Public relations activities across Africa are under a microscope like never before. This renewed interest is for many reasons and while continued economic growth in key African markets is one of them, the most notable reason is the scandal that rocked the global PR industry when top U.K. agency Bell Pottinger became embroiled in an ethical political scandal of epic proportions in South Africa. It is this potent combination of economics and ethics that will set the pace of how the African PR industry will be shaped in 2018 and beyond.
The effect the Bell Pottinger saga will have on the African PR industry can not be overstated, such is the toxicity of the episode. Hired by the controversial Gupta family, which is connected to corruption at the highest level of South African governance, the agency was accused of inciting racial hatred in the country and was expelled by the PRCA. This unprecedented expulsion on the grounds of unethical and unprofessional conduct in South Africa, alongside bringing the global PR industry into disrepute, led to the agency’s ultimate collapse.
Because of the Bell Pottinger episode, when looking ahead at trends across the industry, industry ethics and reputation are the top priority.
Ethics moves to the forefront
Attention on the ethical behavior of practitioners will be at the forefront of all African PR activities. In particular the work conducted by global PR agencies independently and in partnership with local practitioners will be under severe scrutiny.
New business will be more carefully reviewed with a stronger emphasis on the potential ethical issues that may arise from working on accounts, in particular those in the public affairs and governmental sectors. The issue of ethics will become an intrinsic part of ongoing conversations between practitioners and clients.
Mirroring Richard Edelman’s call for ethical guidelines as outlined in his "PR Compact," African PR trade organizations such as the African Public Relations Associations will create renewed ethical guidelines for members, practitioners at large, and international agencies working across the continent.
It was the expulsion by the U.K.’s PRCA that led to the ultimate demise of Bell Pottinger. The current African PR industry regulatory infrastructure led to the opposition party in South Africa having to register a formal complaint in the U.K. This highlights the need for more stringent PR industry regulations across the continent and will fuel governments in key markets to begin taking steps to create national bodies overseeing the governance of the industry.
Renewed emphasis on reputation management
In addition to assisting clients, reputation management for international PR agencies operating in Africa and their African partners will be a key initiative for all firms. How agencies and practitioners themselves are perceived not only by clients but also the general public at large will be crucial especially in South Africa, where negative stories about the PR industry were in the national headlines for weeks.
More PR leaders in key markets such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa will openly discuss the positive impact of the PR industry and its activities across more diverse echo chambers in order to reach a varied audience. The objective will be to present PR activities to mainstream audiences in a more positive and progressive light and as not only an essential business function, but as a force for good, not bad.
Social media continues to gain momentum
Fewer than 60 million households in sub-Saharan Africa with a TV, compared to a population of nearly 1 billion, heavily state-controlled media in many countries, and high mobile phone penetration have resulted in social media becoming the main source of media in many African countries.
This social media influence is seen especially during elections and has led to some electoral commissions demanding phone companies block social media outlets in order to control what they deem "fake news."
Social media will continue to gain influence, and the calls for control and regulation will lead to short- and long-term governmental actions. African PR practitioners will have to strategically navigate these actions to ensure they leverage social media and other forms of communications in a fluid and flexible way, adapting quickly to the ever-changing environment.
The rise of technology PR
With Chris Cox, chief product officer of Facebook, delivering the keynote presentation last year at Social Media Week Lagos and the announcement of Andela’s Series C Fundraising, interest in technology across Africa is booming.
This flourishing tech scene will lead to an increased need for tech PR’ as these companies seek to raise their visibility in the quest to gain regional and global investment in their products and services.
"Top tier and prestigious media outlets such as The New York Times and the Financial Times are now covering African tech startups and this says a lot about how much the sector has grown and will continue to grow in the next few years," said Jessica Hope, MD at Wimbart, a PR firm specializing in African tech startups.
Claudine Moore is a consultant at C. Moore Media International Public Relations.