WEDNESDAY 10 MAY 2017 1:07 PM


In her guest lecture for the annual Maggie Nally Memorial Lecture 2017, CEO and chairman of Burson-Marsteller Africa, Robyn de Villiers, discussed the opportunities facing PR and communications practitioners across Africa, as well as how Burson-Marsteller is responding to the challenges of operating across such a diverse landscape. Here, de Villiers talks to Communicate magazine about the importance of localisation in African markets, navigating African political systems and how mobile technology could mean future success for Africa’s PR and communications industry.

Can you explain your role at Burson-Marsteller Africa?

I’m the chairman and CEO at Burson-Marsteller Africa, and I’m the founder of the business. As the CEO my role is to develop the strategy for how we’ll develop the Africa network and I think most importantly create strong partnerships with all the people we work with across the continent. Burson-Marsteller was looking for an agency to partner with in South Africa, but more importantly they were looking for coverage across Africa, and because I had developed what is still the biggest and the oldest, or most experienced in terms of working in local markets in Africa, so it was a good fit. It’s also been a good thing for our partners in Africa. So now there’s 36 countries in Africa where the Burson-Marsteller brand is available for everyone to see.

What can the African PR industry can offer the global PR industry? What insights can it bring to the PR industry?

Africa can teach the rest of the world you don’t necessarily have the same levels of activity from a technology point of view and therefore one-on-one engagement has always been very important in Africa and now, I think, the world, given the lower and lowering levels of trust there seems to be in communication. In Africa, it’s always been a thing that you sit together, you talk and you get to know each other and that in many ways makes for more effective communications. And it’s probably a lesson to the rest of the world that we should engage directly rather than being distant from each other and sending info backwards and forward via technology.

How does Burson-Marsteller negotiate the need for localisation across African markets?

Africa is not very strong from a regional point of view. Although we talk about the geography of east Africa and west Africa, the regions don’t really do that much together, although east Africa is probably the best example where countries are working out ways of doing things that will benefit the whole. But it really is country by country to a large extent and I think that’s an incredibly important thing, especially for multinationals and companies to understand – Africa isn’t one country, it’s 55 or 54 depending on how you count them. Localisation is incredibly important because there’s different languages and different cultures and if you really want to communicate with people, you have to communicate with them in a language that rings true to them. Using your global language isn’t necessarily the right thing to do.

What should multinational companies consider when trying to enter Africa?

Over the years, multinationals have started to understand that Africa is different from one country to the next. Clients are more likely and more willing to us saying we can create the content in one place but we need to check in with all the different countries to make sure that content will resonate with them. Simple things like translations you have to be careful of, because if you sit in Paris and translate something in French you’ll obviously end up with model French. But in Africa, it’s not necessarily used in the same way – something which seems completely clear in Paris might be misunderstood in Africa or understood in a different way.

How does mobile technology influence what Burson-Marsteller is doing on the ground across Africa?

I actually think mobile is going to be one of the most important things for the development of Africa because I have to say to a certain extent Africa was behind, but with mobile – even though access isn’t available to everybody – it’s a massive number of people in Africa who have mobile phones. So, it’s an increasingly wide network of people who have access to information and who you can communicate with. For me, mobile technology is a hugely positive thing and companies need to work out how to use it but not everybody has a job they can do using mobile. I really think that companies in Africa, even if they wouldn’t necessarily do it in other developed markets, should be thinking about how they can use mobile. And you have to be careful about not making an assumption that everybody will have a smartphone, because although the mobile penetration is huge, the smartphone penetration is smaller and the smartphone users would be better off economically and therefore have more than one phone so that they can make sure they have a strong network at any point in time.

But that can give you a huge view on how many people have smart phones, because it might be a smaller number of people with multiple smartphones. So in Africa it’s incredibly important to work out how you can do campaigns on phones that are not smartphones; people need to think about the SMS type of campaign and this can be hugely successful.

Does Burson-Marsteller play a role in helping foster CSR campaigns and initiatives?

Yes we do – there are a number of different ways in which we can help a client. If a client is wanting to start doing something from a CSR point of view and doesn’t have a particular organisation in mind, we can help them do research to get some evidence on what their competitors might be doing or people in the same geographic area, depending on what the brief is we can help them work out a programme for them to get involved with.

We can help them immediately to find partners and help with implementation in that area, and create partnerships because I think partnerships in emerging markets are incredibly important and what our coverage should be looking for. We can network them with relevant partners , we can help them make contact with the right government department as well. In Africa it’s important you don’t just do something on your own, that you speak to the right government department whether that’s local regional or national level, to make sure that what you’re going to is a fit with an overall objective and countries in Africa, the presidents and leaders have quite clearly laid plans in terms of what they’re doing.

What challenges does the intrinsic relationship between business and politics present to PR and campaign initiatives across Africa?

So what’s interesting for me is the political environment in Africa can often be a tricky one in the sense that things change probably faster than they do in more stable democracies or in democracies that are hundred of years old. I think in Africa, government relations is a relatively tricky thing in that you have to be talking to everybody and not be party political in a way – the corporate sector needs to make sure that it engages with all elements of the political spectrum, because you don’t want to be seen to be favouring one over another – that’s probably the same anywhere in the world – but also you want to make sure that you’re not just making relationships with one group of people because in the next election that group of people might change and then you might end up with no relationships. So being even-handed and taking into account different views is a very important thing.

Given the industry’s rapid pace of change, what are opportunities for PR and communications in Africa?

I think it’s a very exciting time to be in the comms profession. Because of challenges and reputation issues, there’s a broad focus on managing reputation which is very nice from a communications industry perspective because it’s where we can play a very meaningful role. I think government or public/private partnerships add a dimension to things that allows you to do government relations and stakeholder engagement and all those things, which is very nice from a PR practitioner’s point of view in Africa. And, obviously we have multinational clients coming into South Africa or other countries in Africa for the first time and we have experts and local people on the ground able to help them. So that makes our network interesting, because we really can partner on very interesting projects and give some very interesting and challenging work to our local people. This is good for Burson-Marsteller’s plans, and good for other people because they learn new things. It’s all part of getting better at what we all do.

Burson-Marsteller is a global public relations and communications firm operating in 98 countries, over six continents. Robyn de Villiers is CEO of Burson-Marsteller Africa.