Roundtable: Africa Comms Heads Explore Local, Digital Disruption
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report
President/Editor-in-Chief

Roundtable: Africa Comms Heads Explore Local, Digital Disruption

Technological change is reshaping corporate communications in Africa, according to a recent roundtable held by the Holmes Report and Waggener Edstrom in South Africa.

Arun Sudhaman

Roundtable: Africa Comms Heads Explore Local, Digital Disruption

These are fascinating times for senior corporate communicators in Africa. The continent's markets continue to grow, attracting increasing interest from MNCs and powering the emergence of major domestic players.

Uniting all of these companies is the range of issues — economic, social and commercial — that call for an advanced grasp of communications strategy. It is a requirement that only becomes more important as corporates attempt to adopt a more sophisticated local presence, in line with the emergence of mobile technology and digital communications.

To explore these critical issues in greater detail, the Holmes Report partnered with Waggener-Edstrom earlier this year to convene a high-level roundtable in Johannesburg that featured some of South Africa’s leading corporate communications professionals.


The discussion was broad-ranging, covering everything from the perils of localisation, emerging smartphone trends, better social media policies, finding the right talent and dealing with political risk and crises.

Many of the participants hold regional duties, leading to a vibrant conversation about some of the broader public relations trends that are affecting the continent as it grapples with the pace of economic development.

A full overview of the discussion follows below, including video excerpts from the panellists in attendance.

The panel
David Parkinson, head of digital, Africa, Middle East and India, Nissan
James Wilson, GM, Waggener Edstrom South Africa
Leo McKay, Head of corporate and commercial communications, Middle East Africa, Microsoft
Mpho Maseko, head of corporate marketing and communications, Sentech
Nicole Orr,
national marketing executive, Mustek
Risuna Mayimele
, global manager of communications, South African Tourism
Arun Sudhaman, managing editor, The Holmes Report


What do you see as the most disruptive changes when it comes to overseeing communications?

The discussion began with an exploration of the key changes affecting the corporate communicator role at African companies. Very quickly, it emerged that the global/local balance is proving difficult to get right, as global companies search for consistency amid wildly diverging regional markets.
 
Wilson: This whole point of local adaptability. From a pan-African perspective, there’s a massive opportunity to build capacity in the field. And by that I mean amongst journalists, the people that report on us on a daily basis. More and more companies have a presence in-country - I don;t think you can be all things to all people so I think the hub mentality is healthy. I also don’t think it’s possible to manage a local market remotely. The real results come from a fully-fledged subsidiary on the ground. Corporates really have the budgets and opps to have that physical presence, whereas an agency would only really be able to offer it through an affiliate model.
 
Orr: I used to work for Motorola. What I struggled with most is the localisation of content. We would set a strategy in place - this was the content and strategy. Very much, it wasn’t appropriate for the local African markets. People have become a little bit more sensitive to that - local content makes it real in the country you are operating in. Definitely I have seen that shift.
 
McKay: I think it’s a nice thing to say but I don’t know if it’s a very realistic thing to expect from a PR and marketing viewpoint in Africa. If you look at mature markets, they have been really overtaken in the media by the move to digital. In Africa, you see that in South Africa, but if you look at other African markets, they haven’t built that critical mass. So I don’t see us being able to establish huge capacities to deal with media across so many different countries, because it’s built through money. When I was agency side we tried to build out a lot of agency affiliates in smaller African countries — the problem is that PR is not a standalone disciplines in a lot of African markets, it can’t fund itself, so it's often linked to being advertising media companies. It’s always very easy to say we have to go everywhere and have localised content…looking at the reality, global campaigns and messaging are really becoming the standard. Maybe there’s an opportunity for local companies there. 
 
 
Parkinson: I more favour Leo’s position. As a global company, you cannot just start doing separate local implementations, you just can’t afford to do it. We’ve tried it in Europe, once the costs ramp up, you’ve lost your return on investment. Yes, there needs to be localisation, but you can’t move away from the brand message. For us, the global brand is everything. To have that brand consistency, you need to have one clear message that you say all the time, everywhere, over and over again. If you dilute that too much, where the markets go native, then you lose that messaging. You can’t have it both ways, have the global brand and be local.
 
Maseko: You definitely need to have local adaptability. But your brand blueprint is the thing that guides you. But the messaging for our customers in the Western Cape compared to the Eastern Cape, is completely different.
 
Sudhaman: Risuna, you have big global campaigns but also a lot of local messaging as well. Do you feel like that’s as big a challenge for you?
 
