Democracy wasn't established until 1994, and a true market for PR - complete with a sophisticated (and free) media - is still coming into focus. That maturation process, however, is suddenly kicking into high gear, and according to industry executives, the country's quickly becoming the next frontier in the global PR landscape.
A developing industry
Immediately following the African National Congress's (ANC) ascension, the dramatic shift happening within the country opened up many communications opportunities.
"Initially, when the new democratic government first came in, there were a lot of opportunities, particularly within the telecomms, gaming, and arms industries," says Gillian Gamsy, MD of GGi Communications, an affiliate of Weber Shandwick. "Those huge tenders have kind of been settled."
That may be true, but those opportunities lacked the sophistication of European and American markets, a barrier that is still being dealt with by PR pros.
"We've got clients who really don't grasp it yet, and still only expect the media relations-[PR] support," says Amanda Singleton, MD of MS&L Johannesburg. "It takes a while longer to help them see how they can add a lot more value to building their brands by getting involved in overall-stakeholder management and in driving the reputation from within."
The level of understanding coming from corporate clients is slowly beginning to catch up, though. Gamsy points out that increasingly, multinational companies are investing in South Africa, and perhaps just as importantly, see the country as a hub where it can enter the African market.
"We're heavily involved in Africa," adds Michele Anderson, MD of Magna Carta. "South Africa, as an entry point into the continent, is certainly becoming a trend." Anderson points to clients like Microsoft, Standard Bank, and Vodacom as examples of the agency's efforts throughout the continent.
Magna Carta has an affiliation with Ketchum, and Anderson says she hopes her agency can serve as a hub for the continent the same way the Ketchum's offices in London, New York, and Beijing serve as entry points for Europe, North America, and Asia, respectively.
But while the opportunities for Magna Carta are coming more rapidly, Anderson notes that there's a significant gap in quality between the largest and smallest agencies. Successful boutique firms with the ability to specialize haven't really begun to pop up, and that's a problem for the local market.
One of the obstacles all agency principals can agree on is the talent issue. A large proportion of the country's talent pool (both in the communications and journalism fields) is emigrating to various other global capitals. Even Dubai, which is the latest PR hot spot, is heavily recruiting in Africa and ultimately draining talent from the continent, says Gregory Serandos, CEO of Pure Communications.
"I think a lot of young pros are thinking of, or are, emigrating, and we are definitely feeling that," Anderson adds. "It's a small talent pool when you're looking for senior people. We're going to have to start looking outside the country."
The media landscape
While the media scene may not equal that of other financial centers around the world, the quality has improved a lot in the last decade, Gamsy says.
"The media here is fairly sophisticated," she says. "The main difference is the quantity. There are only a handful of radio stations and reputable newspapers, and just three or four television stations."
Investigative journalism, Serandos says, isn't at the level it should be, and some of the newspapers suffer from a credibility problem. What's more, the journalism industry suffers from the talent drain as badly as any sector, he points out. That means inexperienced journalists are in high profile roles, which has hindered the emergence of top-class journalism.
Traditional media has also retained a strong influence within the African communications field, because the Web has yet to become as influential as it is in America or Europe. Serandos says he's trying to bring Web 2.0 tools into play at his new agency, but that the level of sophistication on the new media front still lags.
"We apply Web 2.0 strategies to everything we do. I don't think the customers here have embraced what's possible through PR," he says. "It's changing a little bit, but they haven't embraced it yet."
A number of industries are on the rise in South Africa, including telecomms, energy, mining, and financial services. Serandos insists the opportunities for communicators are increasing in these sectors, but that potential corporate clients still need to be shown how they can maximize their benefit.
What's more, the 2010 FIFA World Cup will be headed for South Africa, which is easily the biggest event the country has ever hosted. Anderson says she expects the time before soccer's marquee event to bring major corporate players looking for entry points into the South African market, and that, in turn, will be a boon for local agencies.
"PR is on the brink of its heyday here," she adds. "I think it's a very exciting stage to be working in South Africa in PR. The environment is dictating that our form of communication is becoming very important."
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