THE ONLY THING I DON’T LIKE ABOUT PR – The Quadrant Company’s Bolaji Okusaga
Mr. Bolaji Okusaga, the Managing Director of The Quadrant Company, affiliated to Flieshman Hillard, is one young man who is on a mission. The mission is to transform the Nigerian Public Relations landscape. And so far, he’s been doing wonderfully well. Especially with the caliber of clients he’s working for. At his beautiful office on Ladoke Akintola Street in Ikeja GRA, Lagos weeks back, the suave and smooth talker opened up to YES INTERNATIONAL! Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, on some of the things that matter most to him. Let’s share them with you…
What makes a good PR man?
Well, his work! (Laughs). His work will define him as either a good PR man or a bad one. Part of the things a lot of people associate with PR in this market or on this side of the world are actually not PR. Publicity and Public Relations are two different things. I always tell people – you can have publicity and with that publicity will come notoriety. You can actually have publicity that doesn’t look good. I’m talking strictly now in terms of Public Relations in such a way that you are able to achieve your aim, you are able to come across as responsible, you are able to come across as friendly, you are able to come across as people – oriented and you are able to achieve your objective in such a way that you are not brash, you are not overt and you are not confused. Public Relations must be strategic. It may not at all times be about publicity, if you know what I mean. Because publicity speaks just about being in people’s faces and you can be in people’s faces for the right or wrong reasons…
What is your own definition of Public Relations?
It’s the standard definition from the International Public Relations Association (IPRA). The fundamentals of it being the fact that there’s a public that needs to be related with and how is that public being related with; in what manner and why would you need to relate with your public in the management of certain expectations around your person, around the things you represent and around the things you want to project. So, in a nutshell, Public Relations speaks about your relationship with different levels or publics in order to achieve a pre-determined outcome. Let’s say this is how I want to perceived. Then, I begin to do things in certain ways that gets me gradually into being in that kind of perception. That’s PR in the lay man’s sense.
What is the costliest mistake that most PR people make?
One of it is trying to overshadow their subjects. That way, you will not be able to separate the message from the messenger. How do I mean? People will normally say from the theoretical stand point that the medium is the message. Yes! But at the same time, you can separate the message from the messenger. And by this I mean; as professionals, we must be involved and yet distant from what we do. So, it’s like a paradox. Involved yet distant. Involved in the sense that you’ve got to come to terms with the issue, the personality, the institution that you manage. That means you got to understand the dynamics around that phenomenon; you got to understand, were it to be a corporation, the competitive environment, the regulatory environment, the community environment, the political stakeholder environment, the shareholders who’ve invested, the media and all of that. So, to that extent, you are involved. But you also got to be distant in the day to day running of that phenomenon. Because an association of that PR person with what he’s trying to do already shows it as PR. It’s not meant to look like PR. It’s just meant to happen in an orchestrated manner, in such a way that you are able to build credibility without being directly fingered as the person doing that thing. And that will mark a contra-distinction from what PR represents, from what advertising does. Advertising will speak in the first person narrative; PR will speak in the third person. So, essentially, what we do as PR people is to engage in third person narratives of the subject, the phenomenon, the institution or the personalities we represent.
What do you like most about what you are doing?
I love everything about it! But beyond just loving everything, the thing I love the most is the fact that I am able to garner across – the – industry knowledge. If you stand me up with a conversation about the oil industry, because I’ve been involved with oil industry clients, I can begin to tell you the difference between upstream, downstream; I can begin to tell you details of the joint venture partnership and the laws around it; I can begin to tell you about the emerging regulatory regime. Talk about local content, talk about PIB, because I have been involved. If you talk about finance, I can begin to tell you about the FSS 2020, I can begin to tell you a number of things regarding the market and regulatory systems within the financial market, because I’ve been involved with financial clients. If you come to technology, we can begin to discuss convergence, we can begin to discuss a lot of issues around technology, because I’ve worked with technology clients. And if you bring me down to entertainment, we can begin to look at what does it mean, how can we bring entertainment into the mainstream of the economy, because I’ve been involved with a couple of entertainment clients, like MTV base and all of that. So, that’s one thing PR does for you. It just gives you an insight into life itself and life from different shades and from different perspectives. And if you must run a good PR, you must understand those perspectives in order to be able to grasp strategies that address those issues. That’s one thing I love most.
What don’t you like about PR?
