PR in Africa: Changing the Narrative


Article by Yomi Badejo-Okusanya, President of the African Public Relations Association (APRA)

IMG_20150311_203258Many years ago, The Economist magazine carried a cover story describing Africa as a ‘hopeless continent’. Several years later, The Economist reversed itself by coming out with another cover titled ‘ Rising Africa’. There lies the paradox that is Africa- it’s in its narrative! Undisputedly the next frontier in global development, Africa has witnessed impressive growth from foreign direct investment compared to other parts of the world. The disadvantage of our infrastructure deficit has resulted in massive funds injection, which presents significant opportunities for public relations practitioners on the continent.

The origins of Public Relations practice in Africa are somewhat hazy. What is clear though, is that  a substantial dose of public relations was used in Africa during the Second World War not just to encourage Africans to enlist in the home armies of their various colonial masters, but also to keep the war propaganda machine going on the continent. During periods of colonial rule, European trading companies like the United African Company (UAC) engaged public relations, perhaps for the very first time, in the area of private sector business. Many government organisations and agencies soon caught on and appointed PR executives. The first set of PR professionals were mostly media and Information Officers of government organisations.

The 1960’s and 70’s were characterised by struggles for, and the attainment of political independence. The effect was the entrenchment of one form of democratic rule or the other across the continent. In these nascent democracies public communication, especially public relations, was an imperative but this new found opportunity was rather short-lived as many African nations soon fell under the jackboot of military coups. A failure of public relations perhaps? Whatever the reason, military takeovers severely stunted the growth and development of public relations practice. Happily, the late 1980’s and 90’s brought about a resurgence of democratic rule in Africa, with an attendant rise in the engagement of public relations.

PR in Africa had hitherto been largely media-centric because the pioneers of the profession were journalists and broadcasters. But over time, its further application in solving marketing and brand challenges, has led to the deepening of the profession across board. Such tools include Strategy, Corporate Social Responsibility, content development & management, reputation management  and creativity.

Key PR practice centres on the continent are South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Egypt, with South Africa taking the lead. These countries are located in southern, eastern, western and northern Africa respectively.  South Africa’s leading role is understandable considering that most public relations networks and global corporate giants have headquartered their African operations in South Africa. The biggest consumers of public relations are telecommunications companies, with banks, retailers, the entertainment industry and IT also gaining a fair share of the market. Naturally, PR consulting practices have grown over the years in line with demand. However, with the exception of South Africa, most practices have remained sole proprietorships or partnerships.

As public relations has developed on the continent, so also has the establishment and operations of professional public relations associations. The first association was founded in 1956 in South Africa followed by the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations  in 1963.  The Public Relations Society of Kenya was inaugurated in 1971. The umbrella body for public relations associations- the Federation of African Public Relations Associations, was established in 1975 with the sole mandate of developing PR as a tool for selling Africa’s positive image. FAPRA became APRA in 2008 and began to admit individual members in addition to national associations.

In spite of the considerable gains, there is still a lot of ground to cover. For instance the lack of clarity about the value that public relations brings to the table remains an issue. Perhaps because its value is difficult to measure, lack of appreciation for the practice of PR as a profession in its own right is also an issue. Measurement and evaluation continue to be a challenge, as is the dearth of data across the continent. PR also suffers from the intrusion of its twin cousin-professions- journalism and advertising. Today, many markets see PR as little more than an extension of journalism, thus denying PR of its much needed professional and financial regard.

If the narrative must change, it must change from within so that we can take advantage of the significant opportunities that ‘Rising Africa’ presents. Whether the conversation is about the continent or the practice, there is a glaring need to change the narrative.

Yomi Badejo-Okusanya is the current President of the African Public Relations Association (APRA), a Fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations and Chief Executive of CMC Connect Burston Marsteller, Lagos, Nigeria.