JOHANNESBURG—Last month, in partnership with Edelman South Africa, PRovoke Media invited some of the most experienced and respected communicators in South Africa to a roundtable discussion, where we talked about the state of public relations in South Africa, the new atmosphere of perma-crisis, the importance of values, new metrics, and new kinds of storytelling.

Participants were:

  • Karena Crerar, CEO of Edelman Africa
  • Paul Holmes, founder, PRovoke Media
  • Nonye Mpho Omotola, head of health, programme communications at Mastercard Foundation
  • Jacqui O’Sullivan, chief sustainability and corporate affairs at MTN
  • Vuyokazi Quphe, communications lead at Nissan

The discussion has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Paul Holmes
: Let’s start with a broad question: How has public relations evolved and changed in this market over the past few years, since the pre-pandemic period? What changes have there been in the kind of work you are doing and the level within the organization at which you are operating?

Jacqui O’Sullivan: I have always had a rather visceral nervous twitch when it comes to the phrase public relations because I think the concept has always been misunderstood, so I have always positioned myself as a communicator, and I think that positioning has helped over the last few years because the line between what we would have called PR and marketing and activations and the kind of crisis communications we have to deal with has become quite blurred. So we have had to become quite clear about what we are doing and what we are trying to achieve and who we are trying to speak to.

So much has changed in the way people receive information, entering into the post-truth era, where fact and opinion seem to be interchangeable, and the impact that had during the Covid era, that the idea of truth and authenticity and credibility became so incredibly potent that the world of public relations became so much more powerful, because buying your publicity—which marketers had relied on for so long—became so widely distrusted. That gave us an opportunity to really shine, and also we saw a lot of mediocre PR people just collapse. The last five years have really separated the wheat from the chaff.

Vuyokazi Quphe: We have moved along to really be considered as strategic counsellors, as people who understand what is needed by not just the business but also the audience and the community at large. And I see that happening, because Covid forced us to stop and consider not only what businesses should be doing, and in our case the business of building cars needed all of us to be side by side at a time when Covid was demanding of us something else, so what happened was that we really needed to pull out that communicator’s seat at the table to understand what was needed for us to keep the doors open but also to allay the fears of our people.

We have also seen, I think, the way that media and communications are consumed change. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but not many people now sit with newspapers, but instead they consume their news by hopping between channels and understanding what’s trending. And that means we have to look beyond “let’s just get a press release together” and think differently about how we deliver information. In some ways, I see it as a return to a more natural way of communicating.

Nonye Mpho Omotola: I would say that technology obviously has been a disruptor in the past couple of years, particularly during Covid. For us, the big change is about the impact of what we are doing, how has it impacted the recipient and the community, and who are the influencers in the community who can help us tell the story. And if you talk about storytelling, audio-visual is becoming much more important, telling the story in a short audio-visual format.

And also we have had to look at the culture of the organization, and the values. We engage with partners, and so it’s also about the culture of the internal team and the values and how we live our values of humility and respect and impact.  If your partner is not seeing that from you, it’s difficult to develop a good partnership.

PH: So I am hearing three separate strands: one is that the issues we are dealing with are more complex and critical; another is that the channels we are using are much broader than they used to be because people are consuming information differently; and the other is that we need to constantly address the issue of impact so everything we do is having an impact in the world.

Karena Crerar: I agree with all of that. The other thing I would add is that what came out of Covid—and I think it’s correct to treat Covid as a turning point, I saw a study that 75% of people thought the perception of PR has improved across the continent because of Covid—we as an agency have never worked more closely with our clients. I remember sitting in war rooms and every day we were working with them, because there were so many things that all of a sudden we were needed for, in reputation and trust-building.

The thing I would add is the importance of the employer as a communicator to employees. I think in the past that was often just stick something on the wall and hope that they read it and then companies realized they had to be the voice of authority and leaders realized that they had to be the source of trustworthy information in a time of crisis.

PH: One change is that it’s about action now, just about words. It’s about being part of the policy discussion, not just how do we communicate it.

JO: The way I have always approached communications, there are two non-negotiables I have when I join a company: one is that I only report to CEOs, which is a requirement because if you report to the CEO you are always on the executive committee, which means you are able to keep your finger on the pulse. And the second thing is that internal communications has to sit with me, for all the reasons that have already been discussed.

The third thing that I have always tried to do—I haven’t always made it non-negotiable—but I have tried to make my team’s description about communication and reputation management. We make the most impact when we are guiding discussions and setting policy and stopping executives getting into trouble before they get into trouble, that is where the power really lies.

PH: That’s particularly relevant in the past few years, because it’s been a perma-crisis for a lot of companies.

