The dust may have settled on the civil unrest that surrounded the
birth of the new South Africa, but for businesses operating in the
rainbow nation, the process of change is only just beginning.
In the new South Africa, you are what you stand for, and success in
business is dependent upon communicating your contribution to rebuilding
’There are two words to describe it - transparency and accountability.
These are the values of the new society that were not the values of the
old,’ says Peter Mann, chairman of Lowe Bell and Mann, the agency
created following the acquisition of Sussens Mann by Lowe Bell
Communications in October 1996.
These principles are permeating both business and political
’It has put communications on the board room table faster than we could
have done it,’ says Viccy Baker director of Simeka TWS
There is still some insecurity about the perception of PR but the
demands of the new South Africa have honed the professionalism of the
’The future of PR is exciting, but coming through the whole
transformation process is almost as stressful as the civil unrest we
have been through,’ says Rose Francis managing director of Rose Francis
Communications, one of the oldest established ’black’ PR consultancies
in South Africa.
Despite its appalling crime record Johannesburg remains the economic
epicentre of South Africa. Around 60 per cent of agencies are based
there, the remainder being evenly divided between Cape Town and
There is no formal ranking of agencies in South Africa, but
Burson-Marsteller affiliate Simeka TWS Communication - which claims a
fee income of around 20 million rand - is probably the largest
consultancy, its nearest rival being Lowe Bell and Mann. Other larger
players include Baird’s, Cape-based De Kock and Kerkoff, Vallun Wilkins,
Citigate, Gillian Gamsay and PR International.
New kids on the block include Sasani Communications, a recent breakaway
from ad agency Hunt Lascaris.
Most agencies describe themselves as generalists and there are few
However those with an environmental interest tend to centre on Cape
Town, home to pressure groups such as Earth Life Africa, NGOs such as
the Endangered Wildlife Trust and Greenpeace.
There are no real lobbying consultancies although a large number of
agencies are involved in public affairs work. There is also a
concentration of informal and influential lobbyists primarily based in
Cape Town, many of whom worked together with the ministers of the
current administration in the struggle to overthrow apartheid.
The last five years have also seen a significant influx of international
consultancies such as Text 100, Citigate and Brunswick establishing
offices in South Africa, and others such as Shandwick establishing
affiliate relationships with domestic agencies such as De Kock and
Kerkoff. The prospect of such an international affiliation tends to be
regarded a something of a holy grail these days but Francois Baird,
chairman of Edelman affiliate Baird’s, says that too few South African
consultancies understand how to market themselves in the international
At the same time insiders argue that international consultancies looking
for a foothold in Africa are often ill prepared for this unique
’What you are seeing now is a lot of British companies coming into this
country which are well-schooled in the traditional, classic manner of
communications. But in the African scenario it has little weight,’ says
As James Duncan, manager of public affairs and investor relations at
Anglogold (a division of Anglo-American), points out outsiders are far
less interested in internal issues such as employment, equity and
training than how South African companies are planning to unlock
The decision to reinvest in South Africa remains firmly a business,
rather than a political one. And the need to promote the business,
rather than social benefits of reinvestment have fuelled a real need for
coherent communication with potential international investors.
’As far as my organisation is concerned it is about getting back into
the global community,’ says Duncan.
At the same time, international players moving into South Africa are
undoubtedly entering a minefield of political correctness.’Our biggest
job is to match the expectations of the companies coming into SA now
with the expectations of people who are at the receiving end,’ says
According to Mann those expectations differ radically: ’The traditional
Western way of doing business is to reach a decision as quickly as
possible and the process doesn’t matter. In the Afro-centric way of
doing business, the process matters a lot.’ And that process critically
includes very visible consultation with all interested parties.
The emphasis on process has led to a new humility among the domestic
business community, at least. Enlightened companies are keen to ensure
that they are communicating effectively with the emergent black market
while making known any contribution to core areas such as housing or
In the run-up to its proposed privatisation next year, South African
Airways, for example, is working to ensure its position in the mass
’There is strong pressure from the board and also the shareholders to
ensure that we are positioning ourselves in the disadvantaged
community,’ says Leon Els, senior manager corporate relations. ’However
as he points out: ’It is not a profitable way of doing business it is
more a long term strategy.’
As part of that process, internal communications has become a major
growth area - a significant proportion of PR activity involving ’direct
communication’ tools such as interactive workshops, forums and
industrial theatres. This has been partly fuelled by pressure from South
Africa’s highly organised labour movement, but has also involved PR
professionals working side by side with management consultancies to deal
with issues at middle management level.
At the core of a company’s employee communications has to lie a real
commitment to affirmative action. While not yet a legal requirement,
affirmative action is undoubtedly a crucial commercial issue for PR
companies, particularly those pitching for the increasing number of
government tenders. Simeka TWS Communications, for example, has been
particularly successful in securing government communication projects
partly due to a 30 per cent share ownership by black consortium Simeka
Holdings secured in May last year.
The level of illiteracy in South Africa, however, has undoubtedly
created a problem in terms of recruiting, in particular, entry level PR
At the same time the escalating crime in South Africa’s urban centres
has driven away much existing talent. ’There has been a brain drain
because people are afraid,’ admits Viccy Baker.
As a result, the training infrastructure in South Africa has burgeoned
over the last couple of years. In addition to university courses in
communications and three year technikons diplomas in PR, the trade body
PRISA (Public Relations Institute of South Africa) has now launched its
own three year diploma. Over 60 per cent of the intake to PRISA’s direct
courses and communications courses at technikons are black. At the same
time companies such as South African Airways have a quota system for
affirmative action and spend 6.5 per cent of its budget on training.
As Trish Downing, director of corporate communications for Africa’s
leading pay TV network MNET points out: ’A senior practitioner here
might have a lot to teach other people. I doubt if there is another
country that has faced as many crises, issues management scenarios and
diversity of audiences. Nothing is straightforward.’
MEDIA FRAGMENTATION: MAKING A CHOICE
’The heterogeneous nature of South Africa is hard to grasp from the
outside,’ says Lucien Vallun, partner in Johannesburg-based consultancy
He isn’t exaggerating. There are now 11 official languages in South
To compound the communications challenge there is also wide spread
illiteracy, and an increasingly fragmentary media structure.
In terms of national press, the business community is well served by
’broadsheets’ such as The Financial Mail, Business Day, Business Report,
the Weekly Mail and Guardian and the Sunday Independent. When it comes
to the mass market, in addition to ’tabloids’ such as the Sunday Times
and the Star, there are also papers oriented at the black market such as
The Citizen and an increasing number of community newspapers such as the
highly successful Sowetan which address tightly defined audiences.
There are three state-owned television channels broadcasting variously
in Afrikaans and English as well as the main African languages. However,
under-funding in television has led to a cutback in magazine programming
over the last six months, a public relations challenge compounded by the
fact that a significant proportion of the population don’t possess a
As a result community radio has emerged as probably the most powerful
commercial tool. At last count there were over 100 community radio
’The power of the radio involving the masses just cannot be rivalled,’
says James Duncan who used community radio to launch South Africa
Airway’s new corporate identity to the masses earlier this year.
As Rose Francis, head of Rose Francis Communications, points out,
however: ’To get a story on community radio is quite a challenge because
the mandate that community radio has is not for commercial purposes. You
have to find a way around or else you are out of business. Because of
these kind of restrictions South African PR is incredibly creative.’