In a country where some people say dreams die quickly, Ken Egbas is surely an “outlier”. His story is inspiring and lends further credence to the fact that you can achieve whatever you conceive in your heart, if you truly believe. And more importantly, there is no alibi for failure. Ken Egbas is the organizer of The SERAS, arguably Nigeria’s biggest corporate awards for Corporate Social Responsibility, Sustainability and Good Corporate Citizenship. In this exclusive interview, Egbas talks about why he left medicine for public relations, his life and the “New Nigerian” sensibility, a sensibility that uses ambition as a catalyst for change.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You trained as a doctor, but now practice public relations. Why did you waste time studying medicine if you knew you were going to get into public relations?
Dr. Ken Egbas: I don’t see it as wasting time, that is how I felt initially, but right now I don’t feel that way. In the end, as human beings our totality is a function of different things, whatever you become tomorrow is from all the experiences you had from childhood to middle age and all of that.
There is always a difference between what you train to do and what you are born to do, but because of our educational system and because we lack counselors or people who help spot what our natural propensities or talents are, we sometimes get trapped in things we were trained to do.
Did I ever know that I was always going to be in public relations? Yes, I always knew I was a people person, that has been my orientation from birth, I will say. I am creative by nature and would have done better been in the arts or the social science sector than the pure sciences. And I always felt my relationship had to be with people. So coming public relations was something that was more of nature than nurture.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Did you come from a rich background or had a safety net on ditching the medical profession for public relations?
Dr. Ken Egbas: For me, there is no classification of life. In my own books, the way I classify life is whether you are fulfilled or you are not. It’s not whether you are rich or poor, even though I have come to understand both feelings.
A lot of people do not know that I grew up on the streets, because today they see me with many privileged people. I didn’t have a privileged background. I used to hawk water, oranges and bread on the streets of Lagos. People don’t know that, they are those who find it hard to even connect with it because they see me in a certain light, as someone who got it right, but I don’t believe that there’s anything like getting it right.
What I believe is that you find your purpose in life or you don’t. I may not have had a privileged background but I won’t have cared less if I did. Everything I have done in my life is a function of the experiences I have had. We can do more for each other, whether we are rich or poor, we can share the joy, the smiles, the good will, the good moments, even just a pat on the back.
Some people on the streets, even if they don’t have food to eat, may just need someone to look them in the eye and tell them ‘everything is going to be fine’.
Those are the kind of things that have shaped my life. I always have something in my car because I have this concept of a nomad, I don’t know where I will sleep tonight, but anywhere I am working or doing anything, and night comes.
Sometimes I don’t even have night at all, my life is presently about doing every single hour of everyday in the direction I want to go. So when I leave the stage, people would testify that I did a good job while here. That is what I believe life should be about.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You also organise SERA Awards, now in its 7thedition. From your experience, do you think companies in Nigeria pay lip service to corporate social responsibility or are their efforts commendable?
Dr. Ken Egbas: In 2006, we started working on this and virtually pioneered or saw to the birthing of this industry, because in 2006 when we started promoting CSR Nigeria, only two multi-national companies in Nigeria had CSR policies – Guinness and BATN.
They had policies but those policies were not because they were Nigerian companies, they already operated in other countries where these things were required. What we did then was look at the CSR situation in regards to companies in Nigeria and decided to do something about it.
As a public relations company that was just coming to the industry, we had to look at the first market and ask ourselves, how do we get Nigerian businesses to play in that future market? If you look at today’s market and you work with what you have, it means you are just reading the market.
But when you plug into the future and position yourself based on what the future might hold, you can lead the market. That was what we were trying to do with the brands and we already knew that going into the future, 20, 30 or 40 years from now, the issues that are going to drive or determine how successful company become, are going to be: what they stand for vis-à-vis how those things they stand for affect all the developmental issues around us, whether it is poverty, health, maternal mortality, girl child education, or environment.
