Sindy Foster is a creative, strategic and analytical marketing and public relations consultant with over 17 years experience working with international multi-sectoral companies. Although not a Nigerian citizen, she is a lover of the Nigerian project. She is passionate about rewriting the country’s corporate image. Speaking on how Nigeria’s image can be better improved abroad in this exclusive interview with BIGPENOnline, she says emphatically that Nigerians should take responsibility for what is happening to the country’s global image and start a holistic rebranding process.

Coming from abroad, what image do people have about Nigeria?

Despite living in the UK all my life, I didn’t come into much contact with Nigerians until seven years ago. But what I had heard a lot about through the international media at that time was mainly obscene levels of corruption and fraud.

From random people, I heard about dead bodies in the streets (in Lagos!), that Nigeria was a lawless society and that you could not trust Nigerians!

The first time I realised this wasn’t entirely the full picture was when I met professional, educated Nigerians and entrepreneurs, who had legitimate careers and businesses. No “African Prince’s” or 419s amongst them! Instead I was inspired by the Nigerians I met. Their elegance, eloquence, drive and ambition was contagious. When I heard people (including Nigerians in the Diaspora) denigrating Nigeria it struck me as odd, then I figured the Nigerians I had been inspired by, must have been atypical.

But this left me very curious about Nigeria something just did not add up to me. There seemed to be a huge divergence in feelings about the country from its own countrymen. When I first mentioned I was planning a trip to Lagos, I was told to bring my own security. That I should avoid getting a taxi from Lagos airport or I could end up raped, robbed or murdered (or all three!). This advice came from Nigerians, I took it with a pinch of salt and continued with my plans.

It wasn’t until I came to Lagos having packed entirely the wrong outfits that I realised there was a huge disconnect between what I imagined Lagos to be like and what I came to experience. I felt so underdressed compared to the Lagos women, who were dressed up and more glamorous than I had seen on the streets of Central London! Yes, the Lagos I found was older and a bit more run down than I was expecting, but was vibrant, with an unbelievable energy, I just wanted more.

Nigerians told me “Nigeria is finished”

When I returned from my first trip, I attended a reception at the Nigeria High Commission in London and was surprised to hear Nigerians telling me “Nigeria is finished”, “Nigeria has nothing”, “Nigeria is a dirty waste of space” and even belittling my interest and belief in Nigeria. It was quite odd to be defending Nigeria in the midst of Nigerians.

Since coming to Nigeria I have become aware of even more problems than I heard overseas, but these issues are well known amongst the international communities who are affected by these on a regular basis.

Over regulation – by multiple overlapping government agencies increases the cost of doing business.

Policy somersaults – meaning no one is ever entirely certain what issues they will be facing from week to week, which makes it difficult to plan or forecast accurately.

Legal inconsistencies – the law seems to be inconsistently applied or interpreted which means companies can find themselves in a bad situation even when they believe and have been told they are compliant.

Attacks on known entities – a lot of businesses try to maintain a low profile due to fear of financial attacks by government agencies. This dampens business and economic growth because businesses are constrained from promoting or marketing themselves in a safe environment.

Low educational standards – typically the Nigerians you meet overseas are super educated with several degrees. However, although there is massive unemployment in Nigeria finding employees with sufficient education and experience is surprisingly hard.

Lack of deferred gratification discipline – everyone seems in a hurry to get quick results. This means that people don’t invest enough in education or in getting work experiences to advance their own careers, so they can do better later on. Successive governments did not invest in what the country needed and now it seems government is unable to invest what the country needs for the future, so the every day reality of lack of power, poor infrastructure, costs the country more and more in opportunity lost development.

Even this recurring issue of bribery is partly due to people being in a hurry to get things done, or to get ahead. Instead of going through the normal process there is always another faster more expedient way. Or to try to eclipse competitors companies are encouraged to “sweeten the deal”. People are often worried that others will pay if they don’t. What needs to happen is a complete cleanup of all public institutions to root out the endemic corruption and hold those who encourage and facilitate it accountable. Only then will Nigeria have any real chance of cleaning up its act.

What impact could this image good or bad have on Nigeria corporate existence?

The accusations of corruption at a individual-level, company-level and country-level can have a devastating impact on corporate existence.

At first I, like many people, believed the stories I heard. It sounded like Nigerians were stealing money left, right and centre. Whilst this is allegedly a bigger issue with the public sector, the private sector was also tarnished by bribery accusations, mostly allegations of bribing public officials for contracts. So once again the public sector seems to be at the heart of the accusations.

Unfortunately, it does appear that the ‘there is no smoke without fire’ analogy has some relevance in some cases, the unfortunate thing now is all successful businesses and people have been tarred with the same brush.

One of the biggest problems is the deliberate sensationalising and misrepresentation of stories by some sections of the media. Some publications deliberately create negative stories, where there is no story, or the real story is at odds with what has been published. Some of the stories are so far fetched that they are obviously ridiculous. Sadly people rarely read beyond the headlines before forming an opinion. When there are so many accusations, so much mudslinging, as we all know mud sticks.

If an individual, company or country has a bad reputation, perceived or otherwise, for corruption in particular, that red flags investment, contract, and financing opportunities and increases the cost and difficulties of doing business. It’s simple, risk costs.

