The media have become the kingmakers in a world where mass audiences are increasingly dependent upon broadcasting outlets as their main source of news. People are now more politically aware, better informed, more demanding and hungrier for information. And while positive publicity has been the pinnacle of good public relations (PR) standards; it has become apparent that negative media coverage can have just as hefty an influence.
Nowhere has the media’s power been felt more than in Africa. Ten years ago The Economist pegged Africa as ‘A Hopeless Continent’, subsequently sparking anger and resentment across the globe. Western media coverage over the past few decades has been inundated with disproportionate levels of negative publicity that for a prolonged period of time has cemented perceptions of the region. Images of wars, human rights abuses, coups and famines have blasted their way across television screens worldwide, and while they have kept us informed and updated, their long term effects have often simply exacerbated perceptions of the continent.
This has subsequently made it more difficult for African governments and economies to attract the types of investment and build the types of relationships that they need. While the continent has substantial amounts of potential, rich natural resources and a young population, it has often found it difficult to market itself as a viable alternative to Western competitors. And indeed, very little has been documented about trends in African public relations. This consequently prompted a study by Africa Practice which was commissioned by industry experts Diageo in ‘09. [protected]
Their analysis attempted to ascertain if there were any links between the ways in which African media present their news, informed citizenry and attract investment. The report subsequently determined that better flows of information are now catalysing investment and that economic and social developments taking place in many African economies are attracting new types of investors. The new age of information technology has subsequently propagated some significant changes in the way in which African countries interact with the outside world.
The study concluded that ‘risks are perceived to be reducing, opportunities are diversifying, a burgeoning middle-class is taking root and stock exchanges are expanding and becoming more sophisticated’.
New Africa Analysis also carried out an experimental test to probe the approachability of a number of African governmental departments. A measure of effective public relations policy is consequently the responsiveness of actors at all levels. Of the countries we contacted, only one (Mauritius) reciprocated. The other countries were unresponsive, and while there may be a number of reasons for this, their inability to reply could contribute to the erosion of perceptions while also hindering prospective relationships.
Thus while studies like those carried out by Africa Practice and Diageo often prove theoretically appeasing, in practice, good public relations standards do not always appear to reflect the pace of predicted trends. In recent years it has become apparent that investors like voters have become more discerning, this has subsequently meant that public relations strategies have had to take into account public opinion and enable responsive and effective communicative routes. The public relations industry has evolved from simply generating publicity and building images. More emphasis is now being placed upon the management of sustainable relations – a goal that can only ever be achieved by building public and private confidence.
People today want to be more actively involved in the decisions that affect them. This can only be realised with the enmeshment of a coherent and effective public relations strategy across the board in Africa within government and private sectors. The emergence of a global body of communication has ushered in a new wave of pluralism, where international codes of conduct have become the norm. Social rights, environmental regulations and economic freedom have all come to influence the way in which governments and investors interact with one another.
Organisations like The African Public Relations Association have subsequently attempted to tackle these issues head on. Their purpose has been to create an enabling professional environment for accurate perception, goodwill and understanding of necessary and effective performance of public relations practice in Africa. But the scope of such change remains limited without the support of centralized bodies on the continent.
Not only does Africa need a legitimate PR strategy – one that demonstrates transparency and openness, but governments and economies also need to demonstrate that they are enacting such policies. An effective public relations strategy should be based upon winning hearts and minds. With increasing flows of information, it will be the task of governments across the continent to ensure that policies manifest into mechanisms that will attract the right kind of attention. [/protected]