesday 27 November 2018

Ethics, Reputation & Technology in a VUCA Economy By Emeka Oparah

Let me start in the traditional manner by thanking the organizers of this event for inviting me to give the keynote address on such a very Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous topic. Perhaps, this is meant to punish me for talking too much lately on issues associated with but not necessarily limited to Reputation Management. I have come today fully prepared to disappoint my enemies and do justice to the topic. So, enemies and haters beware!

Seriously speaking, I am especially thankful to my brother and friend, Mr. Adedayo Ojo, who has taken time off the daily grind of looking after his well-heeled and appreciative clients to not only write a book, Public Relations Thoughts and Deeds, but also to bring all of us here to share our thoughts and our deeds (pun fully intended) in this often under-rated and bastardized field of human endeavor-Reputation Management.

With the 2019 General Elections approaching, alas the death-kneel of professional Reputation Management has started sounding harder and louder!

Logos are allegedly being plagiarized. Videos are being doctored. Photos are being manipulated. Lies are being peddled. Fictions are being circulated as facts. Characters are gleefully being assassinated. Renowned quacks are being hired and notable professionals are being sidelined. And so on and so forth.

You all will forgive me, my dear friends, if I say that mechanics no longer allow us to know for sure who is mad and who is not - by their mode of dressing. We have too many charlatans masquerading as professionals with deleterious effects on the real professionals and the profession.

The situation has been compounded by  the prevalence of technology and the debilitating VUCA environment. Perhaps, most of the challenges faced in today’s reputation management effort can be placed squarely at the doorsteps of ethics and technology.”

As a Reporter with The Statesman published by Imo Newspapers in Owerri back in the late 80s, I would attend a press conference addressed by the Zonal Director of National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) advertised to start at 10am. It will start at 12noon, if we are lucky or 1pm. It ends at 3pm or 4pm followed by lunch. Then, the PR Manager will use the list we all signed to distribute Brown Envelopes, often packaged according to the seniority of the Reporters in attendance and the clout of the media organization they represented. I return to the Newsroom at about 6pm to settle down and write my stories using the off-cuts supplied from the Printing Press. It goes to the Stenographer or Typist who types and submits to the News Editor and so on and so forth.

Depending on the volume of stories available and significance of the story, my NEPA story could make the next day’s paper (first or second edition or both). Of course, it could make Front Page or Back Page, Page 2 or 4 or 5, which are usually for News. Or it can make the Business Pages. This is a normal sequence of events. However, there are others that happen without my knowledge. I didn’t know, until I saw the PR Manager of NEPA, one evening, after one of those events. He came to “see” the Editor, News Editor and Business Editor! I hope you understand?

Fast-forward to late 1990s, when I was Media Relations Manager at the Agidingbi-based Cadbury Nigeria and I had a Press Release on the appointment of a new Executive Director in our organization. I write the release in long hand and give to Toyin, the PA to my boss then to type with her IBM Typewriter. This one had memory for two or three documents. So, she quickly types the release and gives me to review and edit and return for correction, sharp-sharp. I do. Then, it goes to my boss, Mr. Kevin Ejiofor, a very fastidious old man, who would go through every written material with a hand lens, fishing for mistakes.

Okay, we have the release approved and I sign for our pool car and then begin my journey through the various newsrooms, starting from our Agidingbi neighbors, the Daily Times Group, which had Daily Times, Sunday Times and Business Times. I dropped the releases with the appropriate people, hang around a bit and zoom off to Mangoro, where The Punch Newspapers used to be. From The Punch to Concord on Airport Road to Champion at Ilasamaja to Vanguard in the Kirikiri area of Apapa. At a time New Nigeria was at Ijora, Clarkson Majomi’s Mail was in Orile and Nduka Obaigbena’s Thisday was in Ikoyi and later in Muslim Avenue, Ikeja. I used to cover Coker Anita’s Today’s Choice, Mayor Akinpelu’s Global Excellence and Fame Magazine where Femi Akintunde Johnson and co held sway at a time. Newswatch, oh Newswatch, was along Billings Way near Alausa Secretariat.

Again, there was something we used to do. I had an almost inexhaustible supply of Cadbury products especially Bournvita, Pronto, Knorr, TomTom and Buttermint. We had a box, which contained samples of those products and were liberally distributed to our friends, the journalists. Did it influence their stories or the treatment of our stories? I believe so!

Now, I will thank you to right-click on any recent launch of a new product by Airtel! We sent text messages and emails to invite the journalists. We sent a bus to Ikeja to pick them and get them in relative comfort through the morning traffic to the Island. We set up live streaming facilities at the event so our followers on Facebook and Google+ can watch the event live. While we were there some journalists were competing with our agency in tweeting photos and short videos from the event. Shortly after the event, literally all the media houses had the story on their website and social media handles.

Most of the journalists were able to file their stories right there and then (some over lunch) using their mobile phones, iPads and tablets and other mobile devices. Of course, we set up free wireless service at the venue so people could connect and do what they want to do. As good PR people, we provide some free mobile telecommunications services to some of our media friends to facilitate their work and demonstrate our appreciation. Does that influence their judgment? Probably…!

As an aside, I learnt some people opened Business Centers with the free mobile lines given them by one of the GSM networks. And when the telco discovered and discontinued the service, their relationship with the media (read the affected journalists) ruptured.

Life has changed, ladies and gentlemen, if you look back at my days in Imo Newspapers through Cadbury Nigeria to date. As you know, these changes were facilitated by technology and these are sea changes which have improved speed and efficiency.  It has made life easy for the both the journalist and the public relations or corporate communications professional. It has also created some challenges, including ethical issues, which if not properly managed will damage the reputation of the media, of public relations and the organizations we work for. The entire eco-system is at risk.