VQ: Only last week I reached out to a number of ex co members to find out what they believe was impactful PR and all of the answers were altruistic. None of them talked about shareholders and none of them talked about stories on the front pages or the morning TV. All of them talked about people understanding the business, and the sustainable nature of the sector.

These are leaders who understand the crisis mode and the importance—particularly in the auto sector where Africa is the last frontier of growth, where there is so much potential—to make sure that we have a voice that speaks externally to the policy makers and to the consumer, but also to the employees, to ensure that we use PR to drive a very economically successful and profitable sector. And so it’s about what are the key levers we can use to make sure the stories we tell do resonate with a greater purpose than just selling a vehicle.

NMO: Where we start is to understand the Foundation’s reason for being, and its reason for being is to alleviate poverty, is financial inclusion, to concentrate on youth finding dignified and fulfilling work. How we go about that is by working on different programs and we work in partnership with people who provide the expertise on these programs. Our leadership is very clear in terms of the values that the Foundation has and that influences everything we do, internally and externally. From a reputation point view, those values stand us in good stead.

An example of what we do is Covid. Before Covid we were not involved in health. But when Covid struck we thought about how it impacted dignified and fulfilling work. We felt we had to get involved. We partnered with health organizations, and we let them lead because they are the experts, and we could support them in various ways. And that would ensure that the workforce across the continent could continue.

Those are the things that influence the work that I do, that's what encourages me to do my work. It also encourages us to think, okay, how do you want to be relevant from a thought leader point of view? As a Foundation, how do you want to be relevant? What are the things that will position us as thought leaders? How do we show up? How do we engage?

PH: That focus on values really resonates with me, because helping an organization live its values is is right there at the top of the list of what good communicators do. But I also want to stay with this idea of impact and whether you have found a metric or a system of an approach to measurement that works for you and resonates with the leadership of your organizations.

JO: So, firstly, just a comment on what you said previously about crisis being of value to us. I really would agree with that, and from a South African context, we are just stumbling from one crisis to the next. In fact, we're not stumbling from one to the next because we're constantly in a maelstrom of crises. So whether it's the fact that we don't have enough electricity and the roads of rubbish. The country as a whole is in this massive food scarcity situation. So you literally have a situation where the richest city in Africa literally has people starving to death.

So we have this incredible crisis, the state of crisis. Many years ago when I was the spokesman for South African Airways it was so hard to actually get foundation stories told. Really hard, absolutely impossible, nobody was interested. Now, we really do lovely stuff at the MTA Foundation, my people run it, they're much better than I am, but it's really not hard to get coverage. Because of this constant flood of crises, and the understanding that this concept of values and purpose have become so much resonant with people, because they actually feel they need a break. They need some sense of hope.

On the question of metrics, what I really wish is that there was one silver bullet to this, because it would be great. But what I have found, and it's not a perfect solution, is working really closely with my colleagues across the business, with the marketing team, with the social media team, is putting together a list of a set of measurements that kind of collaborate. So we've got our own PR measures, we've got brand health, we've got NPS. We've got our group culture audits, and then we have these monthly measures, which we call our “senti-meters.” So what we've tried to do is we've tried to cross-reference all these different measures so that we have the same sorts of questions referencing each other.

PH: So it's really an ecosystem of measures rather than...

VO: We found that probably the most effective way is an ecosystem that requires a high degree of maintenance and oversight. Constantly looking at what's happening within the ecosystem, how do questions need to be tweaked, what sort of base are you looking at, and that seems to be working for us. Collaboration is key.

One thing that works for us is the good old-fashioned human focus group. It's one thing for us to rely on the dashboard. However, if you're not listening and having that dialogue, then you're not able to do what is actually needed. And therefore, your impact, once again, is kind of hindered. So for us, we are using technology, but good old-fashioned chatting about it is important too. What is it that you like? Talk about it.

PH: Edelman, obviously, has invested quite a lot of thought leadership equity over the last few years in the idea of trust. And I wonder at the extent to which that informs how you're measuring the impact of public relations for your clients. Are there ways of measuring both the value of trust and fluctuations in trust? Or are you still using a much wider dashboard of different tools?

KC: We work with our clients to determine what they want to see. And we do have some great conversations about measuring properly. But unfortunately, we still come up against some of those old school ways of thinking/ And we find not enough time is spent right up front identifying what success looks like, really, for an organization. And then it becomes about internal stakeholders and where they want to see themselves. Are we going to get impact out of this action we're taking? Or do we just want coverage out of it?

