By Jennifer Ehidiamehn
There are many people who still believe that Africa as a continent is misunderstood and misrepresented in the media. In my opinion, this is a handsome opportunity for public relations and communications firms to do a better job in creating the right strategy that would drive effective campaigns and showcase African countries as they are to the rest of the world.
But how can we shift the focus away from messages that portray Africa as a poverty stricken continent or Africans as a homogenous group? Africans are individuals who are energetic, empowered and enterprising in their own unique ways. And like every other continent on earth, there are also those Africans who are poor or struggling to make ends meet. To create the communications strategy that would drive the right message home is perceived as a double-barrel challenge. On the one hand, there is the pressure to avoid deliberately crafting poverty porncampaign messages. On another hand, there is the desperation not to be mistaken for a praise-singer hungry for attention.
Well, no matter the checks and balances put in place during the process of crafting these communication strategies, the end product often leaves a trail of dust of protests against stereotype and misrepresentation of the reality in our backyard. A familiar scene is the narrative where an African in diaspora is heard educating a non-African colleague on how, “Africa is not a country” or how there is more to Africa than people dying of AIDS and famine. Another, often low-key, is where a development expert combs through Google search results to ascertain that Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea are not one country with different names.
The purpose of this article is to share five ways that can help us engage the right public relations and communications firms in developing better campaign messages that would improve the way that African countries are presented to the world. The key points can be translated or adapted for other communications project as deem fit.
These ideas were developed from a personal industry experience, research, and a conversation (telephone) with Ms. ‘Buchi Ajufo, a senior communications consultant in a communications strategy firm that provides risk analysis and public relations services across African countries. Ajufo drew from her experience in leading different projects for organizations and multinationals to recommend the following as things to consider when hiring a PR firm to drive a company’s communications strategy:
1. Identify the type of firm that you need
“Public relations — no matter the sector it is practiced — is the same,” Ajufo said. However, it operates with different tools across sectors. As a result, hiring the right type of firm will ensure that the appropriate tool is used to develop and communicate your “brand equity, product, and services.” A digital-only public relations firm, for example, will be of no relevance for an organization or company looking to penetrate into the space of high-level decision makers who are accustomed to accessing information first through the mainstream media — mostly news clippings and analysis from their associates. The right type of PR firm will ensure that communication messages are crafted with a correct “narrative that is true, clear and able to push the boundaries,” said Ajufo.
2. Hire a firm with a strong local reach
Some organizations focus their PR efforts outside the communities where they work because to them it is more important that an international audience learn about the impact of their work. This is a bad practice, said Ajufo. The community that an organization serves should have as much priority as an international audience.
“For example, it is important for us to understand what it is that WaterAid, Save the children or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is doing in Nigeria,” she said. A clear idea of what projects these organizations implement will ensure that their efforts face the least resistance in the communities where they work.
A PR firm that can express a strong ability to create a narrative that will appeal to both a local audience as well as an international market should be given a higher priority on the hiring checklist.
“The person that writes the story controls the narrative, the person that controls the narrative can shift perception and the person that shift perception is the person that can affect change,” Ajufo said.
She explained that a PR with a fluid ability to write and control the narrative in a localized context has a better chance of implementing a successful communications campaign that appeals to an international audience.
3. Market specific experience must not be overlooked
Communication messages have gone beyond just crafting copies that excite an audience. Any organization looking to leverage on the growing interconnectivity of the world today must be willing to add some substance to the kind of messages that they distribute. This is why it is important to hire a PR company with a good grasp of the market — its challenges and opportunities.
It is only a firm with local knowledge of the country and its market that can bridge the contextual gap that exists in the sector and develop evidence-based messages to support its communications campaigns.
Ajufo gave an example of how this applies to African countries. “A lot of people either think that Africa is this place where there is so much money and people are corrupt, or they believe that we all live in mud thatch houses and everybody has malaria or polio,” she said.
For any organization interested in gaining the trust of investor — in the development sector or the private sector — there has to be a concerted effort to effectively communicate the opportunities available in the market as well as the challenges. But you cannot do this without an in-depth grasp of the market.
The best PR firm in the global north might do a poor job driving a communications campaign in the global south. As a result, it is important to consider the level of experience a company has in a particular market of operation before recruiting them. But it is not enough for them to have just worked in the market, Ajufo argues, it is also important for them to have a sound knowledge of the market and how it works.
“Let’s not forget that what is culturally appropriate in Nigeria is not culturally appropriate in the U.K. or Dubai. There is a need to understand what that market is about,” she said.
For instance, a PR firm with a strong knowledge about a particular country will do a better job convincing an NGO of the dangers of indulging in poverty porn campaigns- imagine an organization launching a program to boost the nutrition of school-age children using images of hungry-looking children in their campaign messages.
“We don’t need to see hungry children. What we need to see is how [the] organization is feeding these children in a sustainable way,” Ajufo said.
4. Say no to bloated budget
What is a well-developed communications strategy without the right budget? This should be top on an organization’s priority list. Is the PR firm being recruited to manage an account able to carry out the set communications objectives with the available budget? Or does the company in question need to compromise on budget allocation for other programs in order to fund a set campaign?
5. Find a firm with a good track record
Before most companies hire an employee, a thorough background check is carried out. This can also be used in cases of hiring a PR firm. One must be sure that the firm being considered has a good track record of delivering upon promise, adopts an ethical approach to work, is able to manage a crisis, and measure audience sentiment and impact as needed.
Although experience can be gained from a first project execution, Ajufo cautions on the need to only engage a firm who has the required expertise and values ethics over profit.
“You want to be sure that the team can draw a narrative that is compelling,” Ajufo said. “You need a company that buys into [your] vision and can build a narrative around it.”
Where possible, get references from other companies that the selected firm might have worked with in the past. Engaging the services of a firm with questionable values and lack of accountability will be the quickest path to sabotage any project.
Of course, there will always be a disconnect between people’s intention and what they achieved at the end of the day, Ajufo said, but opportunities can only be unlocked with the right narrative, not a false or distorted narrative.