African public relations is moving on from ‘reputation laundering’ as multinationals and local businesses look for more sophisticated communications.
The mention of international PR firms in Africa normally evokes images of British or American spin doctors whispering in the ears of African leaders. Communications companies working in the region are often associated with ‘reputation laundering’ – boosting the domestic or international image of a government or head of state.
British firms Racepoint and BTP Advisers have come under the media spotlight in recent years following their work with, respectively, the Rwandan government and Uhuru Kenyatta’s 2013 re-election campaign.
Many heavyweight international PR firms continue to offer reputation management services on the African continent, but the changing political landscape and the growth of African corporates is driving a major shift in the public relations industry.
Global communications firms are increasingly seeking out corporate rather than political clients – often multinational companies trying to get their foot in the door in key African markets, or ramping up existing operations in major commercial centres, such as Nairobi, Lagos or Johannesburg.
In October, London-headquartered Weber Shandwick announced that it was merging with its South African sister agency, McCann PR. The move in effect saw Weber Shandwick boost its number of major South African business clients, including the local operations of MasterCard and Nestlé. Bell Pottinger, another large international firm, says that while it is still doing “geopolitical” PR work in Africa, it is increasingly working with multinationals on the continent.
A minority of Western communications companies have taken the leap and opened one or more offices in Africa. This includes Gong Communications, a London firm that has opened offices in Nairobi, Johannesburg and Accra.
Many PR agencies, including Gong, are also taking on more home-grown African companies that are keen to take their businesses to their next level.
“Our portfolio was primarily international companies wanting to enter African markets when we first started out working on the continent,” says Narda Shirley, the founder of Gong Communications.
“Recently we are working a lot with local firms. Many of these want to expand outside of their home markets. They feel that professional PR is crucial to building their profile regionally or across the whole of Africa.”
This transformation is reflected in Gong’s client list, which includes Garden City, the largest retail mall and residential development in East Africa, and the property investment specialist ATT Africa.
American PR firm Grey has also opened an African office in Johannesburg to service clients in Nigeria, Kenya, Mozambique, Ghana, Tanzania and Botswana. Its client base is roughly “50-50 split” between multinationals and local companies, according to Paul Jackson, managing director at Grey South Africa.
“The primary reason for our activities in these markets is to support our existing clients expanding across the continent in fast growing markets,” Jackson says. The company is focused on expanding into Nigeria, initially through its affiliates in the country.
Alongside the international players, locally led firms are winning clients and plaudits. The Nigerian ‘perception management’ company, Brooks+Blake, advises a number of multinational and local clients, including Diageo, GlaxoSmithKline Nigeria, Pernod Ricard and Thermocool. The PR company recently opened an office in Cameroon to focus on the Central African market.
“We have chosen to start our expansion from Cameroon because we saw the opportunity to expand our services and to drive the PR practice in Africa,” says Dare Ogunyombo, a senior media manager at Brooks+Blake.
“We are looking at expanding more within the West Africa region. We are still studying the situation in some countries to fully identify areas our services will be more appropriately required and appreciated.”
Companies from South Africa, which has a relatively well-developed PR industry, are increasingly looking to expand northwards, albeit slowly.
Vincent Magwenya, CEO of South African PR firm Magna Carta, also stresses that although more South African firms are looking for opportunities outside the country, the decision about whether to expand is not always straightforward.
“It is also important to recognise that South Africa is a very mature PR market, one in which boutique service providers can grow and sustain their businesses without necessarily having to expand outside their home borders,” Magwenya says, adding that PR firms also tend to need “significant client backing” to finance expansion abroad.
Magwenya does not believe that South African firms have a cultural advantage over Western firms in terms of their experience of working in African environment; British and American PR firms have their own trump cards, he argues.
“Some of the international firms have benefited from expanding their long term client relationships into Africa. International firms have also formed formidable affiliate or equity partnerships with local agencies.”
Moving into the rest of Africa is complex and expensive. Each market has its own idiosyncrasies and challenges, while PR firms face the same challenges as many other businesses working on the continent.
“There is a belief that it is cheap to do business on the continent. This couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Grey South Africa’s Jackson, who adds that the unavailability of solid market research and data makes marketing challenging.
Even African firms are quick to identify the challenges of working with clients outside their home country.
“Different countries present their own peculiarities,” says Ogunyombo from Nigerian firm Brooks+Blake. “Understanding the peculiarities of the operating environment and being guided by these rules and principles will help ameliorate the challenges.”
Insiders argue that the PR gurus that will come out the winners in such a challenging environment are those willing to throw themselves into important markets properly rather than seeing them as a side show to dip into from London or New York.
“Those agencies with boots on the ground and a long term commitment to the continent will win over the agencies trying to fly by relate control,” says Jackson from Grey South Africa.
“African clients are growing tired of the seagull mentality of most European and International PR firms where the top team flies in for the pitch, win the business and disappear leaving the local team ill–equipped to execute the strategy.”