Ten times more Africans are now killed by AIDS than die in the continent's armed conflicts. Last year the disease was responsible for one in five deaths and, in the next decade, 40 million children are expected to be orphaned by it. Few countries have more pressing problems than South Africa.
For the rainbow nation, health remains near the top of the PR agenda.
"Healthcare is still a massive area of growth because of the whole AIDS issue, and a lot of communications opportunities are beginning to emerge, says Lucien Vallun, MD of Johannesburg-based Fleishman-Hillard Vallun Wilkins. "At the private sector and NGO level a lot is being done. Fleishman is working with the government of Botswana, where 35.8% of adults are infected with HIV/AIDS, on an extensive health education program.
Although foreign multinationals remain attracted to South Africa, the global slowdown has bitten. Plans hatched this time last year to create an Africa-wide network have been put on hold by tech specialist Text 100.
"We have not expanded as much as we would have liked, admits South Africa country manager Samantha Watt, who says programs are being run from Johannesburg and Cape Town. "We are doing more driving of strategy from South Africa into the rest of Africa, looking at producing everything here."
GDP growth in sub-Saharan countries is estimated by the World Bank to be around 3.7% until 2010 - still below other emerging regions, such as Asia. The recognition that economics must be the driving force behind recovery has led to the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), which seeks a sustainable development plan for the continent and is strongly backed by South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki. "Telecoms is big business in Africa now, and infrastructure is a big focus of NEPAD, says Viccy Baker, chairman of South Africa's largest agency, Burson-Marsteller affiliate Simeka TWS.
While South Africa is the continent's undisputed PR hub, its corporations - including communications agencies - have been reticent about moving into the rest of Africa, she says. But other countries such as Nigeria and Kenya have regional agencies for which NEPAD is set to provide opportunities, believes John McHaffie, MD Kenya for local agency Church Orr.
"I think it will lead to more work. NEPAD is seen as an invaluable initiative. The idea of less politics, more economics has a resonance." It may also persuade South African corporates that they need to demonstrate their economic and social credentials in the rest of Africa.
For the developed countries north of Africa, there are other concerns.
Israel, long regarded as a hi-tech powerhouse, has seen the global recession rob the economy of the start-ups which fueled its boom. PR budgets have either been cut to the bone, or have gone altogether.
That knock-on effect has concentrated industry minds on management and recruitment issues in the internal market, according to Josh Shuman, head of Ruder Finn Israel's tech group: "We are doing a lot more now regarding the internal market, with clients saying: 'How can I make the Israeli press cover me better?' Messages to the domestic press are just as important as those to the financial media abroad. Project rather than retainer work has risen, although it is an environment in which agencies offering strategic advice can prove their worth, he adds.
Gitam Porter Novelli MD Orna Gourell agrees. "Agencies with expertise in corporate communications, consumer, and healthcare are still strong." Her agency's tech division, set up in 2000, still works with larger clients such as Microsoft Israel and Nokia Networks, though cuts in advertising budgets has led to smaller companies making enquiries, she adds.
There are real concerns away from international stock exchanges. A particularly violent cycle has gripped the country. Shuman insists that, in hi-tech PR terms at least, "People here are still much more interested in the Nasdaq than what goes on in Nablus. But there is an effect, according to Gourell. Tourism, leisure, and entertainment have been severely dented.
"We are headed for a difficult period for the next two years. And even if the world economic situation picks up, we will still have to deal with what's happening locally."
The escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians over the past year has affected PR practices in Arab countries too. A consumer boycott of US brands - apparently a grassroots reaction in Egypt, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia to American support for Israel - occupied the region's news agenda for six weeks last year, hitting big names such as Ford and Coca-Cola, and bringing crisis management planning to the fore. "That type of groundswell of public opinion fundamentally changes the way US brands need to think of their communications strategy in Arab countries.
The crisis is over, but the climate has changed, says Jock Wilson, a regional director for Promoseven, which will add Weber Shandwick to its name from September.
The potential for PR in the region was recognized when the Middle East PR Association formed in June 2001. The $20 million combined fee income of members such as Bain Euro RSCG, Impact Porter Novelli, and Asda'a could grow as much as 20% year-on-year. While Dubai in the United Arab Emirates remains the PR and advertising hub of the Gulf states, the region is dominated in economic terms by Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has this year set up an investment authority tasked with encouraging inward investment, although no decision has been made on the pitch. Gulf Hill & Knowlton picked up work with Saudi Basic Industries Corporation and with UAE telecoms, internet, and cable TV provider Etisalat. But one of the most startling growth sectors in the region as a whole has been healthcare, according to David Baker, UAE country manager of Gulf H&K, although he admits the reasons for the change are hard to spot. "It has jumped into the frame in the last year, he says, with account wins including pharmaceutical giant Novartis.
While most Gulf states have attempted to diversify from reliance on oil, energy remains fertile ground for PR executives. Promoseven is providing strategic counsel for a US$3.5 billion project to carry gas from Qatar to UAE by Dolphin Energy. Business across the board has been tight and not helped September 11. Yet there are signs of a recovery. MS&L sees enough potential, establishing itself in the region in 2001. One encouraging trend has been a rise in enquiries for country-specific projects from domestic clients, rather than from multinationals, which could indicate an increased understanding of PR. "A lot of small companies here are still press release factories, says Baker. "We are working hard to educate our own clients to look at areas outside that media relations toolkit. He cites the company's contact lens advice program for Johnson & Johnson as an example.
Of the North African countries, Egypt remains the most advanced PR market, even though its advanced telecoms business has suffered over the last 12 months. Of the remaining countries in the region, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria are "emerging markets in the context of the region's PR activity.
While North Africa and the Gulf share a common language, there are vast differences in dialect, mentality, culture, and economics. The same is true throughout Africa and the Middle East, which means that for all the apparent opportunities, PR activity remains relatively localized.
The region is home to a variety of conflicts, and Africa's problems overshadow all else. Over the next eight years, the cost of AIDS is expected to take US$22 billion out of South Africa's economy alone: a human and fiscal cost few regions can afford to bear.
GLOBAL AGENCIES OPERATING IN AFRICA/MIDDLE EAST
Rank Agency Name Africa/Mid.East Income(dollars) %
2001 2001 2000 chng
1 Euro RSCG Corporate
Communications 2,472,480 1,306,000 89
2 Incepta (Citigate) 2,243,424 2,397,483 -6
3 Porter Novelli 1,920,000 NA
4 Ruder Finn Group 1,778,000 1,929,000 -8
5 MS&L 1,500,000 535,000 180
6 Text 100 Public Relations 1,473,933 1,229,997 20
7 Fleishman-Hillard 800,000 926,000 -14
Source: Council of PR Firms Notes: This is a list of global public
relations firms. It does not include local independents