We know that action drives trust. And the challenge with trust is that if we're not working with an organization on specifically building that trust, it's very hard to measure it. So if you're not working actively every day towards building trust, but then you want to measure it at the end of a 12-month period, that's just not helpful to anybody. You have to be working actively every day to say, are we really driving the dimensions of trust? Are we leading from a position of integrity? Are we showing up in the right way about what we can offer to our audiences? Are we contributing to society in a more meaningful way than just, you know, a CSR initiative here and there.

JO: I feel like I've wasted years of my life trying to explain to CEOs the difference between buying the cover of an industry magazine and earning you a front page Business Day piece, or an op-ed.

But I actually think that some of the most exciting work is actually coming from the rest of the continent because those markets are perhaps a little less rigid and a little less staid. I'm often really just delighted by the freshness and the energy. And when I see what some of the work that my colleagues in Nigeria have done…. And the media is more flexible, more open, less restrictive. Journalists tend to be a little bit more less cynical. I find in South Africa, journalists are highly cynical.

VO: We are moving to a place where there's more African optimism versus pessimism. And so therefore, we find that many of us are wanting to show and express ourselves as Africans, and so what you see is that a lot of the work that you do has to reflect what is happening.

If we're speaking about technology and innovation, navigation has always been in European languages: we would have Susie who would speak in a beautiful British accent. But one of the things we do now is that we have education done in vernacular. That's important because it didn't just speak about product, but it really spoke about showing the people who ultimately consume this. And so from a PR perspective, what you're going to find is that by showing me, I therefore own this.

PH: One of the things we have noticed in SABRE is just how much more inclusive campaigns have become, and that relevant in Africa where obviously that term means something different. And of course we are seeing people using a much broader range of channels and media to get their messages out.

NMO: You have, of course, the social media channels and our stories get amplified on social media. There are podcasts. We engage with our partners. So it's not the Foundation telling the stories, we are helping to tell the story of the beneficiary, so that it becomes authentic, and we're not making noise pr blowing our horns.

There's always the ripple effect that when you do help someone in a community, when a student gets a Mastercard Foundation scholarship, what then happens to her or him, and what's the impact in the community? That child obviously gets a good education, and then comes back to either community or country, and then what happens? And then how many people benefit from that one scholarship? How is that story told?

VO: I forgot to add the internal audience. The internal audience is also very critical and a platform to amplify the stories. Whatever we're doing, the internal audience has to know.

In 2017, in Saudi Arabia, we know that the Royal Decree was passed allowing women to drive for the very first time. And so in 2018, we saw many women being able to drive. But for us to tell that story, it wasn't good enough that you just showed the customers driving. It was key that our women employees were part of the story. With that came a great deal of enablement and empowerment in the telling of that story internally.

Here in South Africa, our leaders take time out to walk to each of the different plant shops and to engage, to really understand what's happening. And oftentimes, it's not the big issues, it may be just the three-ply toilet paper. But they still need to listen to those.

JO: I've long since stopped hoping that we would be given more resources. Because I've never worked in a company where I've thought, I have a great amount of people. I have never had enough people. I've kind of become to accept I'll have a small number of in-house people as long as I've got a really great, strong agency.

But what means is we create once and use everywhere. So I've really pushed my team and my agency to become quite comfortable repurposing content. I don't want anyone to be a super specialist. I want everyone to be able to write a LinkedIn or a Facebook or an Instagram post. I don't want anyone saying, oh, but that's the social media team's job. Everybody's got to be able to muck in and help out.

We also have kind of leveraged, sadly, the decline of journalism in South Africa. I think it's reflected elsewhere in the world, the reduction in the size of newsrooms. A few weeks ago, we did a big feature on the vandalism of our towers. It's just a problem facing all our operators and the SABC arrived without a camera. There's no cameras. The national broadcaster. So we guarantee that for every one of our activities, we provide not just the media release, but we provide B-roll. We provide pre-recorded package interviews. We provide sound bites. We do podcasts. And we make this available to all media, and they can expect that now.

KC: There are great writers, there are great content creators, there are great videographers. They're all different kinds of storytelling, and they're all legitimate. You must have all those talents represented in Edelman. But as Jackie says, I think the sweet spot is the integration of all of those and the ability to pull it all together. And I think this is the challenge.

Unfortunately, when I think about educational institutions, they are largely siloed in what they are teaching and educating. So you find people that come through who have studied corporate communications, so they know how to do corporate PR but they have no idea what to do when you ask them to write a social post.

I think in this day and age, we need more people to know how to bring the mix together and who understand that it's about the core story, and it's also about understanding each of the channels and how to use that differently to sell that story. And that's the part that I think requires a lot of the on-the-job training