Beyond Bell Pottinger: Larger trends shape African PR market

Demographic and economic trends are changing the communications industry in Africa, moving it away from traditional hubs and presenting opportunities.

Cape Town. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
Cape Town. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

The center of gravity of the PR industry in Africa is shifting. While Johannesburg, South Africa, has traditionally been the base of communications on the continent, economic, social, and political developments are generating opportunities across Africa, from crisis and reputation management to consumer work.

Robyn De Villiers, chair and CEO, Africa, at Burson-Marsteller, says there is "exponential" growth across Africa, and she estimates there are 100 PR firms in her home country of South Africa. She oversees a network in 52 countries with 500 to 600 employees.

Meanwhile, Edelman has doubled its headcount in the past year to 50 in South Africa alone. The firm works on behalf of clients such as Unilever, HP, GE, and Nissan, as well as local clients such as the University of Pretoria.

"We’re very happy we’ve balanced our portfolio with both corporate and consumer work," says Jordan Rittenberry, MD, Edelman South Africa. "The narrative of Africa is constantly changing. It’s moving from one of deficits and gaps to one of prospects, opportunity, and creativity."

New hubs
Kenya can be considered the eastern PR hub of Africa, and Nigeria and Ghana the western, but De Villiers says the communications trends are based on what’s happening across the continent as a whole.

Africa’s middle class numbers 300 million to 500 million people, presenting a large consumer base that multinational clients want to target. It also means high demand for work in financial services, CPG, and both b-to-b and b-to-c technology, says Rittenberry.

Africa also has 200 million people ages 15 to 24, a figure set to double by 2045, according to African Economic Outlook. Rural populations are increasingly migrating to the cities, creating opportunities for businesses to expand where labor is required, says De Villiers. Higher employment creates a larger consumer base with disposable income, while the potential of overcrowding requires communicators to inform the public and help corporate clients provide assistance through education and skill-transfer programs.

In some markets, such as Angola and Mozambique, which are rich in oil and natural gas, the need for PR depends on global demand for those natural resources, De Villiers adds.

"If you’d asked me 10 years ago if Angola or Mozambique were big markets, I would’ve said absolutely not," she says.

Emerging democratic governments are also enhancing Africa’s economic growth. For instance, Gambia voted dictator Yahya Jammeh out of power at the start of last year. Supporting that ouster was Vanguard Africa, a nonprofit that works to implement free and fair elections.

Chris Harvin, cofounder of Vanguard, says a more open society results in a freer press and opportunities for firms offering counsel to high-end clients. He notes that he launched the boutique shop Sanitas International "to take PR from a promotional marketing side to a reputation crisis management side to navigate key stakeholders."

Internet and mobile adoption continues to spread across the continent, as well. Almost a billion Africans are expected to have a SIM connection by 2020, and 535 million will be unique subscribers, according to the GSMA. That trends also presents an opportunity for communications professionals.

As people become more connected, there’s more of a need for strategic comms in the African marketplace," Harvin says.

‘It hasn’t had an impact’
Although Bell Pottinger’s work on behalf of Oakbay Capital and the firm’s subsequent downfall was one of the biggest communications stories of last year, PR staffers on the ground say its impact has been minimal.

Rittenberry says Bell Pottinger did not have a presence in South Africa and clients generally understood it was a "small boutique in London." De Villiers notes it also gave PR practitioners an opportunity to present themselves as ethical operators.

"It hasn’t had an impact here in terms of frightening clients or creating opportunities. It’s more of the butt of the joke than anything," she says. "There hasn’t been much fallout because they’re involved in a much broader [Gupta] scandal."

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