media update’s Nakedi Phala discusses the grey areas to consider when running a PR agency in South Africa. 

It’s important that PR practitioners understand South Africa’s history — especially the transition from Apartheid to democracy. But why?

Because the political landscape in South Africa is so unique, it includes people from all kinds of races, communities and cultures, meaning that a strategy to capture the hearts of these audiences has to be tailored to these individuals in order to resonate with them. 

So, how exactly do you do that? Don’t worry! We’ve got you covered.

Here are some points to help you run PR campaigns effectively: 

Languages to use in PR content

In South Africa, language plays a vital role in your PR efforts. Depending on your demographic,  it’s important to keep in mind the language they speak predominantly and whether they will understand what you’re trying to say — or else you risk alienating certain people. 

Although South Africa has 11 official languages, some are more commonly used. According to BusinessTech, isiZulu leads with 25.1% spoken outside households (in public spaces) while English comes in at 16.6%; isiXhosa holds at 12.8% and Sepedi sneaks in with 9.7%. Now, you might be asking the ultimate question: How is this important to a PR officer? 

Well, when you communicate in a language that is used majorly by people in and out of their homes, chances are that your message will reach a larger audience.

For example, although English is known as a business language, in a speech or during a press briefing you could add some common phrases, figures of speech and idioms from isiZulu or isiXhosa.

In this regard, your message will connect and resonate better with that particular audience, they'll listen to understand your message and want to hear more about what you have to share. 

Understanding the role of diversity 

South Africa’s history influences the present day and future. With that being said, PR agencies represent communities, brands and individuals from different backgrounds and cultures. It’s important to consider that your clients are looking for an agency that is representative of this. 

Because of historic Apartheid laws like racial segregation, it’s ideal for a PR firm to prioritise a diversified communication model. You wouldn’t want to be known as the PR agency that conducts campaigns that divide a nation or communities. A classic example to learn from is PR firm Bell Pottinger, which withdrew from South Africa after investigations confirmed that the PR agency was working with confidential campaigns to accelerate racial tensions in SA — this was dubbed as one of the most unethical breaches of PR ethics. 

So, what's the moral of the story? Don’t do that.

In the long run, this will give off the impression that your agency is biased and it will further instill a perception that you’re not for an all-inclusive South Africa.  

You need to understand and accept the current political climate of inclusivity; hence, hiring and conducting business should be done based on merit. 

Combating the digital divide 

A communications officer needs to understand that South Africa is in the grips of the third and fourth industrial revolution. This means that some communication efforts still have to be conducted in the traditional way (hardcopy format), such as newspapers. 

NGO Pulse South Africa writes that the digital divide is rooted in the lack of access to information. This information is now dominant on digital mass media, and affordability of computers or smartphones plays a role in who gains access to information and who doesn’t. 

Scenario: A communications officer serving in the Rural Development Department wants to send a message to a community in a rural setting. The best way to do this would be via billboards, pamphlets or by hosting a public community address. Why? Because chances are, these individuals have to put up with poor reception, so even those who have smartphones could miss out on the information.

For others, it’s a matter of affordability, which limits their access to even the simplest source of technology. And, as a result, they’re also missing out on information that could transform their lives. 

So, as a public relations officer, it’s important to remember that some of your messages have to be created the old-fashioned way. 

The role of PR in politics 

South Africa’s diversity means PR officers will get to experience almost all aspects of the profession. This is because of the constitutional right to freedom of expression and speech. Great isn't it? Nothing like George Orwell’s Animal Farm with pigs barring others from speaking! 

In South African politics, it is common for a party to have its own spokesperson. For their campaigns, they may even hire a PR agency to help canvas before and during elections. 

Obviously, a party’s spokesperson will be biased and selective with information — especially if the organisation is the only source of information about a certain event. A recent example would be when the Economic Freedom Fighters leaders paid former President Jacob Zuma a visit at his homestead. 

Reports claim this was a tea and crumpets meeting … However, considering these are politicians, it could be a number of things that were politically related. Or, it was really just a tea party?

The party’s spokesperson, Vuyani Pambo, was cautious and selective when answering questions from the media. This was done in order to create a certain narrative for the public not to second guess the party’s reason for visiting the former president’s home and to avoid any suspicious scrutiny. 

As a PR agency, you need to consider the type of service they are asking for before associating with a political party.

You can start by asking yourself the following questions:
  •  Will it haunt my agency at the end of the campaign, and
  •  Is my PR firm being used as a political pawn?
The best thing to do in these scenarios is to research more about the potential client’s (the political party) request. Ask other agencies whether they’ve used them before and question their conductivity.

Consider all worst-case scenarios, because the public may not understand that you were just hired for PR. Some will associate you with the party, and if your client’s name shows up in reports showcasing corrupt activities, so will your agency’s.

South Africa is unique and requires a PR pro to approach things cleverly when conducting their work. What are your thoughts on South Africa’s PR industry? Let us know in the comments section below. 

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It’s hard to deny that industries such as PR need to be in a constant state of transformation in order to survive. Time to find out  Where the future of public relations is headed in 2021. 
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