Africa’s Digital Growth Changes Public Relations Outlook

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Written by Dana Sanchez

Africa’s digital revolution is changing the public relations landscape, and several Dubai-based P.R. companies facing political instability in parts of the Middle East are opening offices in Africa, according to a report in TheNational.

Grayling Middle East plans to open two new offices in Africa including one in Angola.

“There is real interest in entrepreneurialism in Africa,” Loretta Ahmed, CEO at Grayling Middle East, told TheNational. “Smartphone penetration is incredible. Google is all over Africa in terms of supporting this (entrepreneurial) spirit and that is a great springboard into the market, giving businesses in Africa access to the wider world.”

Dubai’s Asda’a Burson-Marsteller recently opened an office in Kenya.

“There is a growing middle class across Africa and the continent is booming,” said Sunil John, CEO at Asda’a. “There are many opportunities for public relations and we are catering to them.”

P.R. agency Dabo & Co. has no plans to expand in Africa yet, but its clients have.

“We work with Nokia and Coca-Cola who are seeing tremendous growth in Africa and the reality is the U.A.E. is an incredibly important business hub to facilitate this growth,” said Jason Leavy, managing director at Dabo & Co.

The digital revolution is changing everything, Ahmed said. “The communications business is no more and is becoming more of a technology business. Everything has become about technology. It is the world’s enabler and for those growing up today it is normal. It is the older generation that needs to get it and think about it more because it’s not so intuitive.”

P.R. agencies are now having to focus on creating content for a variety of different channels – smartphones, tablets or TV.

“Everything is changing,” Leavy said. “Even those who historically didn’t believe in digital have had to accept this is the way the world is turning. Some can view it as a challenge and ignore it and some see it as opportunities and are reaping the benefits.”

This digital revolution has a “darker” side for businesses, TheNational reports. Facebook and Twitter have become outlets for customer complaints, highlighting problems that were previously the domain of customer relations departments.

“(Public relations agencies) are the ones dealing with crises,” Ahmed said. “They break on Twitter and Facebook. It has elevated P.R. at the management level; a lot of CEOs are worried about it. Some are on Twitter and have to be careful with what they say, but still have to communicate company values.”

It only takes one wrong tweet to devalue a company, TheNational reports. During the 2011 Egyptian uprising, billionaire Naguib Sawiris posted a picture of Mickey and Minnie Mouse covered up. The caption said this is what the Disney characters would look like if the Muslim Brotherhood came to power. Many Brotherhood supporters boycotted his telecommunications company Mobinil, which the company blamed for losses the
following quarter.

“We are seeing a lot of clients wanting to be crisis ready, from hacking of Twitter feed, product recall or some kind of disaster,” Ahmed said. “We regularly work with crisis scenarios, that is part of our offer we’re doing a lot of here.”

Globally, the public relations industry is valued at $11 billion, according to the world P.R. Holmes Report 2013, TheNational reports. It has grown by 8 percent since 2012. In the Middle East, the industry is estimated to be worth $500 million-600 million.

Globally, digital advertising exceeded $100 billion in 2012. The Arab region’s share was $175 million in 2011 – 4 percent of the total. This is set to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 35 percent from 2011 to 2015 and amount to 10 percent of total advertising spend by 2015, according to Deloitte, TheNational reports.