In term of entrepreneurship and investment, is Nigeria faring well in the eyes of international communities?

You need to have a high appetite for risk to be prepared to do business in Nigeria. Horror stories are rife about companies who have been targeted with negative stories some of which are untrue or exaggerated for click bait purposes.

Rapidly changing policies with no lead up to implementation therefore enabling companies to prepare affects all companies, but when you are used to operating in a more organised, structured environment with rules which are adhered to, it is difficult to plan or adapt fast. For example Cerpac fees were changed with a few days notice. This doubled the cost of hiring expats.

Once you have invested your time and often large sums of money to do business in Nigeria.

Attempting to repatriate business funds from Nigeria to the UK has additional risks involved. If you don’t apparently fall foul of some local regulation/banking restriction, your transaction might be flagged up as suspected money laundering and your bank account closed. This has happened to quite a few genuine British business people. So having taken the risk to come and do business here, getting your hard earned money out is another story.

What role can Nigerians play in the Nigeria re-branding project?

Nigerians, the Nigerian media and the Nigerian government have the biggest roles to play in this very necessary Nigeria rebranding exercise. Contrary to popular belief, what happens in Nigeria does not stay in Nigeria. The growth of the internet means information is seen and dissected outside of the physical borders.

Check facts before reporting or sharing!
Without knowledge of the local, often cultural nuances, what is reported as happening here, is read as fact elsewhere.
So much so that places which have no security issues at all, are marked as a security risk. I was surprised to hear expats think Lekki is a security risk! There may be parts of Lekki which have problems, but for the whole of the Lekki axis to be written off has an impact on the local Lekki economy.

Nigerians are great sharers of information, most of it very useful information, but where the source of the information is unclear, and the credibility of the information is debatable, it is dangerous to be sharing such information. Some of it is libellous, slanderous, or simply inaccurate or untrue.

People literally create fuel crises and road gridlocks by making untrue statements. Which they don’t check before sharing. When the situation is cleared up, you don’t see a subsequent retraction or clarification.

Pay bills and salaries
There is a huge payments issue here which affects families, local businesses and international businesses alike. It is very difficult to get paid on time here. Salaries, bills, invoices, etc are often subject to delays. These delays cause exponential damage to livelihoods of businesses and individuals. It is suffered at every level of the economy domestic homes, private business, Local Government, State Government, and Federal Government. Late paying means spending retracts, investment is not possible, maintenance is delayed or scrapped, and infrastructure is decimated. There are so many projects which have been abandoned midway due to payment issues. It is a vicious cycle, if you don’t pay your bills on time, it has a knock on effect.
Clean up Nigeria
Personal and individual responsibility is something which we all need to look at here. We complain about the rubbish on the streets, even people overseas are aware of the rubbish problems, particularly in Lagos, but what part are we each playing to alleviate it. Are we buying less packaging? Are we reusing plastic bags or have we scrapped them altogether? Are we buying products in recyclable packaging? Are we sorting our rubbish and arranging for recycling? Are we disposing of our own rubbish when we are out and about? What about at the beach?
We all need to take responsibility for what happens in Nigeria and look at ways that we each are contributing to the problem. Government alone cannot solve all the problems.

Be more mindful of others
Nigerians self organise a lot in this environment: power, water, roads in some instances. But we also need to be mindful of how our own actions impact others. If we address this on a daily basis we will create a better society for all. Neither an individual, a home, a business, nor a country can thrive through self interest alone.
What role is the media playing in this and the sustainable corporate re-branding project?

The media landscape in Nigeria is broken. It is unsustainable in its current guise and most publications deliver little of value for their readers or advertisers.

This leads to sensationalism and unprofessional practices. People lament the failure of publishers to pay journalist salaries. But these same journalists are undermining their own businesses through brown envelope journalism. When a company gives a journalist a brown envelope for attending a press conference it is doubtful that the money ends up being paid into the publisher’s bank account! And it is unlikely the company will also take up advertising in the publication as they will feel they have already paid for coverage. But at the end of the month the journalist is still expecting a salary! From where? If all revenues are not centrally collected, it is unlikely the publication will have sufficient revenue to pay salaries.

The journalist who now needs money even more than before will be susceptible to side deals which amount to “blogger blackmail”. So the cycle continues. These stories are often placed without any evidence, investigation or accuracy to damage companies and individuals. The journalist may be acting alone, or may be an instrument of a competitor, vengeful business partner, or even a girlfriend. All of this is played out online for the consumption and confusion of all.

The media industry needs to increase professionalism and adopt an more commercial and sustainable practice. Brown envelope journalism needs to be stamped out.

A demarcation between sponsored posts and news needs to be established, and a more joined up approach in attracting new revenues needs to be adopted. If the media wants to be taken seriously, and if it wants Nigeria to be taken seriously around the world, it needs to look at itself.

News is news and everything else is PR. And in my view PR should be paid for through legitimate channels such as advertorial or advertising. Taking money from PR consultants to report news tarnishes both the PR industry and the media alike. A PR consultant should be able to sell a good story to the right audience through synopsis writing and pitching story angles which resonate. Doing it any other way reduces PR and journalism to a transaction.



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