To many observers, Africa is often viewed as an emerging communications market. Yet, that characterisation may be unfair. South Africa, for example, is about as sophisticated as any public relations market in the world. 

And companies operating on the African continent, more broadly, are facing a range of issues — economic, social and commercial — that call for an advanced grasp of communications strategy.

In particular, companies in Africa often find themselves trying to capitalise on rising economic trends without alienating local communities. As access to information explodes, furthermore, corporate communicators in Africa are getting to grips with an era that demands heightened levels of transparency and a more meaningful approach to sustainable development.

One response to this unique set of challenges is via a ‘social innovation’ approach, like that deployed by Microsoft’s 4Afrika initiative, which aims to boost internet access and entrepreneurship and, in the process, help the US tech company sell more products. 

This is not your classic CSR effort but, increasingly, it is the type of project that has a more credible chance of actually addressing both sides of the equation: a company’s commercial goals and a citizen’s social ones. It is, in short, no longer enough to view ‘doing good’ as something separate from ‘better business.’

For corporate communicators in Africa, this particular challenge is accentuated by the same trends that are affecting their communications brethren in more mature Western markets: the rise of digital media and the increasing pressure exerted by citizens, civil society, NGOs and even government. 

To explore these critical issues in greater detail, the Holmes Report recently partnered with Waggener-Edstrom to convene a high-level roundtable in Johannesburg that featured some of South Africa’s leading corporate communications professionals.

Unsurprisingly, the discussion was frank and eye-opening. Many of the participants hold regional duties, leading to a vibrant conversation about some of the broader public engagement trends that are affecting the continent as it grapples with the pace of economic development.

A full overview of the discussion follows below, including video excerpts from the panellists in attendance.

The panel
Barry Dijoe, communications manager, Tiger Brands
Jose Machado, director of communications, Siemens Africa
Kea'Betswe Modimoeng, public Affairs and common shared value manager, Samsung Africa
Catherine Peter, Africa director, One Young World
Cory Porter, group director of social innovation, Waggener-Edstrom, Washington D.C.
Marcus Sorour, general manager, Waggener-Edstrom South Africa
Arun Sudhaman, managing editor, The Holmes Report
James Wilson, PR lead, Microsoft, West, East, Central Africa & Indian Ocean Islands

“The single biggest factor must be social media”

The discussion began with an exploration of the key changes affecting the corporate communicator role at African companies. On this, there was an unsurprising uniformity — with social media radically reshaping the way that organizations do business.

Wilson: Social media impacts every area of most people’s businesses, from straightforward products and services to corporate social investment. It can be used for every aspect of communications as far as I’m concerned, whether it’s internal communications, crisis communications, to your straightforward and more entertaining consumer comms, to more intelligent levels of PR in terms of pressing issues, whether it’s NGOs, private sector, public sector, whatever the case is. For me, that’s the single biggest thing.

Dijoe: The biggest topic that’s relevant, internationally, is GMO, for example, and monitoring its impact is very important to us. Social media is the biggest game changer for us, especially in picking up trends as to what the public and stakeholders are talking about and how we can develop positions and try to deal with and pre-empt possible crises.

Machado: The game-changer for sure has been social media and the power that it has. Siemens being predominantly a B2B brand has also felt the effects of the power of social media on our business. In terms of interacting with our employees, but also engaging with this so-called Generation Y. I think possibly a result of social media is the importance of brands creating their own media to communicate with stakeholders. Gone are the days of us using general mainstream media. We can actually create credible platforms ourselves. On the one hand, while you depend on mainstream media, you actually compete with them. That’s where the power of storytelling comes into place. Gone are the days when you are the hero. You need to change the angle and make your target audience the hero and celebrate them.

Peter: From a perspective of the world having to confront totally different media paradigms, we really our finding ourselves in  position where there is no choice. There’s no such thing as the sovereign borders anymore. Because in the social media space, you’re crossing cultural and generational divides all the time. 

“It’s like an open-ended press conference that never ends”

The focus on social media means that expectations of companies in Africa have changed, with a corresponding impact on the transparency that is now required of them. The importance of creating “credible platforms” said Wilson, is of particular importance, demanding a type of objectivity from corporate communicators that represents a shift in thinking. 

Wilson: 20 years ago, let’s say a corporate profile in our key media. It would have been nothing contradictory. Now, even if it is your own property, you have to be quite open to criticism. You can’t present yourself too rationally. Our work is cut out for us in terms of being more transparent and accountable for what we say.

Machado: Social media has not only put the spotlight on our communications strategy but has also put the spotlight on our business strategy, on the company. It used to be that the main objective of a company was to make profit. But no one wants to work for a company that they feel is profit-centric, and no one wants to buy from a company that they feel is profit-centric. So, social value creation has now got to be at the core of the business strategy. You have to communicate the real value that not only your CSR projects make to society but what your products and your solutions do to make the world a better place. The way you tell your stories in terms of what your customers have done with your products is what’s important now in terms of communications. 

Wilson: It’s like an open-ended press conference that never ends.

