Profile: Roshene Singh, chief marketing officer, South African Tourism

Roshene Singh's steely approach to comms is focused on countering negative reports about the Rainbow Nation, finds Arun Sudhaman.

Roshene Singh
Roshene Singh

It is a long way from the sun-kissed veld of South Africa to the cavernous depths of Dockland's ExCel conference centre on a wintry November afternoon.

Yet the massive South Africa stand at the World Travel Market conference is still trying mighty hard to replicate the country's famed tourist appeal.

There are fewer than 250 days left until South Africa hosts the continent's first World Cup, so a spirit of controlled chaos is understandable.

It is surprising, then, to find that Roshene Singh - the woman charged with overseeing the country's tourism brand - is a picture of calm, even as she deftly sidesteps Zakumi, the 2010 World Cup mascot with a penchant for the ladies.

It would be easy for Singh to lose her cool. Since South Africa won its historic bid to host the World Cup, there has been a steady drumbeat of negativity in the international media's coverage of the upcoming event.

One report, as Singh points out, went as far as to compare South Africa with war-torn Afghanistan.

Singh uses the word 'unethical' to describe this particular piece, but is more careful when describing the general tone. 'It's very disappointing because the media have so much influence on public perception,' she points out. 'Because of our passion for the country, we do feel like we are being attacked personally.'

Judging by a demeanour that is more steel than satin, it is unlikely Singh herself is cowed by the attacks. 'She's a very no-nonsense person,' explains Beatie Hofmeyr, an executive on the national election team of South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) party.

Singh spent five years as an election manager at the ANC, overseeing campaigning and messaging for the party and its key leaders: Nelson Mandela and former president Thabo Mbeki.

As Hofmeyr puts it, Singh was never someone to trifle with - a skill that must be useful in her current role: 'She was never scared to call someone in and say you can't say that - even people like Mandela or Mbeki. She got a reputation for being someone you would not mess with.'

That resolve is being tested by one of the thorniest comms challenges to emerge in recent years. 'The capability of Africa is questioned,' explains Singh. 'That is why we have such a concerted PR campaign.'

This campaign has seen Singh boldly step into areas other national tourism bodies have studiously ignored. She has enlisted Dow Jones Insight to monitor social media, in addition to traditional outlets, and has launched a variety of digital activities. 'Social media are a specific concern,' she says. 'We have found they can generate negative discourse.'

And she is happy to deliver typically blunt advice for tourism marketers that are not taking similar steps: 'They are making a huge mistake - they don't realise the pace of social media.'

Speed-walking from press conference to interview to an internal meeting, on a day that has already included a grilling on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Singh's preference for pace cannot stifle the odd yawn. It has been this way, she says, for the two years since she took up the role: 'It's incredibly frantic. I generally work ten to 12 hour days. There is a lot of travel.'

Yet there is little evidence that either the relentless pace, or the scale of the PR challenge facing South Africa, has the capacity to fluster Singh. 'She's famous for being able to implement almost any programme,' says Hofmeyr, recalling how Singh once had to smuggle people into hotel rooms during a conference accommodation crisis.

Singh prefers to dwell on her experience advising Mandela: 'I think this was the most exciting part of my career because he was the state President yet he devoted a lot of time to campaigning for the ANC and listened to my advice.'

This is about as circumspect as Singh gets. A more forthright response is eventually extracted in response to a question she describes as 'loaded': what frustrates her most about the marcoms world?

'It is annoying that agencies, across the board, find it very difficult to work as a team with another agency,' she says.

It is easy to imagine Singh is not the easiest of clients. 'We are quite difficult,' she admits, while Hofmeyr points out that 'she doesn't tolerate non-performance'.

Food for thought, perhaps, for whichever agency wins South African Tourism's global PR account, which is up for tender. The new contract will not kick in until after the 2010 World Cup, by which point Singh may finally be able to exhale.

'I'm looking forward to a break,' she admits. It will be well-earned.

CV

2007: Chief marketing officer, South African Tourism

2003: Portfolio manager: domestic marketing, then portfolio manager: Europe, South African Tourism

2000: Part-time consultant

1995: Elections manager, African National Congress

1993: Elections trainer, providing training to new political parties that participated in the first democratic elections in 1994

1990: Teacher educator, Education Support Programme

 

ROSHENE SINGH'S TURNING POINTS

- What was your biggest career break?

South African Tourism. I started as a temp hired to work on the World Summit on sustainable development in 2002 and by 2007, I had risen first to portfolio manager: domestic then portfolio manager: Europe then CMO in five years. So I moved from managing a budget of R5m in 2003 to managing R500m in 2007.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

Nelson Mandela. His presence and aura disarm many people because he has such a humane side to his leadership stature. I had first-hand experience of his many facets, whether at a mass rally in the crowds or in the presence of businesspeople.

- What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?

You must be driven by passion for what you do. Teamwork is key to success and I believe in spending time developing and empowering teams.

- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

We emphasise cultural fit to the values of our organisation above technical skills. So we look for people who are driven to deliver results and innovate, not people who sit back waiting to be told what to do.

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