Coming back in from the cold: After years of playing the global outcasts South African businesses are having to learn how to walk again in the international business world - and are leaning heavily on PR in their efforts. Kate Nicholas reports

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.

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

the nation.

’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

shareholder value.

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.’


’The heterogeneous nature of South Africa is hard to grasp from the

outside,’ says Lucien Vallun, partner in Johannesburg-based consultancy

Vallun Wilkins.

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.’

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