By Adam Wakefield 

South Africa has traditionally been a gateway into Sub-Saharan Africa for niche services lacking elsewhere, with this being no different in public relations. The local industry has several international PR firms with offices in South Africa and it’s this expertise that local operators across the continent tap into.

Trevor Chueu, Africa lead at FleishmanHillard’s Johannesburg office, says the majority of African-orientated requests received, are from brands in South Africa looking to make inroads on the continent.

“However, there is an increase from global brands looking to enter the continent, but not specifically with South Africa as a focus,” Chueu says. “In cases where we receive requests from Africa-based companies which don’t operate in South Africa, such requests would come through our affiliate network of agencies.”

This is a similar experience shared by PR firm Weber Shandwick, with managing director Jill Hamilton stating that across borders, work in Africa was a significant contributor to the amount of business they did last year.

Hamilton says success on the continent comes from building up capacity over a sustained period of time. In their case, they have a central team that is able to communicate in numerous languages, with 2015 seeing the firm do work in over half of Africa’s markets, highlighting the importance of establishing relationships over time.

All PR is local 

In April 2013, Vincent Magwenya, CEO of reputation management firm Magna Carta, notes in an opinion piece that research showed that four broad categories of PR agencies existed in Africa.
  • Local offices affiliated to or affiliates of global PR or advertising groups;
  • A limited number of Africa specialists with claims to actual experience of working across African countries;
  • Local agencies with genuine PR specialists on staff and 
  • Local one-stop shop agencies that claim to have expertise as a part of their overall offering

“The final category forms the majority in most African countries. Most agencies offer everything from advertising to marketing and simply include PR as one of their offerings,” Magwenya says. 

Magwenya continues; “The growth of this sector was natural, given that specialisation in specific markets was often not possible because of the small size of markets on the continent. This forced entrepreneurs to take the ‘one-stop shop’ approach to doing communications business.” 

It's all about relationships

Both Chueu and Hamilton emphasise that work on the continent relies on a symbiotic relationship with local providers who bring the necessary local experience to the niche expertise foreign firms like theirs are hired for.

Hamilton describes their approach to strategy development and the creation of guidelines that align with an organisations broader business goals in other African countries as being developed at the hub office in Johannesburg, while working “very closely and in tandem with our local partners on the ground”.

“It is imperative that a solid relationship and understanding is in place. We rely heavily on local insights and expertise that we can then tailor and adapt to clients’ global or Pan African strategy,” Hamilton says.

Chueu says a South African firm being hired by local hands elsewhere on the continent should be seen as a vote of confidence in their ability to make a difference. Often, such a decision is based around a South African firm being able to deploy niche services which are not a strength of the local firm.

“As an example, in an unsophisticated market such as Tanzania, strategy development is not widely required by businesses or offered by agencies. In this case, FleishmanHillard would be hired to develop a strategy that would be implemented by a local agency,” Chueu says. “The opportunities are endless.” 

As Magwenya noted, although it was “undoubtedly Africa’s time to take the international spotlight” and the continent boasts a burgeoning middle class driving prosperity, entry in African markets must be thoroughly researched and carefully considered.

Has your PR firm done business on the continent? Let us know in the comments below.