And in that future market, advertising is going to continue to drop because the wild factor about advertising is gone and the market is now moving into storytelling, which now brings everything into that sphere of public relations. This is the age of public relations, but the platform that public relation is going to be driven on to control the future of integrated micro communication, is going to be that which determines what the company needs in terms of responsibility and what they stand for in this case.
After seven years, I would say that Nigerian companies are actually waking up to the responsibility. For example, this is the first time we have seven emerging directors of companies present at the awards ceremony to receive the awards themselves.
Before now, they used to send their lower level staff, sometimes even the receptionist would come for the program. This indicates that the conversation is no longer at the mid-level management, but at the CEOs’ level. For us right now, between 65 – 70% of companies in the top 100 have CSR policies and managers. They may not be going all at it at the same pace but they have made a lot of progress.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What role does corporate social responsibility play in creating a positive perception of a company as a good corporate citizen?
Dr. Ken Egbas: I like the word you used, ‘corporate citizen’. A citizen means you must, by law, pay allegiance to a flag. If we all swore an allegiance to a flag or an oath, it means we all have a common destiny. All the problems we’ve had in this environment, including the issue of corruption, are because everybody became a government to themselves. Now, more questions are being asked about these issues and more. So it has indirectly become a PR or perception issue.
In the world today, when any company is linked to something very embarrassing or inimical, you find that their shares drop in stock on the stock exchange. That is the power corporate social responsibility has, not just on the present standing on brands and companies, but it also gives them an opportunity to attract goodwill in that future market.
There’s this book I read recently about Coca Cola been worth $900 billion, only $300 billion make up their fiscal assets and their operations around the world. $600 billion is from the goodwill they have generated, meaning that if they make any product today, you will want to try it out because of how you feel about them. That’s what corporate social responsibility helps companies to achieve.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You mentioned earlier that we are in the age of public relations, but isn’t it worrisome that companies always see advertising as being more important than public relations?
Dr. Ken Egbas: It is a very interesting question you’ve asked. But I will tell you one thing I’m very sure of, because I also know you are an industry person; in the last four years, spending on advertising has continued to tumble globally.
In America, for example, we have seen close to 40% of spending that used to go to advertising drop down to PR and go into the area of storytelling and all that. It is still advertising of some sort, but it has changed. Advertising should just have the wow factor, ‘buy one get one free’, put one small detergent and it washes a hundred clothes.
But now, with the world becoming more suspicious of these things, especially with the crash of these big companies based on the things they hid from people, advertising has lost its magic.
So the only way advertising can stand today is by coming to the middle ground and not the extreme and you can use a bit of storytelling. If you call an advertising person to deliver a pitch for you, he just goes for the wow factor. However, most times, the wow factor does not connect to the extent of what he is trying to sell. As a result, the public relations industry is not rising as should.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Why is this so?
Dr. Ken Egbas: The reason is because we don’t have a vibrant public relations industry that can be able to take the advantage of this new rave.
In all these other places, their industry is structured. In fact, because of the failure of the public relations industry to take advantage of that surging wave in their favour in Nigeria now, we’ve had some new companies come up, we call them self-activation firms, companies who go and do activation for you.
Go to locations, you see the bands, the drums and DJ’s, music and all that. For me I think that there is so much that public relations can do to lead the way, it will continue to lead the way in the future, but we have to solve this problem.
Even though we have the Nigeria Institute of Public Relations (NIPR) structure, the super structure has not really served much purpose because it has been run more by politicians than technocrats or people who are activate in the industry. This leads to the second problem where we need more quality hands and vibrant minds within the industry.
No one is paying attention to what makes the entire health of the industry and how it will affect the ability of PR people to make money in the future, or relevant even in the industry. So I think those are the issues, really.
Public relations will continue to improve outside, but do we have enough people here that can rise up to the challenge, take the bull by the horn and direct the profession in the direction it should be going? That’s where we have issues.
Sam Umukoro Interview: From your knowledge and experience, which company will you judge as one that is very devoted to corporate social responsibility?
Dr. Ken Egbas: That would be a very tough one to answer because I don’t want to be seen to be promoting one company above the other. But I know that when we started the project, MTN was the best for four years consecutively.
