Q&A: Insight into Africa’s public relations industry

Mitchell Prather, managing director of Djembe Communications

Mitchell Prather, managing director of Djembe Communications

How we made it in Africa asks Mitchell Prather, managing director of Djembe Communications, about the trends shaping Africa’s public relations (PR) industry.

Tell us about the trends that have been driving Africa’s PR industry over the last five to 10 years?

Even before the global recession and the impact that it has had on the centre of gravity away from Europe towards the East, there was a clear movement in communications towards reputation management. Throughout the 2000s we saw issues management and corporate responsibility emerge as important brand management tools. This period coincided with the acceleration of growth in a number of African markets and because of the global nature of media, there was a demand for a more mature sophisticated consultancy that understood Africa from an African perspective first and foremost, while adopting global best communication practices. Given that some African countries have difficult reputational legacies such as famine, poverty or conflict, it has become incredibly important for communications companies such as Djembe to know how to engage local and regional stakeholders with a new narrative of transparency and accountability, while promoting Africa’s real progress on the global stage.

Corporate communications now include the full gamut of traditional media work such as building relationships with global opinion formers and media – but there is also a growing need for internal training and capacity building. Social media has also transformed communications around the world and as a frontier market, sub-Saharan Africa has its own unique challenges from a technological perspective. Building integrated campaigns that communicate through traditional and new digital channels to a diverse social and economic populace is critical, particularly when communicating developments in crucial issues such as job creation, capital market development and social development progress such as clean drinking water access and improved education opportunities.

What are some of the challenges you face?

Africa has unique challenges – not only because of historic issues, such as corruption and transparency, but also practical hurdles such as bureaucracy and (in some instances) only partially liberated economies. State control, weak capital markets, multiple languages and political uncertainty all have played their part in making Africa a challenging place to do business. Recruitment is a pressing issue for Djembe as Africa simply does not have a large pool of talent in strategic communications – so we have to strike a balance between bringing in foreign expertise, headhunting local talent and upskilling young Africans. Growing a business is therefore much harder. We have been working with recruitment companies throughout 2015 in order to grow our business and we still struggle to find high-calibre people who are passionate both about their careers and Africa. We do see it changing though – African governments, such as Angola, are investing heavily in education and are supporting young entrepreneurs. There is also a growing awareness among Africans of the region’s potential to chart its own destiny.

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

Underpinning much of our work is the drive towards economic diversification in some of Africa’s biggest markets. The slump in oil prices makes this an even more pressing need. So, countries that have a historic reliance on extractive industries are hungry for communications services that help them to promote foreign investment, foster enterprise and reach out across the populace to promote innovation. Six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa – if these countries are to maintain momentum they need to build their reputations around the world and gain a stronger voice locally, regionally and internationally.

In which ways does PR solutions in Africa differ to those offered in other parts of the world?

Africa has its own set of challenges – one of the world’s youngest, but less-skilled populations; fragmented infrastructure (ranging from electricity grids to air transport and business-crucial infrastructure) – but these also bring opportunities. This region has enormous economic growth potential with a very young demographic. With political will and continuing levels of investment, the aspirations of millions can be realised. Africa does, in some markets, have a growing middle class with money to spend – but there remains a gulf between those on the way up and those stuck in poverty. This is why African governments, semi-government and private sector organisations need to invest in reputational strategies that help them to grow, attract investment, create job opportunities and build a healthy SME sector.

How would you describe the level of competition between PR agencies focused on Africa? 

There are a handful of global PR firms that have parachuted individuals in to key markets, providing them with a foot in the door. South African PR firms have also sought to establish themselves in the sub-Saharan region. So we have a PR landscape of South African firms clambering to get in to the sub-Saharan African markets and foreign firms setting up satellite operations.

Our view is that whilst these undoubtedly offer organisations choice, we believe it is very difficult to provide real insights on local issues without having worked from the ground up. This is one of the reasons why our own growth has been organic and why we have worked so hard to build multi-lingual teams from within each market. There is no substitute for authentic local knowledge. So whilst we welcome competition, we passionately believe that African solutions must come from individuals who have real-life experience in the region and who live and breathe the African story.