Can PR fix Africa’s battered image?

Public relations professionals, under their continental umbrella body, the African Public Relations Association (APRA) will from May 13-17 convene in Kigali for their annual conference to be held under the theme, ‘Changing African storytelling narratives.’

Based in Lagos, Nigeria, the APRA Secretariat is closely working with the Public Relations Association of Rwanda (PRAR), Rwanda Convention Bureau (RCB) as well as with support from the Office of the Government Spokesperson to prepare for the weeklong summit.

Taking place in the same week as the Transform Africa Summit means the public relations actors will have to compete for attention and space in the local and regional news media.

Nonetheless, Herbert Muhire, President of PRAR is optimistic and focused on the bigger picture; he told me this week, that hosting the continental meeting is an opportunity for local PR practitioners to meet counterparts and be inspired to rebuild their professional body and draw more benefits for members.

“Elsewhere in Africa, associations for public relations practitioners are quite strong and take centre-stage in shaping the professional standards of the PR practice through conducting certified training for members and enforcing an industry code of ethics,” he said.

Although it was launched eleven years ago, in 2008, the local body has not been very active but the upcoming summit has helped revitalize the energy of its founders and inspire a new desire to build a stronger association that offers substantial value to members.

Those attending the upcoming summit include my former public relations lecturer at university, Jane Gitau who is the Secretary-General of APRA and Chairperson of the Public Relations Society of Kenya (PRSK); she has been instrumental in building professional PR bodies in East Africa.

Last year, PRSK unveiled a five-year Strategic Plan and enlisted the government of Kenya to support its initiative to transform the PR practice in the country. These are aspirations that the Rwandan local body would like to replicate and this upcoming summit is a good rallying point.

Professional bodies play an important role in shaping standards as well as promoting industry-based ethics. The lawyers and doctors have done this well in their respective associations. The engineers are also picking up. Even journalists are trying, albeit with difficulty.

For instance, a doctor or lawyer knows that any practice contrary to their professional code of ethics could see them suspended from the freedom to practice professionally, such a fear helps create a degree of service quality assurance on the side of clients and reduces room for crooks and quacks.

In Rwanda, professionalizing public relations has a long way to go. In many institutions, PR Officers don’t have the confidence to represent their respective institutions because the role is largely junior in most structures and often play a limited or no role at all, in shaping their institution’s corporate narrative.

A strong local professional body would help organize members, conduct capacity building training and give PR practitioners the required confidence and respect to establish and lead the implementation of strong PR strategies that would add measurable value to their organisational goals.

In Rwanda, the CEO is often seen playing the public relations function, responding to press questions on any matter, this leaves no risk cover for the top executive hence exposing the entire institution to serious communication risks. But it is because the PRO is not empowered to speak for the institution.

There is also chronic confusion between the marketing and public relations function. Some institutions don’t know which one they need more or when and how to deploy the two as co-supporting functions. In practice, an efficient PR function can deliver on marketing goals on a lesser budget.

Overall, marketing activities try to achieve direct revenue while PR aims at shaping a positive reputation of the institution through an effective PR strategy that tells a brand story through communication channels between a company and its stakeholders.

Some companies spend millions on marketing campaigns, advertising products when what they should be spending on is fixing their brand reputation and perception among the target market. If for some reason the public dislikes a company, PR not advertising holds the answer to fixing that.

Public relations is about storytelling. How a story is told will determine how an institution is perceived. If an organization has a nice and likeable story, marketing its services or products becomes easier compared to a situation where one has to promote products of a company that has a bad reputation.

Similarly, African government public relations strategists have a big role to play in how the world perceives their countries. Their collective efforts also determine how Africa is perceived as a continent. This is the context in which the theme, ‘changing the African storytelling narrative’ was selected.

I have heard critics accuse Rwanda of highlighting its success stories while failing to shine a light on its failures; but it is thanks to that strategy that Rwanda is widely perceived as a successful African story which has helped paint the continent more positively.

In Rwanda, we learn that Africa has many success stories. These success stories are, however, often overshadowed by over-focusing on the continent’s failures. Changing the narrative here would mean, shifting the focus to highlighting Africa’s success stories while quietly working to fix our shortcomings.

The views expressed in this article  are of the author.

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