Public Relations practice in Africa has come of age, occupying the core of relationship management between public departments and the general public they cater to. Whether the PR ‘face’ is up to the task is an entirely different issue altogether. Different, pertinent and somewhat worrying, public relations at the heart of Africa’s public sector is still saddled with peculiarities, most of which are neither complimentary nor flattering.
The majority of Africa’s 55 countries have active public sectors which provide basic government services to their sovereign citizenries. With a representation cutting across board, it is not uncommon anymore to find a dedicated public relations unit or department in, say, a law enforcement parastatal like the police. This is definitely a welcome departure from the one-man-battalion, ‘official spokesperson’ that obtained decades ago.
This is a guest post from Adedamola Jayeola (@drjayePR), a public relations professional who writes from the University Of Cape Coast, Ghana. If you find this post of value, please go to the PR blog homepage and share it through Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn – or make a comment at the end of the post. Thanks in advance!
Finally, the general public has a ‘face’ to Government, one they can forward queries to and demand answers from or, depending on the scenario, throw flowers at or pellet with eggs,..
Public relations departmental structure
Whoever said bureaucracy was “a tool for converting energy into solid waste” was not being economical with the truth. Most public sector PR units, labelled as “Public Affairs/Communication Offices” are modelled as ‘Service Bureaus’, and I do not mean that in a theatrical way.
The scenario is one where a single department is broken down into several clone units which are basically replicas of each other. It is therefore not unusual to have a ‘Public Affairs Department’ with offices/units like ‘Public Relations’, ‘Protocol’, ‘Media Relations’, ‘Community Affairs’, ‘Alumni Relations’, etc. all existing separately without cohesion or synergy.
In most cases, the majority of these clones are autonomous and work with different budgets. What you get is a replication of duties and the duplication of responsibilities.
Welcome to the ‘Bureau’!
Operational challenges in African PR
With a background as described above, problems are in regular occurrence. Discrepancies revolving around the utilisation of resources, all traceable to a lack of coordination are quite the order of the day. More often than not, very important and essential issues are ignored while much ado is paid to the trifling and unnecessary.
It is heartbreaking to still witness a lot of communication and public relations officers, purportedly ‘doing stakeholder management’, either go incommunicado in times of crises or emerge to chant the “No Comment” phrase, in an age where Google is providing comments by the second and is busy telling the world what you had for breakfast.
Content management and online communication
Online content and information management faces considerable hitches as there is still no synchrony between content managers and the IT units. Most online content managers have no administrative access to department websites and ‘submit’ information to be uploaded.
This also spills into offline content where not enough review and editing is undertaken before information is released. It becomes embarrassing to find spelling and grammatical errors in a government parastatal’s official gazette or on a website that is not up to date.
Social media and web 2.0
For what is fast becoming the ‘unannounced’ best practice for the profession, social media integration is still quite low at this level. ‘Social media engagement’ would then mean having a chat with old friends and former school mates on Facebook and uploading fancy pictures during work hours, even when client/customer requests or service demands, albeit on the same platform, are left pending and often ignored.
The unit director is probably the only one with a LinkedIn profile which was created a decade ago for him by the guys in the IT department on a budget of 200 dollars for a non-premium account. In 2013, where news breaks on social media some 72 hours before it gets on print, media monitoring is being done via a stuffy print library, on a radio with a huge ball tuner and a large TV set that will pass as e-waste.
Twitter? Don’t even go there.
Projects, especially events, suffer poor coordination and those contracted to management companies are not well supervised by the in-house team. Units with well manned events/ceremonial teams are confidently corrupt and would argue for an inflated budget. In some cases, the PR department is expected to automatically key-in to ‘committee arrangements’ they were never even briefed about.
What could be tougher than trying to fulfil unknown objectives? Expecting a work breakdown structure or a post-event analysis/assessment report is an exercise in futility. You see, it is all about the party, not the day after.
The call to action for best practice public relations in Africa
All the same, for someone with a private sector bias, maybe I am just downplaying the might of the all powerful Public Service ‘drudge-bug’ which could have well bitten the profession in the neck. Or it could just be true that, aside from these 55 states (UN figure), these same peculiarities draw similarities internationally. There are more possibilities one must not overlook. However there is but one universal truth, which is that activity is still not a synonym for productivity.
For public relations in Africa’s public sector to be done right:
- the focus must shift from ‘clocking in’ to putting some soul in the job
- PR departments and professionals must incite a collective responsibility and start ‘owning’ their careers to stop ‘living’ the job
- It has to start meaning more than a meal ticket, raises and bonuses, holiday entitlements, estacode or retirement benefits.
In getting the job done the conscience question must be answered. The piper must muster more confidence even if it is for a suggestion of the tune to be played.
Social media is definitely making press agency more irrelevant, beckoning all and sundry to reality, literarily. In a bid to solve unemployment, African Governments must be careful not to start cloning responsibilities just because it is ‘the public sector’.
More justified and accountable funding for PR departments should be provided. Project management methodologies should be adopted to ensure finesse is applied to projects.
Only then can we start proving we are up to the task.
African Governments must realise that public relations professionals are not bodyguards, personal assistants, pimps or escorts (yes, you read that right).
PR professionals are perception managers, issues and crises managers, brand strategists and communicators, stakeholder and project managers. Hopefully, cross-continental industry associations like the African Public Relations Association (APRA) can begin to exert enough influence to ensure professionalism is entrenched across the board.
According to the report from the ePractice Workshop of the European Commission Information Society and Media (Public Services 2.0) held in Brussels, 2009, “Governments are now faced with a challenge to their previously uncontested power. They must manage changing relationships with an increasingly demanding public, better able than ever before to voice views, concerns and wants”.
In order to meet these challenges, Africa’s public relations practitioners in the public sector must brace themselves and heed the call for professionalism and global relevance.
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