Africa is rising.
Africa is corrupt.
Africa needs help.
Africa is at war.
Africa is starving.
Africa is rich.
Read each of the statements and think about what they signify, how do they make you feel? What do you want to do when you read each of these statements about the continent of Africa? As a British-Nigerian PR and communications specialist based in the UK you can imagine how often I see the narrative of Africa “at need” spun out across media channels. African development has been a lucrative business, making charities millions of pounds by spinning the “Africa needs help” narrative. Yet on the other hand members of the diaspora are desperately seeking to change perceptions, hosting countless conferences and seminars about “Africa Rising”, encouraging us to look beyond the negative and see the potential that the continent has. It often feels like these narratives are at war, battling to stay relevant and to remain visible.
Who is winning?
One would dare to say that the diaspora is gaining ground but the negative brand impact of “Africa is starving” still persists. Communications specialists across the continent and in the diaspora can make a difference, we are shaping messages and moving against the grain to change perceptions but there is still a lot of work to be done. There are still too few women in boardrooms across Africa and leaders of African nations are falling short on leading by example.
Communications and PR specialists as a whole need to be afforded the opportunities to work with influential and powerful leaders across the continent and must continue to counteract the negative press spin that The West persists on circulating. One of the most frustrating aspects of my role has been to educate members of the diaspora on what PR is. Whilst individuals begrudge how the media represents Africans in the West many do not understand the strategic communications process that goes into creating narratives. I urge African entrepreneurs and thought-leaders to use PR to empower and engage their communities and the press to enhance Africa’s development. They need to work with communicators to aid in shifting perceptions but more importantly encouraging tangible development across the continent.
We need to encourage transparency, accuracy and authenticity which means upholding communications integrity and calling things out even when it can be difficult to admit the truth. I stand by the value of being able to speak the truth in instances where the truth serves a purpose in development, for instance, there are clearly still poverty issues, drought issues, political corruption issues across the continent. We do need to work on sharing these stories in a way that will assert actual change across the continent. We also need to provide clear and balanced results perspectives on outcomes of initiatives and communications strategies that work and don’t work across the continent to ensure continual development.
Communicators have access to contacts and whilst it does take time it is paramount that we push forward in encouraging development and active engagement. This has to go beyond “how the western world views Africa as a continent” but must lead to results across all avenues. This means improved governmental communication, better corporate activity, enhanced platforms for individuals from disenfranchised communities. We have the power as PR communications specialists to really make an impact, now is the time to ensure that people take notice and that Africa develops beyond the Western Gaze.
Ronke Lawal, Founder of Ariatu Public Relations
This piece was originally written for Africa Communications Week 2017.