The only thing I don’t like about PR is that it will try to pull you to celebrate; because of what you do and because somehow there’s always the romance with the media. There’s always the feel that you are also a celebrity and I think that for the long term success of anybody who is into PR, you need to run away from becoming a celebrity because that becomes noise. If you did communication, you will understand what we mean by noise in the communication channel. You can actually become noise within that communication channel if you are seen everywhere; if you begin to then garner for yourself negative PR, how would you then manage your clients? Then, it becomes an issue because it’s like the popular saying, physician, heal thyself. And you open yourself up to a lot of reputational risks, just like the subject that you deal with on a day to day basis. So, the best way you can avoid this kind of reputational risk is to stay out and that’s one thing I find pretty more challenging. How do I stay out? (General laughter).
What distinguishes The Quadrant Company from the other PR companies?
I reckon it is the philosophy of the founders. Everything starts first on that philosophy – what are you trying to achieve, how do you intend to achieve it, what are those values that will help you to achieve it and so on. This is an institution; it’s no longer a company. The fact that we operate within a local environment does not mean we should just be local. We should seek to globalise our practice, we should seek to globalise content, we should seek to globalise even our strategy, because we operate within a global market. Nokia is Nokia in Nigeria, just as it is in Finland, just as it is in London. And this is because Nokia happens to understand the global perspective. One other thing is that we help to set the trend in the industry. We helped to redefine the whole concept of Public Relations in this country. TQC is the first full service Public Relations consultancy company in this country. Before then, people used to say integrated communications and then you will find that it is those that do advertising and PR together. Their level of professionalism was suspect because even though both are part of the marketing mix, the strategies, the approach are totally different. So, in a sense, we helped in some sort of ways to sectionalize that and to make matters even better, we became the first full service PR firm, which means that apart from just being a specialist in certain specific areas, we have become more like a boutique, offering services in different special areas. We have the technology practice, there’s the financial service practice, there’s the consumer practice and each of those portfolios would require specialist skills because they minister to specialist markets and you would have to understand those markets. The Quadrant Company was the first of such. Secondly, The Quadrant Company was the first in some sort of way to globalise the practice and institutionalize certain best practices within the local environment to get into affiliate relationship. We migrated to the Fleishman Hillard platform and beyond that, last year, we were the first in Public Relations practice within West Africa to win an international award – which we won in Brussels (Holmes SABRE Awards 2012).
What is the greatest thing that PR has done for you?
It has helped to put food on my table. I am trying to look at it from the perspective of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Survival need is the basic. So, in terms of those seven hierarchies, PR has helped fulfil that. And the highest being self esteem, because it has brought me before kings, it has brought me before nobility. It has brought me before men I probably thought I will never meet in my life. Because by the nature of the job we do, we always interact at sea level, at corporate level; so we are meeting Managing Directors, with guys who own the souls of the organizations. That is one thing it has done. From survival to self esteem.
What has PR not done for you?
It has not in a sense made me a billionaire. I’m a very ambitious and competitive person. And you see, truth be told, we have not really taken our game to the level where it should be. So, it’s still an emerging industry and to their extent, I can tell you that we, arguably, being the highest; are we really a billion dollar business? We are not. But we are gradually moving towards getting there. It’s painful! Because you put so much into this and you would expect so much to come out of it. But like they say, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a step. I think we are getting there; we are gonna get there.
What success strategies did you adopt to get to where you are today?
No. 1, rigour. That means you got to go through the mill, you got to look at the dynamics, you got to look at the details, you got to be sure that you are on point, because if you are not on point, you are dead. And what do I mean by that? Any business you get into, you are in competition with a lot of people. The barrier entry in our industry is very low and you and I know for sure that every journalist that fails as a journalist thinks that the way to go is to say I’m a PR person. Therefore, if you must win within this environment, you must be about excellence. So, rigour is not something we joke with. If you can see, my eyes are bloodshot; that means I worked overnight on a client’s brief and I needed to cross the T’s and dot the I’s properly and be sure that I am on target, because you go to present to a client who is probably more knowledgeable about the industry than you are and then you come bullshitting and telling him about the media. Well, the media is not all he needs at that point. He probably needs some kind of engagement with the stakeholders or it’s like dealing with a client that has a mountain of problems and then you go to him and you are just scratching those issues; you are not gonna get anywhere. But if you’ve gone through a rigorous process, if you’ve analysed the situation, you’ve been able to come out with solutions that are on target, then of course you will get that business. No. 2, avoiding a lot of noise. Because noise itself disrupts the communication channel and you as a person can become noise when you are too visible. Everywhere! You are too available. You become too much of a celebrity and then you get involved on the wrong side of public perception. It can become a problem for this job in which you yourself will carry with you some kind of reputational risk if you are not careful. That’s the second.
