The Chief Executive Officer, Africa, Hill + Knowlton Strategies, Roz Thomas, was in Nigeria recently. In this interview, she spoke on the agency’s growth strategy in Africa and need for public relations practitioners to strive towards closing the perceived gap between Africa and the rest of the world. Raheem Akingbolu brings the excerpts:
How can you describe PR practice in Nigeria?
The PR landscape in Nigeria is getting a lot more sophisticated as people are beginning to see the value PR brings to the table. From FMCG to tech companies and financial services operators, more people in Nigeria now see PR as the only marketing tool that talks about their products and services and as well as addressing the specifics. With the feedback we are getting, many local companies are now approaching us to render services for them. Then unlike in the past years, more people are beginning to see the difference between PR and advertising. It is work in progress because as our clients are learning, we are also learning because if you tell me 10 years ago that we can have something like influencer marketing, I will find it difficult to believe but today we have influencers in all the market.
SMEs appear not to have been explored by PR companies in Nigeria. Are there approaches that can be taken to make them appreciate PR or do you think they can do without it?
I think what’s responsible for that is that when some people hear PR, the first thing that comes to their mind is the cash and money involved. SMEs, especially the startups fall in this category but at our firm, we have packages for them that can help their businesses grow. There are so many players in that space and serious ones need PR to be different and be in their consumers’ consciousness
H+K Strategies currently operates in eight African countries, is this a global strategy to build a Pan-African agency?
We are in Africa to serve many of our clients. Africa is one of the most strategic continents in the world today with huge opportunities for our clients. Knowing well the business opportunities in the continent, we appreciate the need for us to be vibrant here, which informs why we have operations in eight countries on the continent and we are still counting. What we have done at H+K is to have a strong presence at those segments where our clients operate. Primarily, we are in Nigeria, East Africa -Kenya and of course Egypt and other places. The strategy is to have a presence in the West, North and Southern regions of Africa. We are determined to cover these key markets, but we also have offices in other smaller markets on the continent.
You will agree with me that every continent has a specific peculiarity, what in your view are peculiar to Africa, especially Nigeria?
Yes, there are specific peculiarities, but I think there is still some practice ethos that is accepted globally that we still need to imbibe in the African market which we need to deepen. For instance, in terms of campaigns when they begin to make organic stories instead of all sorts of press releases. Besides, each market has different levels of public relations because the media relations works that we do in Africa is different from the one we do in other markets. In the same way, campaigns in other markets as I have stated above is different from that of other markets. Having said this, one key thing is that practitioners must be cautious about the local nuances in various markets. There must be a conscious effort to understand the norms and cultural lining of the market where you operate. At H+K, that is why we have always been careful in making use of those who understand various markets to man the affairs of our operations.
As a global agency, with tentacles in 80 countries, what has been the staying power of brand H+K and what has made it possible to maintain your global standard even in Africa despite the challenges?
There is no magic than the fact that we have experienced and great people in both local and international scenes to keep the standard. In Nigeria for instance, you will agree with me that we have great people who are deep in the practice of PR to keep up the tempo and maintain the standard. We are not a company that sells a product but we sell services and we must make sure that our service meets the expectation of our clients and able to position their businesses. Another major reason why we have been able to maintain the global standard across various offices is that we invest well in training. We believe in training our people on the new developments in PR and marketing.
How can the H+K’s global insight assist in closing the perceived gap between African and the rest of the world?
One, we believe in research as one of the ways to bridge the gap and that has always been the first approach anytime we are entering a new market, including Africa. Then we strive to know how to measure the success of what we do in those markets and its impacts on our clients’ businesses. Another thing we do to bridge the gap is an evaluation to know what problem is in a particular market that is serving as a stumbling block to the growth of our clients’ businesses. Again, the need to understand the local nuances comes in, as we make a strong effort to treat each country as an entity without applying general solutions across the board. We try to understand what is possible in a particular market and what is not possible.
Digital is a new world and is redefining the practice, how has H+K leveraged this in Africa?
Succinctly speaking, it is difficult if not impossible for any serious PR firm to operate successfully in any market without digital expertise. At H+K Nigeria, we have imbibed that into our operation by beefing up our digital and social media department. However, the approach and use of digital or traditional methods depend on the audience we want to attract. In Nigeria, we need a balance of both digital and traditional. We are aware that digital PR is trying to play a lot more but it’s a two-way thing as many clients still wonder if digital is going to work for them. In some cases, we try to educate our clients and let them see the values it could add to their campaigns.
With your submission, do you share the belief of those who see digital as a complementary tool and not a threat?
Yes, it is a complementary tool from any angle you look at it. Both traditional and digital approaches are out to address the same issues but through different means, depending on the demography and the audience one is targeting. If you look at the corporate world, some clients still want to see their stories in the newspaper and some want to see it both online and offline. Everything is about content development and dissemination to attract a targeted audience. Whether it is digital, traditional, broadcast, the most important is to pass the message across.
In many African countries, governments still face the problem of communication. Now, are there roles PR can play to help governments communicate their messages and programmes better?
Absolutely. Let me use South Africa as an example. Over the years, I have been involved in helping the government to work and communicate projects, policies, and programmes. Together with other professionals, we have played a key role in building a relationship between businesses and the government of South Africa and it has brought about a tremendous success. In Nigeria too, I think this is necessary to educate the masses in the best way on tax and government projects. With good communication, citizens will be delighted to pay tax when they know how it will help the government provide basic services like roads, schools, and health care. Again, one of the ways PR can come in is to help the government develop communication strategies and sustain it. It is not about issuing press releases but the communication of key messages in a way that would resonate with the target audience. PR practitioners are primarily storytellers but they professionally tell their stories that it would touch on key messages and programmes of government.
What have been the challenges and lessons learned so far, as H+K continues to build credible and stable connections across Africa?
To start with, let’s first appreciate the fact that the continent of African is big and alluring, more reasons why many companies of the world are looking in the direction, but there are variations from one country to another. One major challenge for us at H+K is to build a Pan-African client. At our end, we try to make sure the standard in each of the offices are maintained in a way that what client experience in South Africa and Kenya will also be experienced in Nigeria and other places because of all the interactions and leanings we share from time to time. We also believe in the application of global tools in all our markets with special regard for local nuances. One other lesson we have learned is to understand the different landscapes in a way that we can determine whether a particular story that flies with Nigeria can fly with South Africa and other countries on the continent.
With all that you have shared, is it possible for any business to do without PR?
Let me say expressly that it is not possible because every brand wants to talk to somebody out there. It could be a small number of people you want to talk to or a large number, and it could be youths or the elderly ones in the society. In that regard, PR remains the most effective way to do that. It is the most dependable and the most credible because it’s not advertising. You are building a profile and reputation for your company and it has to be done credibly. There is a huge difference between advertising and PR but when it comes to building a reputation, PR is the answer.