Before I delve into the ethical issues, which happen to be the crux of this presentation, let me spend a few moments on how technology has disrupted Relationship Management, which is probably the strongest pillars of Reputation Management.

Back in those analogue days, we spent reasonable times as Reputation Managers building and sustaining strong and mutually beneficial relationships with our various stakeholders. Media Visits not only helped us Public Relations Managers to bond with the journalists and the rank and file of the media houses, we also seized the opportunity to learn about the workings of the various Newsrooms, the predilections of the News Editors and Editors and the operations of the various beats. Additionally, it provided yet a networking opportunity for PR Managers because we met one another during those visits and exchanged ideas-and even shared our frustrations with the same media!

Beyond the media, we stepped out of our comfort zones to attend important public events, like Book Launches, Public Lectures and even Government Functions, where we met and interacted with important stakeholders. Technology has reduced many a friendships to mere connections. We meet one another every day, every moment, in some cases, on social media without actually meeting. We send News releases via email and WhatsApp and exchange text messages. Many hardly even exchange calls!

Because we have access to technology, we are now more inclined to beating competition than creating higher value through research and content creation. We simply rush, read Tweet, whatever we have so long as we have put something out there. I can go on and on but let me return to the more challenging issue of ethics.

How has technology negatively influenced ethics?

In the introduction to her book “In pursuit of Privacy: Law, Ethic and rise of Technology”, Judith Wagner DeCew wrote and I totally agree: “Owing to the growth of computer technology and the capacities for electronic surveillance and for data collection and storage, there has been increased concern for protection from unwarranted observation and exploitation of personal communication including academic, medical and employment records.”

There are issues, serious issues, that is.

1. Fake News: The phenomenon of Fake News seems to have come to stay with the dawn of technology. The ability to replicate, distort, distribute and redistribute very quickly has made Fake News more prevalent in this technology-driven era. You only need to have the ability to write well, the guile to want to deceive and the creative ability to put it on social media. All you then need is enough bandwidth, DATA, to circulate it. Many will remember a bundle of trash distributed a couple of years ago said to have been authored by Dr. Oby Ezekwesili. A reputable newspaper published it and had to recant at Dr. Ezekwesili’s threat of legal action.

2. Unauthorized recording: Let me say upfront here that I am NOT talking about the so called Ganduje videos. Or even the Cap Banking that involved a Member of the House of Reps and billionaire businessman, Femi Otedola. I mean serious unauthorized recording used to misrepresent or undermine the clients we look after. There are definitely aspects of our public events that are not meant to be broadcast, but the democratization of technology or telecommunications has made such a thought untenable. One only hopes and prays that unscrupulous people do not attend one’s event. In editing, we are taught to edit superfluous materials including those that offend good taste, decency, standards or quality, etc. How about a female guest to a private party secretly recording the shenanigans and foibles of unobservant politicians? Phew!!!

3. Manipulation and distortion of facts, images and videos: Those who followed the recent Biafra insurgency led by Mazi Nnamdi Kanu may have observed that many of the photos and video purported to be Nigerian Soldiers humiliating, punishing and killing innocent IPOB adherents were fake, manipulated images. You will find a lot of such now on social media. I have seen similar videos and photos concerning popular products and even popular organizations. God IS Good Motors have been the butt of many of such manipulations by enemies and wicked competition.

4. Hate Speech: We live in very interesting times as we march gradually to the General Elections. If 2015 was tough, 2019 will be tougher. As we discuss, agencies are being hired to “manage” Digital PR, a sexy label for all the rubbish we see on social media in the name of politics. Some otherwise respected Public Relations Agencies will be involved. Of course, the bulk of those involved will be the Charlatans or Fly-By-Night PR Practitioners. The sad reality is that the latter get the most and the best briefs-just because they are willing and ready to breach the ethics and the laws to get the job done.

What do we do?

1. Let’s go back to the First Principles: The NIPR must insist on the registration and continued education of practitioners in order to promote and sustain professionalism.

2. The Institute must sanction aberrant conduct to serve as a deterrent to others. One of the major problems with Nigeria as a country and Nigerians as a people is bad Consequence Management. We would rather shy away from punishing bad behavior or at best give offenders a mild slap on the wrist. In some cases, we even reward bad behavior with higher responsibility or awards! What a conundrum!

3. We must be ready to test the Cybercrime Law of 2014 signed by Dr. Goodluck Jonathan. We have laws but we are either shy or scared or too sentimental to put them to the test. People get away with infractions in Nigeria, which will send them to jail in saner climes. Even at a much broader perspective, we have had people our law enforcement officer could not bring to justice but they were easily jailed abroad! There is no better time than now, this high Season, election time, to put our professions as well as our laws to the test.

4. As practitioners and professionals and indeed as Nigerians, we must look in the mirror to see the harm we do to ourselves when we go low. Then, we must promise ourselves that, as Mrs. Michelle Obama sagaciously put it, “when they go low, we go high!” I will not forget in a hurry the unethical publications, including paid adverts and Television Documentaries by opposition elements against GMB before he became PMB. We are almost there again, my dear friends.

At this point, Ladies and gentlemen, let me stop and allow the much esteemed panel discussants to take the conversation forward.

Once again, I want to thank the organizers for inviting me to speak on this very important subject. I thank you all for your time and attention.

 (Being keynote speech at the launch of Public Relations Thoughts & Deeds by Adedayo Ojo)

Emeka Oparah
Vice President, Corporate Communications & CSR, Airtel Nigeria, Lagos, Wednesday, November 21, 2018

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