The third is strong family values. People speak about ethics, people speak about values; it must come from the home. You cannot give what you don’t have. If you are not a good family man, you cannot preach good family values. I’m not sure that you can be a good marriage counselor if you’ve never been married (Laughs). So, strong family values, because at the heart of what we do, is the fact that we want to put food on the table and beyond that, we want to leave a legacy for the generation coming after us. So, those are the three things. Rigour, avoiding a lot of noise and strong family values that speak about ethics, that speak about avoiding corruption, that speak about trying to live right and good conscience. Very simple!
How does it feel to be working for a man that is as revered as Mr. Biodun Shobanjo, the czar of advertising?
Great honour! Great honour! Great honour! I said it three times. Before I came into the industry, I was a banker. A lot of people won’t believe that. But I didn’t come in as a banker. I also was a broadcaster at some point and I thought I met you in MINAJ in those days. I’m sure you will remember. But I’ve looked at Mr. Shobanjo from a distance and in some sort of ways been awed and enamoured. How can a man define an industry and just keeps going? Nearing his 70s! And yet he still remains No. 1 in this industry. How has he been able to sustain 40 years of unbeaten run? I think we need to take a lot of lessons from him. Now, I’m come close to him, I work with him and I found out one thing about him – he hires very smart people. He will not keep you except you stay smart. He will tell me he won’t hire anybody that is not smarter than himself. Because he hates to just hear his voice. He wants to be hearing a cacophony of voices that combine to make a whole lot of sense. Therefore, he won’t put guys who have poor thought process in a room if he’s trying to solve a problem. This is one such group that hires PhDs and has retained them. People like Dr. Ken Ikpe. Before Ken Ikpe, we had Dr. Emakpoe. And there are several other very smarter and intelligent people because Mr. Shobanjo does not suffer fools gladly. He would rather hire you as a manager that knows better than him than for you to come back to him and then ask him: what should I do? He will tell you that he did not hire you so that he can lead you; he hired you so that you can lead and then your leadership can translate into superior shareholder returns. And that’s what he has done. He said beside taking education about being a professional, you also need to take a bit of business education and business education is about how you can improve output and you cannot do that except you raise the quality of your input. That’s one philosophy he’s held on to for over 40 years and that’s what defines him. So, I consider it a very big honour working with such a man.
Which client would you like to work for but has not been able to attract?
The Presidency! The reason being that Nigeria is one great promise that is not being communicated properly. You see, when you look at America, and you’ve been to America, you begin to imagine the noise about America, when you stand on the street of America and you are asking yourself – is this the so-called America? If you then get as curious enough to get to the capital, you discover that right even at the back of the White House, which is the house where the man who is supposed to be the most powerful man in the world resides, not too far from it, has some slums; some dregs of the earth live not too far. Then, you start asking questions: how have they been able to build this myth? That’s the question! Communication. PR. Because the truth is when you tell a lie strategically, not so often, because you can be telling a lie and people will be irritated. But when you tell it so strategically and people begin to see the value in that lie and that lie begins to steer positive emotions toward you, that lie gradually becomes the truth. Because, what is really the truth? The truth is what we commonly hold it to be. So, today, I am Bolaji. What if tomorrow the same human being goes to do a sex change and turns my name from Bolaji to Linda and there’s proof that I’m now female. Would it be a lie to say I was Bolaji today and tomorrow I’m Linda? It’s a question of how I tell that story. So, the truth is what we collectively agree it is and that’s one thing the Nigerian government misses and that’s how come the best of us is not celebrated, but the worst of us is given so much projection. And in that kind of state, people don’t trust you, people don’t believe you. Therefore, even if you are gonna come out of that trench, people will not give you a chance. But if we start right by telling the right story about Nigeria and get people to begin to believe that story, you will find out that those misconceptions will begin to appear as real and that’s one challenge I hope to take up when in the future we ever get a chance to do that.
As the MD of TQC, what would you describe as your greatest achievement?
My greatest achievement? Being able to win an international award. The Holmes SABRE Award. It’s like you are a lawyer and then you become a SAN. I mean, why would anybody not want to operate at the highest level of his profession, on the global stage? Where you are able to rub shoulders with the world’s best in your profession. That’s what is my greatest achievement. As for winning clients and doing good business, that would come as second because if you are a great professional, the spin off o.
NB: First published November 2013