How to do PR in Africa

Article by Jennifer Leppington-Clark, Executive Director at Hill+Knowlton South Africa

It’s not one size fits all. This is the advice that anyone who wants to do business in Africa hears first – and then repeatedly. Public relations professionals often have to give this same advice to foreign companies who want to strengthen their public profile or brand on the continent.

Africa consists of 54 countries and unlike the traditional world map we all know, its true geographical size means that it is bigger than the United States, China and India combined. Here are a few things to remember if you want to succeed at public relations across this vast space.

  • Understand the country you are in

African markets are not only very different from the rest of world, but also from each other. Tactics that work very well in one African country, may get you nowhere in another. Each African market has its own very distinct media landscape with its own peculiarities. For example, in Uganda it is impossible to get any radio coverage without paying for it. The quality of content on airwaves often suffer and as a result radio is not a very a credible communication channel in Uganda. But in Mali radio is the primary means of getting your communication across and there are over 100 radio stations. In Algeria you have to take into account that the government controls all printing presses and advertising and owns all radio and television outlets.

  • Make sure your content is relevant

A few tweaks in the angle or adding a local spokesperson is simply not enough to localise a media release for each African market. Cuba and the United States are neighbours, but audiences in these two countries have vastly different views and interests. In the same way, just because two African countries are neighbours does not mean the people who live there will be interested in the same news and content.

Africans do care about international news and opinions. But they want to know how Brexit, Trump or an election in another African country will affect them. They consume news like any other audience – they care about the items that could have an impact on their lives and ignore those that do not.

  • Find the right channel

African audiences may have unique cultures and interests, but so do consumers in each and every other market around the world. In truth, public relations in Africa is not that different from any other market. In order to succeed, you need to identify the audience you would like to reach as well as the best channel to reach them.

This means that a media release may not necessarily be the correct approach to get your message across. In Kenya and South Africa, for example, digital media has seen exponential growth at the expense of traditional media, while blogging and social networking have gained great momentum over the past few years. But at the same time any digital campaign in Africa also has to take into account the high cost of data throughout the continent.

  • Find the right partners

On a practical level the unique characteristics of each Africa market means that research is key and that partnerships with local agencies or affiliates are extremely valuable when operating on the continent. You need to be able to speak to people who really understand your clients’ stakeholders and potential consumers. You need to be able to get into the heart of understanding brand loyalties in the communities you are trying to target. You not only need local partners to identify the correct channels to reach your audience. Relationships and local and industry expertise are crucial if you want to utilize those channels effectively.

  • Be aware of culture

There are also more subtle cultural differences to take into account when operating in Africa. Our colleagues in other African countries often complain that South Africans are a too blunt or even rude. This is of course not intentional – we just like to get straight to the point. We don’t want to waste your time on a long phone call. Our colleagues in Kenya and Nigeria disagree. There it is customary to have a friendly conversation first before turning to business matters. You need to ask people how they are and take the time to listen to their answers.

Companies who sell products ranging from cars, to airtime to shampoo and nappies have found ways to adapt how they sell their products in African markets. Essentially, as public relations professionals we need to do the same to our communications strategies. We don’t need to sell a different product, we just need to sell it differently. This means being aware of what makes African markets different, but also remembering that they may have more in common with audiences in the rest of the world than we think.

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