Is Kenya's PR machine entering its golden age?

It’s still morning in Kenya’s PR industry. Photo by XN Iraki.
We recently cited psychology as one of the growth areas. This is as the economy advances and more Kenyans suffer from economic stress resulting from competition and a shift to materialism. 

The other growth area is public relationships (PR).

That used to be the domain of big corporations. Now, even political parties and individuals have joined the bandwagon.

Political parties have PR departments manned with spin doctors. Even hospitals and educational institutions have PR departments.

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It’s a growth area across both public and private sector, across manufacturing and service sectors. We counted over 60 PR firms in Kenya.

Globally, the big four PR firms are Omnicom, IPG, WPP and Publicis which account for about 31 per cent of the overall global PR market, says Arun Sudhaman in Holmes Report of 2017.

Soft issues

Which are Kenya’s big four in PR? We follow the West very fast, starting with attire, music, technology and finally their soft issues like PR. So what is driving PR growth in Kenya?

One is information overload. How do you manage information from so many sources?

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How do you leverage on all that information to your advantage? How do you manage fake news? Branding is another driver. Managing firm or individual images is hard work and it pays to be proactive.

Think of Volkswagen after the disclosure of emission cheating or Takata after airbags scandal. Branding often helps you position your product or service in the mind of the consumer. PR can help one anchor the brand into the mind of consumers. It is not the same as advertising. There is a connection between information overload and branding.

More information means more risks to the brand.

When we only had the radio, brand management was easy. 

If there was a problem with one buyer, it was isolated.

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Today, everyone will know about it. The social media is often more effective in spreading bad news than good news. 

Interestingly, PR is growing because of our “ignorance.”

Despite all the information available to us through the net and other channels, we have no time for in-depth research.

Shareholders value

That makes it easy for misinformation and rumours to spread while stereotypes persist. This can affect the shareholders’’ value.

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In cases like Takata, it led to bankruptcy. Think of how disinformation can sink a bank or political leadership.

Now you know why politicians prefer written speeches.  PR is also growing for a bad reason; to cover our inadequacies and mislead the public.

Lots of institutions and firms have two images, the public image, and the private images. 

Both are diametrically opposite. For monopolies and firms that enjoy information asymmetry, PR is the weapon of choice.  Monopolies can tell outright or pseudo lies because they know customers have no choice.

Firms with more information than their customers can use PR to cover failures. If a patient dies because of a doctor malpractice, the hospital has more information than the public and can easily spin it. 

If a school is not serving the students’ needs, it can create excuses including parenting, State, or even ghosts.

Dictators keep blaming foreign agents for their failures. 

PR is often used as a first aid by firms in crisis before they get a substantive solution to their problems. It should not be the final cure.  Popular tools for PR include press statements, speeches, blogging etc.

Firms use either PR agencies or have internal PR departments. Outsourcing PR is popular among big firms. Use of spokesman or publicists is popular with celebrities and high-net-worth individuals. The next frontier in PR is the use of data.

Artificial intelligence or just statistics can help us analyse human behaviour for patterns and trends. It seems George Orwell’s famous book Nineteen Eighty-Four often written as “1984” was not that farfetched. It seems no profession no matter how soft including PR can escape the tyranny of data.

Students should start liking maths. You recall Cambridge Analytica? Whether in the public or private sector, PR should not be used to evade responsibilities or to cover up our failures. PR should be one of the foundations on which great firms, nations and individuals are built. Good PR or reputation should be built on truth and reality.

 Efficient market means lies and pseudo-truths will be exposed no matter how long it takes and subsequent effect on the financial health of the firm.

Let also accept a fact; lots of people have been bad PR practitioners through telling lies to save face since childhood.

Yet truth would have been a better option.  The future of PR in Africa is clear, “digital innovation will continue to play a critical role in allowing businesses to be better informed and manage their reputation and associated issues or crises in a more streamlined manner.” Says Sharon Piehl in 2017 PR report. 

Finally, should I become a spin doctor and ride on the crest of the PR wave?

Lots of former journalists are now in PR which makes me suspect grass is greener on the other side of the fence.

What’s the truth?  Hope this piece was not about PR on PR.

 -The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi  

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