In the book “Handbook of Public Relations,” South African authors, Skinner C and Von Essen L defined public relations as “the management, through the communication of the perceptions and strategic relations between an organization and its internal and external stakeholders.”
PR practitioners generally, and PR practitioners in South Africa specifically have historically not been given their due, nor recognized for the role they play in organizational growth and success. In most instances, they are referred to only in passing when the discussion on business success comes up. Also, there is most often no robust setup for PR in most companies, with the practice being to outsource PR jobs whenever the need arises.
PR experts are responsible for developing patterns for strategic communication between internal staff members and the public in general. Regardless of the little recognition afforded by the practitioners, it is evident that they have something going for them. We should ask ourselves, how have they managed to be successful in the face of little appreciation? What can we learn from South African PR practitioners?
1. The Importance of Evolving:
No doubt, South Africa comes with its unique challenges for PR professionals. For one, it has one of the continent’s youngest populations and also has a considerable chunk of those unskilled. There is the problem of fragmented infrastructure, especially witnessed in the early days of PR practice. However, PR practitioners in South Africa have managed to evolve with the years and adapt to the challenges posed.
A clear example of the ability to evolve despite challenges is the unique way language barriers have been surmounted by the use of influencers. South Africa has eleven official languages, a daunting number for any practitioner willing to reach a broad audience. However, partnership with local influencers ranging from local celebrities to village heads has been an excellent way to reach micro units all over the country.
Merle O’Brien, former president of the PR Institute of South Africa, once remarked on the place of influencers and how PR practitioners have leveraged this unique opportunity. He pointed out that influencers may not have formal education nor have money, but they understand the dynamics of the local populace. It is this niche that PR practitioners in South Africa have managed to leverage. They have come to teach us that to stay relevant, the evolution of strategies and processes cannot be overemphasized.
2. Corporate Social Responsibility is Compulsory:
This is a lesson that ought to be learned, especially by big companies situated in local communities.
A firm commitment to corporate social responsibility has been the process through which PR practitioners have made inroads into the hearts of South Africans. Of course, there doesn’t exist a better group of people knowledgeable about cultivating a brand image than PR practitioners, which is what they’ve achieved by engaging in Corporate Social Responsibilities. Solly Moeng, who heads Don Valley, an outfit with the task of managing and rehabilitating reputation, stated that people want to feel a sense of kinship with brands. PR practitioners have understood this, and have thus worked to achieve this. A lesson everyone in the corporate space ought to learn.
3. Personal Strategies Work Best:
If we can learn just one thing from the success of PR practitioners in South Africa, it is that word of mouth communication works. Interpersonal communication strategies are mostly applied in Africa because of the communal nature of the African peoples. This feature is one leveraged by PR practitioners to bring about the success enjoyed at the moment.
Personal strategies include processes such as having a spokesperson communicate a company’s policies to the public even to text message exchanges. While text messages may seem more virtual than physical, it nonetheless makes use of personal relationships to achieve its aim.
The success of this strategy cannot be divorced from how organic it appears. When ordinary people engage in public relations themselves, they reach demography that may not have been persuaded otherwise. People do not like feeling like they are being conned; interpersonal strategies remove this obstacle. South Africa’s Minister of Communication echoed this when she reiterated that communities appreciate a hands-on approach by their leaders.
The ingenuity exhibited by the PR practitioners has made it that they utilized a feature popular in South Africa to ensure success for themselves. This is a lesson worth learning by anyone.
Reasons for Such a Success
There is no doubt that the PR practitioners in South Africa are making giant strides. However, a few things ought to be noted. There are some steps to be taken to enhance the practice of the profession further. Firstly, a lot of work has gone into improving the professionalism of PR practitioners, especially with their communication skills. The focus now should be towards replicating the same efforts in the area of business. A business-oriented approach should be the path pursued at the moment. PR practitioners ought to look for a way to integrate the business aspect with the professional aspect of the practice.
Furthermore, it does appear as though there is a low barrier to entry into the profession. While this is not entirely bad, helping as it does to increase the numerical strength of PR practitioners in South Africa, it comes with necessary consequences. Chief among those being the fact that while it improves the number, there is no equivalent increase in quality. Strict ethical codes should be enforced to make sure those venturing into the profession observe the highest form of ethics and professionalism.
Creating a cohesive system for the practice of the profession should be the next target. The standard practice now is to outsource several aspects of the PR process, ranging from the most basic designs to printing and so on. This practice is mostly based on the fact that a lot of South Africans focus on just one aspect of their career, without seeking to develop ancillary, but necessary, skills. If the entire process is brought home, it will help improve the skill sets of PR practitioners and increase output.
Bethany Langston is a blogger, a journalist at 99brides.com, and just an ambitious writer. She always enjoyed covering numerous topics from politics to relationships, so she decided to make writing her career.