Dijoe: And the goalposts keep moving! Today, society expects you to be more socially conscious. You wake tomorrow and the world has changed because attitudes may have changed completely. It’s something that we need to be wired into.

Modimoeng: Within a corporate citizenship space, you will find it’s very difficult. One being the question of modesty. As a company, it’s very easy to be tempted to take a picture of a vulnerable child and put it on Facebook because it has that human reach and feel to it. Is this more of a PR exercise? How do you balance it from a messaging point of view. It’s something that has got corporates into trouble. Everything is quick and direct. On the other side it needs to be properly coordinated. 

Machado: It’s a double-edged sword. The minute you communicate the good stuff you are doing, you open yourself up to more scrutiny.

Peter: What’s happening here is a forced authenticity. The general public becomes part of your part of your brand whether they actually are a user of your products or not. You have human consumers requiring human interactions. It’s a question how can we all be better, for better.

Porter: It’s also the importance of showing and not telling. To the extent you are able to empower each of your stakeholders. Your customers, your investors and your support leaders and employees. It helps square that circle of trying to create the conditions where you come off as authentic because you actually are. Your employees can stand up and say ‘I participated in this.’ We find this is something that is really important but that clients overlook.

Wilson: You can’t tell people you are innovative. You have to show it. Your staff are your biggest ambassadors. 

“Has CSR become a commodity?”

As expectations have changed, so too has the role of the company within countries with less developed infrastructure. A recent trend has seen companies taking on a quasi-governmental role — best illustrated by mining players that provide a range of services in the communities in which they operate.

Much of this is driven by government-mandated legislation that sometimes sees companies view social investment as a “tax” rather than as a route to better business performance, one that they must pay if they are to avoid the charge of being overly exploitative. 

Unsurprisingly, this was a topic that the panellists discussed at length from an African perspective, examining whether CSR is nothing more than a “compliance cost”, or whether it can actually help companies improve their overall business performance via a programme of considered social investment.

Modimoeng, for example, asked whether these programmes actually generate significant change within communities, particularly where the aims of business and citizens can be significantly different. Sorour, meanwhile, wondered whether the C-suite really understands the benefits of social investment, instead of simply expecting to see “30 journalists show up at a press conference.”

Machado: It’s all about corporate integrity, not investing in a CSR initiative because you are obliged to. You can’t do business in South Africa without investing in CSR. Especially for a company like Siemens to get government business. Which then raises the question, has CSR become a commodity?

Wilson: To me, there’s no cynicism around it. It’s just a way of doing business. 20 years ago it could have been a grudge purchase from the board. Now, most companies are very much engaged. It’s linked directly to the business. It’s not a standalone. It’s doing well and doing good at the same time.

Porter: Based on our experience, we do realize there is a tension among our clients. A lot of people define it as return on integrity, and the opposite of that is a return on compliance, where you are compelled to do it. If it isn’t aligned with your core objectives, then it really is a commodity. To the extend that you are able to adopt it as part of parcel of who you are — how you treat your customers and employees — then it can become a competitive advantage. But that’s actually really difficult to do, to be perfectly honest. And that’s one of the reasons why a lot of companies fall back on return on compliance. If you’re not on board with transparency, the transparency will come to you. At a global level, you’re starting to see a regulatory requirement — there’s specific things you have to do to get government contracts. It’s going to come up one way or another, so it’s obviously to your benefit to do the hard work.

Machado: That’s where the value of our functions come in. Doing it from a compliance perspective is one thing. But, the customers and stakeholders still won’t know about it. You need to tell stories because they touch the heart, it’s not really the business decision.

Sorour: You retain your staff, it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Modimoeng: I think it’s a very tough balancing act, particularly in South Africa. 

Peter: We know that competition breeds growth. The kinds of thing that create a space for competitiveness are sound policy and good government. We know that one of the big solutions to a lot of the problems we face in the continent is the conditions in which people are able to do business. We have this imperative to listen and hear what our employees and communities are saying. It may be that communications professionals should step back from looking at people as segments. We have to pay attention. 

Dijoe: From our side, it’s more employee engagement that they are looking at. As a communicator, I have to sell internally. To help the C-suite change their attitude, the focus has become to increase volunteerism. Once you engage at that level, they come back and they tell other employees. Then, word gets around. Even to the C-suite. Then it’s no more about how many journalists. It’s more about ‘OK fine we do comply, but I can also see the value I’m adding as an organisation to society.’

Peter: We’re now entering an age where there is slow return on investment. It really is now about a slow burn, from a communications perspective. It’s about longevity and sustainability. We’re moving away from fast and easy profit. It’s now longer, harder and bigger picture.

Sudhaman: That seems like a logical way to measure it, but how realistic is that? Microsoft is, clearly, very committed to social investment but is also as quarterly-driven as any company I’ve ever seen.

Wilson: Elephant in the room. Clearly, we are for profit. Clearly, most people are in business for profit. That’s the biggest priority, there’s certainly no shame in that. But I think there’s more integrity now in CSR than there has been previously. It’s far more structured, it’s far more strategic.