Q&A: PR player shares how the industry in Africa differs to elsewhere

"Particularly in Africa, it simply isn’t enough to rely on the media to influence your stakeholders," says Marcus Courage.

“Particularly in Africa, it simply isn’t enough to rely on the media to influence your stakeholders,” says Marcus Courage.

Over the last decade, foreign perceptions surrounding Africa (and particularly its opportunities) have changed dramatically. After the global recession, the continent’s high growth markets stood out from the sluggish growth seen in developed countries – and western media picked up on this. Phrases such as “Africa rising”, “Africa’s time”, and “the last frontier” quickly caught on.

And as the continent’s private sector grew, so did its PR industry.

UK-born Marcus Courage is the founder of Africa Practice, a communications consultancy with offices in Accra, Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg, Harare, Lagos, London and Nairobi. He started it in 2003 – when the continent’s narrative was still one of aid, not trade – and says many of his London friends has just assumed he was launching a charity. 

How we made it in Africa speaks to Courage about the growth of the PR industry over the years, the challenges that it faces, and how competitive the space is today.  

What trends have been driving Africa’s PR industry in the last five to 10 years?

There are two key trends, when you think about communications broadly. One is the rapid growth, diversification and increased sophistication of economies on the continent. With this comes increased competition, meaning that businesses must fight for share of voice, and to differentiate from one another. Strategic communications is a key tool for achieving this.

Economic growth has driven increased interest on the part of international investors, and the growth of indigenous businesses to become multinationals in their own right. This creates opportunity for a business such as ours. These investors and operators need support to enter new markets. There is a view that traditional professional services businesses, such as law firms or accountants, can handle the whole of a market entry programme, but in reality you need specialist public affairs, business intelligence, communications, risk and stakeholder management services.

The second major driver of change is the explosive growth of the media in Africa in the last ten years. Digital technology has opened up access to information on a colossal scale. People are hungry for knowledge, and they want to engage actively with the political and economic forces that affect them. Clients require support in navigating this new environment, to cut through the noise and be heard.

In which countries do you see the most demand for your services?

Our largest offices are in Kenya and Nigeria. I think this is a function of investor interest in these countries, and the rapid growth of these economies. Nairobi and Lagos are major service centres with sophisticated business and media communities. I’d also say that our Tanzania office is also extremely busy at the moment – again a reflection of the economic conditions there, and we have been doing very healthy amounts of work in Ethiopia, Angola and DRC too.

Generally speaking, what limitations face the industry?

Doing business in Africa is never easy, but we have succeeded in building a business from zero to a multimillion dollar turnover in 12 years, with more than 75 full-time staff across the continent. Economies go through cycles, and you need to be able to manage your business through these changes. Similarly, the needs of your clients change, and you need to be constantly innovating to meet their current needs and their future requirements too.

In terms of challenges, in some countries in Africa the media remains underdeveloped, but we’ve never aimed to be a pure-play PR business, in the sense of media relations. Stakeholder management and risk consultancy are just as important, and can be more important in meeting the objectives of clients. We provide a mix of services, tailored to the client’s particular needs, and the specific local dynamics.

Another challenge is some businesses’ perception that investment in their reputation and payment for thorough, independent assessment of risks are luxuries. What we’re trying to put to the market is that judicious spending on these services – at the right time – can save a huge amount of money in the grander scheme. Failure to obtain a licence, when this could have been prevented, or wasting money on a full due diligence exercise on a project that never had a hope can be expensive.

Do PR solutions in African markets differ to other parts of the world? What works or doesn’t work?

In Africa, perhaps more than anywhere else, you have many countries where legislation is ambiguous, regulation is weak and institutions charged with regulation are under-resourced. The opportunities for discriminatory interpretations present a real risk to investors and operators.

This is why business intelligence and stakeholder management are such crucial risk mitigation tools in many of our markets, and why compliance, reputation and stakeholder engagement are critical for success. Just ask MTN, which is facing a record fine in Nigeria as a consequence of not addressing some of these issues earlier.

Particularly in Africa, it simply isn’t enough to rely on the media to influence your stakeholders. The line between business and personal life is often blurred. So any communications strategy will need a strong dose of face-to-face interaction, have a strong human interest and local resonance.

A strong belief of ours, based on our experience, is that businesses operating in Africa need to create “shared advantage” with their host societies. This could be through job creation, knowledge transfer, driving growth, and so on. This is the only way to operate sustainably, for the long term. In a sense, businesses must earn a licence to operate since there is no absolute right to do so. That is why organisations need to establish an effective positioning strategy that routes the organisation into its host society.

One last point I would make is that in Africa, people really love a good news story. There is less cynicism about progress and potential than there is in London, say.

How would you describe the level of competition between PR agencies (both local and foreign) focused on Africa?

In many ways, when we started we had a first-mover advantage – both in terms of our mix of international expertise and local presence, and our range of services. We grasped it with both hands, and have expanded.

Since then, international agencies have recognised the opportunity in Africa and have opened offices, especially in cities like Johannesburg, Nairobi and Lagos. The landscape has certainly become more competitive, when considering particular service lines like corporate communications.

Many African economies were hit hard last year by the fall in global oil and commodity prices, and 2016 looks like it will offer no relief from this. Has this had any impact on the PR industry?

Clearly the downturn in commodities and energy prices affects the quantum and type of work that we win from clients in those sectors. It has also made trading conditions tougher across the board, because so many economies in Africa are still commodities-dependent.

We remain confident because we have the versatility to provide the services that businesses need now. Many of our clients have had to shift their focus away from brand building towards consolidation and restructuring. This entails an expanded communications skill set, encompassing employee engagement, change management and stakeholder relations.

As governments seek new revenue sources, the tenor of their relationships with business has altered. We are helping clients to ensure that they have open communications and strong relations with governments. This ensures that – over and above paying their dues – they also demonstrate commitment to supporting government priorities. This can protect them from unpredictable regulatory action.