Mayimele: Is there such a thing as global campaigns? I think there’s often a perception that Africa is a homogeneous entity, so that what you craft for Egypt you can use in South Africa. But I think it can’t be like that. If you want to market, you have to understand what is the culture. You can miss that from a global messaging perspective. Also, in some African markets, especially compared to Europe, earned media is not that easy. If you go to Nigeria, you can’t just earn media, you have to pay for it. 
 
Wilson: South Africans think they are the centre of Africa, then you go to Kenya and they think they are the centre, and so does Nigeria. All of these countries is a hub - it’s such a diverse market, different consumers. It would be the same principle as applying the one-size-fits-all to Europe, which would be disastrous, or Asia. 

Talent and skills

If all communications really is local, then much of the success will rest on the teams companies can build in domestic markets. That has proved challenging for many corporates in Africa, particularly when you consider the type of new media skills that are increasingly required.
 
Parkinson: We have had that issue from a PR perspective and across agency side. Globally it would make a lot more sense to have one agency globally. Practically that just doesn’t work - the strength of a global agencies is not always so good in local markets. 
 
Mayimele: It’s become more complicated as the markets become more sophisticated. If you look at Africa, the global agency model is failing, and people are going for the partnership model. That’s also quite difficult — who owns what? It becomes lead agency vs global agency vs local agency.
 
Maseko: We find the challenge of hiring people is the most important thing. Hiring the right people is more of a challenge. There’s a role for marketing — there’s a need for some kind of understanding of what the brand stands for from a HR perspective. It’s very strange but we need to get that basic. HR needs to know when the right person walks through the door. 
 
Wilson: That is a brand exercise.
 
Maseko: Before we even interview anyone, we need to fix that profile. After that, everything becomes a little easier. At least you know you have the right people, who are at the level that you want to operate. 
 
Sudhaman: What about the skills? When we did this roundtable 18 months ago, we asked ‘what is the biggest change you are seeing?’ Everyone, unanimously, said social media - it’s changed the game. 
 
 
McKay: I think there is a challenge for good communications skills. That’s my personal view from when I worked at agency and crossed over to client side to a sub-Saharan remit. I would actually say that the move to digital and social is having a little bit of an uptick in skills. It’s  young continent…as a result we find that people are born into these skillsets. I’d say skills are still a challenge, but I wouldn’t say it’s getting any worse.

"Mobile is really the only strategy to have"
Unsurprisingly, the conversation soon turned to social media, and how it has changed the way that communicators in Africa approach their jobs. The discussion highlighted how different companies are at different stages of the social media journey, but McKay pointed out that the mobile revolution is clearly underway in several African markets, and is only likely to become more entrenched as the key communications medium.
 
Orr: The digital/social landscape has changed things. Now, everybody can discuss a brand or a product. It’s becoming a little more integrated.
 
Parkinson: People need to take a balance between scale and social media. Everyone’s got a voice. I can’t remember the last stat…only 1% of people actually use that voice. We do need to be careful about scale - what tends to happen is that they throw all their eggs into the social media basket and then, two years later, they are not actually improving their reach, their share of voice, their opinions. 
 
Sudhaman: Mpho, you mentioned moving from being a B2B company to one that is a little bit more B2C. How is that being reflected in your digital strategy?
 
Maseko: We’ve had a Twitter account for two years. Since I joined, we’ve had seven tweets! We do have lots to say, but what’s important is crafting the message. You need to have a plan - what you’re going to say at the end of month and what it’s going to be related to. Having that plan put together, we can actually construct messaging based on all the things we need to achieve.
 
Mayimele: Can I ask a question to you (David)? For me, the biggest question mark is what should a company say on digital platforms. You often find that companies, in a quest to relate to consumers, become a kind of social commentator. Is that acceptable? Or must you just tweet social media about the core business? At which point do you draw the line?
 
Parkinson: I have noticed more of a tendency to do the latter, be more of a public information forum in this region. It’s not something we would do in Europe. You have to really work out what you want to say, and work out what is the objective - what do you want to do? It goes back to having a proper brand blueprint. From your perspective, you have such a rich brand - it’s Africa - you have plenty you can say, but you don’t want to start commenting on political issues.
 
Mayimele: I think what we haven’t touched on when it comes to digital is the reality, which is that digital in emerging and emerged markets is quite different. In Africa, internet penetration is not as high, so as a channel, how effective a platform is it?
 
Parkinson: India is a good example. (Smartphones) are the difference. I presume it’s similar in Africa. There’s a glut of cheap Chinese smartphones.
 