Initially, we had a 10-year plan for the SERA. In the first four years, we allowed people just bring what they have, then from the fourth year, we began the process of standardization and it has become more intense. Also, we’ve had Coca Cola win the awards overall in 2010. Last year it was GT Bank.
Now, we base it on an annual theme, based on that theme for the year, we select overall winners and our processes are very rigorous. It doesn’t have to do with whether one company is spending N1 billion and the other is spending N10 million, a successful CSR programme is the one that has sustainability component built into it.
They could spend all that money, but you won’t see it after a year. However, somebody who has five or N10 million puts together a project, for example, takes child beggars off the streets and finances their primary and secondary school education; that person can show seven years down the line that he or she actually took ten children off the street.
Some may become lawyers of doctors in the future and would inspire others to get off the streets. That is an example of a sustainability factor. The problem with many social responsibility programmes of companies in Nigeria is so deep in philanthropy, they say, “let’s just do good to be seen to be doing good”, but not exactly doing what is right.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What then is the difference between social corporate responsibility and philanthropy?
Dr. Ken Egbas: Corporate Social Responsibility is a plan by a company to engage society, taking into consideration its ethical and environmental responsibilities and responsibility to the people who work for them, as well as overall responsibility to the community at large.
CSR is not something you chance on. Ideally, for anything to be good social responsibility, you must first look at the core of the company. What is the vision of the company? I like to use this example, last year Coca Cola and Guinness came together for a water project, because they realised from global research finding, that the world is running out of drinkable water.
Right now only three percentage of the world’s water is drinkable. These two companies realised that this was a threat to the future of their business. So they designed a CSR project on how to get ground water, so that tomorrow when they want to manufacture their products they have drinking water.
Sustainability really means doing business today with the resources that you have, knowing fully well that you don’t have to deplete it totally, because another generation will need those resources to be sustainable.
That’s why CSR has to have a component of sustainability built into it. But philanthropy is actually like an entry mode for most companies into corporate social responsibility. If you give people some bags of rice for Christmas, they will still be hungry later when those bags are finished. It feeds into the doctrine, “don’t give a man a fish but teach him how to fish”.
Teach him to be independent; because you cannot always be sure that you will be in good mood to give the person fish every time. That’s the difference between philanthropy and CSR, although philanthropy is good.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What is your advice for young people who want to follow their dreams, despite societal pressure and the ‘bandwagon’ effect?
Dr. Ken Egbas: Nigeria is the worst place for a young adult or teenager to nurture a dream. It is like a vulture that eats its young, not because it doesn’t recognise that this offspring are from eggs she hatched, but because she’s frustrated, she doesn’t even know what she should be doing for herself. So when she’s hungry, she will rather eat her young, and the whole land mass is full of poisoned carcasses. But if you can have that tenacity of purpose, you look at that dream and tell yourself that, “This dream is not just about me”, you will succeed.
I found out that it is always easier for a human being to give up on something that has to do with oneself. For example, millions more would be dying from malaria if malaria drugs were not discovered by some persons; many children will die if they have no access to clean water, and so on.
We all have to find that way of connecting the dream inside us, from the outside, it is something greater than us, whether we accept it or not; that thing inside us is God, or that thing that we empty ourselves also is God.
So if you hold on to that dream long enough, you will find out that you won’t only start something good, you will also start a revolution. But we all have to deal with our frustrations in a way that our frustrations do not suppress that heavenly light present in every single one of us.
I have always believed one thing, where you were born or the family you were born into was not an error. God put you there for a reason, so that you can become a source of light and hope, even though in very darkest of moments for all of humanity. Running away won’t solve the problem. If we can take out time to focus on the right things, then we will be able to focus on helping ourselves as a nation and as humans.
Aside from America, I have never seen a nation as gifted as Nigeria, it has nothing to do with social class or being poor or rich, because everywhere i go in this journey, even in the place where people are so deprived, we see who have things they can offer but they don’t have encouragement to know how.
I want people to just believe that it is possible to achieve your dreams, and also help impact our nationhood.