OPINION | PR communications in Zimbabwe: A practice under siege

By Archie Mathibela

Fewer professions have been reviled and celebrated in equal measure as the practice of Public Relations. Those who know its value celebrate it for the goodwill it creates for their brands, even as cynics discount it as a mere propaganda tool. 

Lately, the profession has been inundated with fly by night opportunists touting themselves as experts on account of a coterie of social media cheerleaders. This scenario has muddied the waters in the professional PR space so much so that many meaningful conversations around best practices, standards and any other issues of interest to the profession have taken a back seat.  

Practitioners also have a share in the profession’s waning fortunes. Whilst some raise genuine concerns about bureaucratic red tape and gate keeping tendencies, a collective ‘killer instinct, hustle and true grit’ of enterprise seems glaringly lacking in our numbers. Those who get ahead often show no scruples for bureaucracy and often land the choicest gigs ahead of respected colleagues. 

But, surely these are desperate times, should PR still play by the same rules? Yes. If we are to separate the forest from the trees, ethics should remain the true north of beyond reproach. Practitioners should be guided by the constitution and code of ethics of their professional bodies for clients to take our work seriously. 

In the last two decades, the role of PR has come under even greater scrutiny in both the public and private sector. As roles overlap due to technology, PR is taking to the back burner, overtaken by TV, radio, advertising, and digital marketing.

In fact, Public Relations practice has been under siege for years in academia and industry alike. Declining interest in the discipline and subsequent lack of influence speaks to the many missed opportunities in Zimbabwe as a country and the wasted decades in the political arena which continues unabated.

More and more, both in-house and agency public relations professionals feel that they are being aligned to Marketing departments. Corporate organisations are starting to position PR as a department under Marketing. PR departments continue to be accused of propagating propaganda with global reputation agencies put on the spot for pushing negative narratives amongst other charges.

Meanwhile, our educational system still churns out graduates in their thousands into an environment that is not ready for them; nor they for it.  There is a proliferation of fake news and the strengthening of the western supremacist agenda which portrays Africa as a land of pestilence and hunger with half naked natives and wild animals to drive the narrative of a backward and inferior people. It’s the generation of our technologically savvy and young people that has the potential to redeem us – Africa is poised to be the youngest content in history with 65% being in the youth bracket. So, how do we integrate their skills to change this paradigm?

Here is a thought. Whilst Africans are proud of their heritage, present Africa also has gleaming cities and metropoles that are rising up daily. Yet, these stories are underreported to propagate the storyline of Africa as a laggard. In reality, the capacity to tell captivating stories about Africa lies in PR. Moreso, because PR is a specialty hard hat area best suited for communicators with intimate knowledge of their communities to counter the barrage of fake news and narratives. 

The most urgent question then becomes, what will practitioners do to safeguard the relevance of PR and communications and better align it with our development priorities? It’s really simple, Africa’s most discerning brands with Governments in tow, should throw their weight behind PR professionals to ensure their stories are accurately told. It’s time to put ample trust and confidence in our locals who the only culturally savvy and sensitive option to building goodwill and understanding. The deep seated local knowledge in our DNA enables us to capture the true essence which is a unique selling point for our people. 

Public Relations is about telling a compelling story, and that opportunity lies in every facet of human endeavour today – economics, education, entertainment, politics, labour, law religion, sex and war. A case in point is the Rwandan story. The East African country is making headlines for its business friendly and proactive policies. Amongst a host of positive things including I.T and mobile penetration, is also the story of the world’s biggest oil refinery being built in Nigeria by the Aliko Dangote group. Ethiopia is also on the rise leading the way in transport infrastructure and other projects. In SADC, Botswana, Zambia and Namibia have commenced works on the Kazungula Bridge that will improve trade in the region.

In the past 5 months, Zimbabwe, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs signed two very lucrative contracts with American based lobbyists to curry favour with Washington. Whilst, within the broader world political relations dynamics, there is an argument to be had about what Zimbabwe is trying to achieve, more needs to be done in concert with local human resources. We have a conflict within ourselves about how to use our local talent as an avenue to economic emancipation. If we had confidence in our story and our people’s infinite capacity to tell it, the second rate opinions of supremacist cultures would not faze us.

Public Relations can no longer afford to be shy.  Its time PR did PR for itself too. We must practice affirmative action at all costs because PR is the salt and curry in the stew. It is the essence of every sector’s existence. It is the foundation; all-encompassing. PR should find itself at the core of all human endeavour from politics to religion and economics to the arts. As such, Governments need to be seen leading from the front, as the biggest spenders in the economy by proactively adopting a policy of empowering locals first. This means that whatever engagements, Government should work with local practitioners who are best placed to articulate the national agenda as ambassadors of national pride.

If local PR experts are engaged, the costs are less, the feedback loop becomes shorter and cultural differences minimized. Certainly, a content, more prosperous citizenry is a joy to lead. From hindsight, more experienced public relations and communications professionals should come together to share their experiences and reflect together on major issues affecting the profession. A full bouquet of resolutions featuring leading educators, researchers and thought-leaders provides a unique opportunity to engage professionals, academics and students from across the divide in the key challenges facing the profession. 

Practitioners have wide personal networks that they can lean on should the need arise. Time and again, this strategy has proved progressive because of the specialized nature of public relations. It’s an art, it cannot be replicated by untrained minds. Its time PR started doing the necessary PR work for itself. We are not doing nearly enough to stay ahead of the game. It’s time to bring the big guns out! 

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Archie Mathibela is a PR Consultant with JUNECHILD Corporate Communications, a converged Public Relations and Marketing communications agency providing PR Communications services to the Private Sector, Government and Civil society. Contact him for all PR and Marketing communications related solutions on joonechild@gmail.com.

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