Diverse, complex African PR market primed for growth

Africa is a region that is ripe for business, but industry experts say agencies interested in growing their footprints there should focus on local opportunities and talent instead of looking at the continent as one market.

Africa is a region that is ripe for business, but industry experts say agencies interested in growing their footprints there should focus on local opportunities and talent instead of looking at the continent as one market.

In the past year, numerous blue-chip agencies have made moves into Africa. Edelman said this week that it plans to acquire South Africa-based communications consultancy Baird's Renaissance, and Hill+Knowlton Strategies announced plans to open six offices in Africa in January.

Outsiders have noted years of general economic growth on the continent. In 2010, The Economist predicted that sub-Saharan Africa would be one of the fastest-growing regions in the world the next year, notes Alexander Döll, CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Africa. It lived up to that billing with an average growth rate of 5.9%, excluding South Africa, according to the World Bank. The organization predicted it would see 5.6% growth in 2013.

“Naturally, as the global focus on the opportunities presented by Africa intensifies, so does the level of interest of corporations, NGOs, and governments,” says Robyn de Villiers, founder and chairman of Arcay Burson-Marsteller. “[Therefore, there's also] the opportunities for helping these organizations communicate their thoughts and their plans for Africa.”

Much of the growth in Africa is in the telecommunications, healthcare, and energy sectors in countries such as Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa. Claudine Moore, founder of C. Moore Media, says Kenya is seen as the Silicon Valley of Africa.

Technology and telecommunications have rapidly expanded in the region in part due to the focus on mobile and the growth of fiber optic infrastructure. However, Döll advises agencies should have local expertise to take advantage of this opportunity.

“You have to ensure that you have the local knowledge and experience to appropriately adapt and scale toolkits to ensure effective, scalable, and cost-efficient implementation,” he says, adding that local talent is key for sharing the message of growing opportunities. “Working with locals who have the know-how and experience is a great asset in setting up bases in Africa.”

Communicators should also set up their African strategies on a country-by-country basis, experts say.

“You have to have a strategy for the whole continent that includes implementation, one country at a time,” explains de Villiers. “It is a massive continent, and this is a big job that needs to be very clearly conceptualized, carefully managed, and implemented. Africa is made up of 55 countries that all have their own challenges and opportunities. There is no one size fits all for PR across the continent.”

CSR as a must-have
Experts also note that effective communications initiatives in Africa usually have CSR components.

“There has to be a CSR component to any of the work an organization is doing, whether it's a PR agency or a brand going into the market,” notes Moore. “They have a responsibility to ensure they have a very concerted effort when it comes to CSR.”

Ken Egbas, managing partner of Nigeria-based firm Trucontact, which specializes in CSR, agrees. He adds that CSR and sustainability is changing the execution of PR campaigns from focusing on the media to concentrating on storytelling.

“We've always known PR was going to get to the point where perception was going to be based on how you're seen as a corporate citizen, and not necessarily based on what you want to make people feel in ads,” he explains. “People want to connect with brands on a deeper level than just what brands tell them.”

“There's also this increased understanding that storytelling is something subtle, gets to the mind of people, and can help brands [share] a story that addresses the value brands stand for,” Egbas adds.

Eloïne Barry, executive director of the continent's only press release wire service, African Press Organization, says she has “seen clients reducing their ad budget and attributing it more to wire distribution.” She cites the presence of many online publications that help brands boost their presence on the Web.

Barry adds that PR agencies shouldn't go into Africa with “cut-and-paste” strategies. “You can't replicate a global PR campaign into Africa. There's a way of talking and a way journalists like to be approached. It takes a long time to get that understanding,” she explains.

Telling its own story
Part of PR agencies' work in Africa is changing the way the continent is viewed by outsiders and highlighting business opportunities. 

“Africa is known globally for having an economy that is propped up by aid from the West,” explains Moore.

Döll agrees that non-Africans can have a skewed perception of the continent.

“Nobody, or at least nobody with enough clout, shares images of this continent that are filled with hope, laughter, color, and personality in order to change the world's perception of Africa. I think it's time we begin to tell a different story,” he adds.

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