With great economic opportunity comes a herd of public relations companies. Africa’s booming economies are attracting multinational PR firms and Kenya is rapidly becoming the hub for operations.
“This is an indication that we are seeing more businesses coming into the region,” says Sam Karanja, an executive member of the Public Relations Society of Kenya. “It’s also very good because it opens up our people to better skilling, better opportunities.”
In the last two years, Kenya has welcomed three multinational firms: Weber Shandwick, Havas International and The Brand Inside.
On July 3rd, the latest multinational opened its doors for business: Engage Burson-Marsteller. This pushes the total number of registered agencies in the country to forty.
Burson Marsteller (B-M) is one of the largest PR firms in the world and has offices and affiliates in 98 countries. It is a subsidiary of WPP, the giant British advertising and marketing agency.
WPP already has a stake in a number of Kenyan communication companies, including Scangroup Limited and Ogilvy. Coming into Kenya is part of a wider African strategy. B-M launched offices in South Africa in 2011 and is now in Nairobi looking to penetrate the sub Saharan markets.
“The Kenyan PR market is better developed than other African countries, but it’s still behind the rest of the developed world,” says Robyn de Villiers, the chairman of Engage Burson Marsteller.
Nairobi was chosen, according to a B-M press release, for its “well-educated human capital, thriving service sectors and a developing middle class.”
From offices at Village Market, B-M will offer a variety of services including crisis management, opinion research and corporate social responsibility.
Desiree Gomes, a managing partner at Engage B-M and a long time PR practitioner in Kenya, is excited about the company’s potential.
“I’ve worked in this market for so long and there is no way of measuring success,” says Gomes. “Here’s an opportunity to do good work and measure it with B-M’s evidence based technique in place.”
The addition of Gomes as a managing partner is consistent with B-M’s practice of hiring local practitioners to lead the company in new territories. PR firms are an essential part of any industry, but they often operate in an ethical grey zone.
On one hand, PR firms help build brands with catchy slogans and appealing ad campaigns. They can also help combat misinformation circulating in the public domain. For example, after the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the shrimp industry suffered heavy financial losses.
The waters where shrimp were harvested were largely outside the oil-affected areas and an effective PR campaign helped to restore consumer’s faith in the product.
On the other hand, PR firms are notorious for working with corrupt governments and scandal-ridden companies to help “massage the truth.” Using the same BP oil example, a PR campaign was initiated by BP to convince the public that the spill was under control and that business was back to normal. The truth was much more complex and many locals called the campaign propaganda.
The recent Kenya Airways saga in Greece after one of its plane was involved in an emergency landing and the subsequent PR in handling of the passengers and information flow greatly dented the airlines image. In the past, B-M has operated in a similar grey zone.
In August 2012, American political commentator, Rachel Maddow, described the company with these harsh words: “When evil needs public relations, evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial.”
The company’s sketchy past led UK activist group, Corporate Watch, to dub B-M one of the “most reviled due to its mercenary attitude in choosing clients and contracts.” Engage Burson Marsteller is adamant that this is, and never was, its intention.
“We’re here to tell the truth,” says de Villiers. “Our job is to tell people, ‘Yes, it has gone wrong, what can we do to engage with stakeholders and build up trust again?’”
Jeremy Galbraith, Burson Marsteller’s CEO for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, thinks corporate deception is a thing of the past.
“I think you just can’t get away with it these days,” he says. “There is too much media spotlight, too much going on online.” “Our role is not controversial. We help the public when they desperately need to understand what is happening,” he added.
The Public Relations Society of Kenya fully supports the arrival of B-M. “Any company in the world has a history,” says PRSK executive director Sam Karanja. “The thing is if they’ve learnt from those debacles.”
“For us, it’s a clean slate,” he added. B-M has no plans to work with the Kenyan government, but isn’t ruling it out.
“We don’t intend to touch politicians here,” says Gomes. “But, if it’s about stakeholder engagements, we will take it on. We don’t take sides or take affiliations with any party.”
All B-M affiliates are subject to WPP’s code of ethics. One requirement is to never “undertake work which is intended or designed to mislead, including in relation to social, environmental and human rights issues.”
Not everyone in Nairobi is convinced that this will be possible. “Many companies are avoiding compliance with our environmental regulations,” says Njoroge Karanja, the executive director of the Centre for Environmental Action. “[B-M] will have a lot of clients because a lot of people are doing bad things.”
“We have to be careful that we do not encourage people who do not tell the truth and who will be used to turn the untruth into something palatable,” he added.
Muthui Kariuki, the official spokesman for the Kenyan government, will be monitoring the new multinational PR firms closely. “Anybody practicing PR in the country must get accredited by the Public Relations Society of Kenya,” says Kariuki. “The government keeps a very close eye on anybody wanting to practice any profession in this country.”
The arrival of B-M will increase competition in Kenya’s PR world. But, not everyone is opposed to its arrival. “They’re welcome in town,” says Caesar Handa, the CEO of Strategic Africa, a Nairobi based PR firm. “It will increase competition, but sometimes that brings better efficiency.”
As Kenya’s continues to experience rapid economic developments, there is no sign of the PR parade slowing down anytime soon.
“Change tends to be good for PR because you need to communicate more,” says Galbraith. “We see Kenya as a very promising long term market.”