New Technologies Changing Public Relations in South Africa

As South Africa makes economic and technological advances, both traditional and social media are playing a larger role in people’s everyday lives. Changes in media have influenced the way individuals are informed and interact with each other, both in business and in their personal lives.

To get some insight into the changes taking place in South African media and public relations practices, I interviewed Marie Yossava, founder and owner of Grapevine Communications in Johannesburg. She was able to give us an overview of the communications landscape in South Africa and some of the changes in communications the country and people have experienced.  The firm is the newest member of PR Boutiques International, an international network of boutique PR firms of which Bridge Global Strategies is a founding member.

Bridge Global Strategies: How has the media landscape changed in South Africa since you started the company?

Marie Yossava: Vastly! The media consisted exclusively of print and broadcast outlets when I first ventured into the industry. It has subsequently evolved to include global social networks, which open up communication channels to the world within seconds. It’s significant that individuals in South Africa can now own their own media outlets online – not just big media companies. The immediacy is revolutionary. South Africa, compared to developed economies, already had a much smaller base of media to start with, but those traditional media – in particular, print titles – have seen a decline with the explosion of Web 2.0 media.

Bridge: What is your strategy for reaching the different age groups in different parts of the country (urban versus rural areas, and young versus older age groups)?

 MY: It is very important to understand the media with which different segments of the market communicate in South Africa. We still have many older people in our country who are illiterate. To reach an older audience in rural areas, broadcast (TV and radio) remains a powerful and effective means of communicating key messages.  That said, the cellular market in South Africa has more than 100 percent saturation, and even the elderly have mobile handsets.  While the mobile functionality may be limited and won’t always include a web browser, Twitter, and other applications, people can send and receive calls and text messages.  SMS and mobile website (“mobisite”) campaigns are also effective communications tools in reaching certain segments of the market.

In our country’s urban areas, the youth are all connected to the internet and social media platforms via their mobile phones, which makes it easy to use communications campaigns to alert them to new products and transmit important information. Mobile platforms are ideal for capturing the attention of younger audiences and for pulling them through to other platforms, e.g. a new edu-tainment TV series, or interesting articles.

Bridge: Please tell us how social media and smartphones have infiltrated into the marketing mix and PR in the country.

MY: At the outset of the digital era, companies, brands and agencies were slow to adopt social media, but as more and more of the population consumes daily information via smartphones, organizations are more readily agreeing to let PR agencies include the use of social media in their PR strategies and to make it an essential tool for messaging.

Today, social media can be regarded as an additional and important vehicle PR agencies can use to communicate key client messaging, urgent press statements and announcements at a speed that cannot be matched by any other medium, not even radio. From the outset, however, social media needs to be aligned to the client’s communication strategy and goals, and not seen in isolation or as an afterthought. It is also important to understand that it requires regular content updates to gain a following, and decisive, quick responses to build credibility.

To cite an example, local commuters were recently stuck in an underground train when it broke down. With a simple tweet, the communications representative of the rail company could have informed passengers as to what had caused the delay and how long they could expect to wait. Even if only a few of the passengers were Twitter subscribers, the information would have soon spread through the train via word of mouth.

Bridge: What has your experience been being a woman in the PR business in South Africa? How is it different or similar from other countries?

MY: When I arrived in South Africa more than 20 years ago, things seemed very different from what I had experienced previously, working in London. However I have had the good fortune to experience the very exciting progress of the new economy that has occurred since the turning point of our new democracy in 1994, which has fast-tracked women and advanced their progress. So much so that South Africa is now fourth on the list of countries with the highest representation of women in parliament in the world.

Secondly, I operate in what remains a female-dominated business sector in our country, so there are no barriers to dealing with clients, and we are well accepted and regarded in the profession.  I also believe it is the responsibility of leaders in our industry to continually raise the bar for our profession if we are to be accepted at a senior board/management level and be part of organisations’ overall business strategies.

Bridge: My final question: how has apartheid affected communications and PR? How has the landscape changed to adjust to the political changes?

MY: I am not able to provide an informed comment as Grapevine was established post the apartheid era, so our business has always operated in an open and free market.  We also operate in a democracy with freedom of speech so our media channels are open and transparent.

Market opportunities for all races are equal in our industry and this is reflected by the number of black practitioners.  Public Relations Institute of South Africa’s (PRISA) current vice president is Mr. Aaron Ngema, and our immediate past president was Mr. Victor Sibeko.

Alexandra Huebner

Get Lucy Siegel’s book at Amazon!  “Public Relations Around the Globe: A Window on International Business Culture”

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