Misunderstood in South Africa

13 years, 5 months ago

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Public Relations still struggles to gain respect in South Africa, argues Samantha Watt.



One of the most ironic stumbling blocks facing the public relations industry in South Africa today is people: those in the profession; those wanting to be in it and those that utilise its services.

Like the country we operate in, public relations agencies in South Africa are undergoing a transformation. As the country nears its 15th year of democracy, and political change is afoot, the constituency of the public relations professional is changing too.

No longer can the public relations professional in South Africa be justified in supplying column centimetres to its clients. With a waning media pool and limited skills in the marketplace, competition is fierce for strong and prolonged coverage. A headline every month won’t do. This is the changing tide that will see public relations consultants reverting to the true essence of the trade – moving back into the realms of strategic lobbying and finding new and creative ways to influence perception regarding their clients.

Those in the profession

For well over a decade I have witnessed a dearth of quality skills in the IT public relations industry. Always a struggle, my introduction to public relations was through a group of UK expatriates working on contract in South Africa.

This very same company has only had about three local general managers but several international ones. No slight against them, there just simply aren’t enough quality candidates around. Agencies jostle for the same consultants, all fishing from the same small talent pool. So when it comes to placing public relations at the boardroom table, giving it the strategic focus it duly deserves, it doesn’t always happen because there are simply not enough senior what I call “silver lining” candidates to represent the trade and do it justice.

Aside from losing skills due to immigration, those who study public relations in South Africa often opt to go into marketing as it is a profession that garners a touch more respect than public relations, or oddly enough they head for journalism because it yields more power. Leaving only those who have a true passion for the trade and few with seasoned experience.

As a result South Africa has seen the rise of smaller boutique agencies that are owner managed and run. You take on what you can handle and keep a small, tight-knit team in place. You try and limit the challenges of people, knowing full well the price you will pay if you try to grow too big or take on too many clients.

In my experience, this has meant that several of the IT multinationals in our country only have a handful of larger agencies to select from as the smaller companies generally don’t want to or can’t operate at that level. So you lose access to the people with the 20 years plus experience because they have chosen a different course, one which does not rely as heavily on people or the power of a large multinational brand.

Those wanting to be in the profession

The universities and business colleges offer relevant degrees and diplomas, but I don’t believe that these institutions produce enough candidates that understand the profession or have a working knowledge of what is required from them within a public relations agency. I have employed countless graduates and in the last five years I have not met one graduate that I believe can add immediate value to a business.

You can argue that most graduates won’t, but when you need to explain what it is you actually do versus what they perceived it to be, you are in trouble. The conundrum is that you need resources so you select what you believe to be the most suitable candidate and hope for the best. It will then take you a year to train them, by which time another agency is fishing in your pool and you could lose what is finally a billable resource.

The other issue we have with a lack of senior skills is that even if you find young bright sparks they are in all fairness not able to provide strategic direction for quite some time. Very often, as a result of being under exposed, they are insular in their thinking as they don’t have a concept of the world outside of South Africa.

As one veteran client mentioned to me recently: “I’m not looking for the academic ability to be able to write – I can do that myself. What I need is a trustworthy business advisor that seeks to change my stakeholder perceptions. That calls for some grey hairs and some stripes in terms of just having been around the block a few times and being able to demand credibility with my colleagues and in the industry.”

Those are not skills you can buy – nor can you grow them quickly.

The University of South Africa (UNISA) recently asked me to guest lecture to current and post graduate students and let them know what “we” the private sector really want from a public relations consultant. It would seem that they recognise the role of real world business within tertiary education and that professionals like me can assist in helping to produce candidates who are more prepared for the business of public relations.

Those utilising the services

Public relations is misunderstood in South Africa. Most of my friends, after 18 years, still don’t fully understand what it is that I really do. Plagued by the Samantha from Sex in the City syndrome, I cringe when people call me a PRO and wonder how I cope with all the events. When the truth of the matter is that I don’t do events and never will. Rather I subtly change their perceptions of a company when they don’t even know it. I mould my genetic creative talents with my ability to think strategically.

Of course changing the face of public relations and the understanding thereof should not fall solely on the shoulders of the public relations consultant. The companies seeking the services of a public relations agency should understand the tool and what it can and will do for their businesses if used correctly. They need to realise that it is not free, or close to it, and is a skill which you can’t necessarily find in-house. It is the organisations that recognise the value of placing public relations at the boardroom table, as a strategic business partner and critical part of business planning and operations, which will ultimately benefit.

There are several in South Africa, but the truth is that there should be more, as there should be more public relations consultants who are respected and admired for being intelligent business consultants, ones vital to a business.

Having worked both in-house and for an international public relations agency, I have chosen to run my own IT public relations agency and am lucky enough to have several blue chip companies who have consistently committed to public relations for the past five years. Wonderful brands and wonderful people, I think that they are yet to realise the power of public relations and the ultimate value we provide. They value my contribution of that I am certain, but I think that as their businesses evolve so to will their understanding, commitment and investment in public relations.


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The Author

Samantha Watt.

Samantha Watt is founder and managing director of Watt Communications, an owner run and managed PR, integrated marketing and communications agency specialising in the information technology sector. Sister company to design-arm G Watt Design, the agency provides true PR incorporating all elements of communications; complete integrated marketing from initiation to execution at a strategic, creative and tactical level. As well as corporate ID and brand roll out.

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