Mayimele: But you still need the data.
 
McKay: Africa is very expensive for data. It varies country to country. 
 
Parkinson: In South Africa, our online conversations about Nissan, per month, is round about the 5,000 mark. In the UK it’s 40,000, but it’s a much smaller country than South Africa. So, sometimes, TVCs are not the best thing to pull your money away from. But where are people growing and where is the best place to invest your money?
 
McKay: If you look at smartphone penetration in Kenya, it moved 50% in less than a year. 80%+ of handsets sold in Kenya are smartphones. That’s a massive number. They have social media capabilities and social activity is speeding up much faster than access to television. If you’re looking for a short term strategy, it’s mobile. It’s really the only strategy to have. 
 
Wilson: I do believe that mobile handsets - if your investing in anything, make sure it’s that platform in whatever fashion that takes.
 
Transparency, political risk and media

The conversation concluded by addressing some weighty issues: the changing nature of media relations; the importance of transparency in the digital age; and ways by which companies can navigate heightened political risk in African markets.
 
Maseko: You know, it’s hard to define the boundaries. A lot of the journalists or people in the field, it’s also about building your profile as that journalist. Yes, you work for a particular publication, but it’s also about building your own personality. I find that to be quite challenging because you know when you’re not on that particular journalist’s agenda. How do we deal with that? In the world of reality TV, journalists and PR people fancy themselves as celebrities.
 
Wilson: Relationships are now more important than ever. And its building them across the various platforms that are available to us as communications people.
 
McKay: I think traditional media relations has become a lot easier, to build personal relationships and understand what they want. I think it’s a huge opportunity for PR people - I think it’s something they don’t take advantage. You still hear horror stories about not knowing what I cover or getting ridiculous amounts of irrelevant copy. It’s really unforgivable; I think traditional media relations should be easier now.
 
Mayimele: What are some of the trends that you are seeing right now - how do you get it right from a PR perspective in Africa?
 
McKay: I think transparency and honesty is such a hard thing to get right, in huge multi-faceted companies where, it’s not a willingness to not be transparent, it’s just that people don’t know the right information. But I think there’s low tolerance for badly-performing products or lack of service.
 
Wilson: It’s that much quicker if you don’t come clear or you don’t have your response ready, because of the immediacy of digital.
 
Sudhaman: Is that immediacy of digital changing the expectations of companies in terms of transparency of honesty? How difficult is that to deal with?
 
Parkinson: We’ve had lots of issues. Not about being transparent, but about what you can say and when. Everyone expects all the answers immediately. Certainly the social media team can’t give them all. We’ve had issues with steering wheels coming off, in a journalist’s hand during a test drive in Finland. The way you deal with that is good old-fashioned PR. This is where the social team sometimes forgets that there are professionals in place that have been doing this for a lot longer than they have and know exactly how to manage a crisis. 
 
Mayimele: How would you define a crisis? There’s a crisis every day. How do you know this is one to handle, and what is the role of digital media in crisis management?
 
McKay: A lot of companies point to a certain social presence as the go-to. It’s a great way to democratically distribute information. 
 
Maseko: The impact it has on your bottomline matters a lot. If people have an option to leave you and go elsewhere, you are in a crisis.
 
Wilson: A crisis is guaranteed at some point. It’s the responses you have and the response team. It’s knowing when to keep quiet but also having that response team ready. That can turn into a bigger issue than the crisis. If that mechanism isn’t in place, then I think you have real issues. SA Tourism must be quite difficult because it’s potentially anything that negatively impacts the reputation of South Africa. It could the state of the nation address.
 
Mayimele: Or Oscar Pistorious. 
 
Wilson: It’s not your fault, but it’s your problem.
 
Sudhaman: How big of a factor is political risk, in terms of managing communications for companies. Is that getting harder or easier?
 
McKay: From a PR person’s lens, let’s talk about Nigeria, where it’s most topical. There’s oil price and economy, an election is happening or not happening. If you’re a brand in these countries, these issues completely overtake the market. That is the case in so many African countries where you have small media markets. Developed countries don’t really suffer from this as much. 
 
Maseko: You don’t stand in the way of what’s happening politically, basically, otherwise you have no voice. Timing is important. You cannot activate or launch a campaign when you are about to have a state of the nation address.
 
Wilson: In any emerging economy, you’ve got to get ahead of a few more political crises. It does fundamentally impact the way we work and operate. Especially as a PR firm representing a wide range of clients.  
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