An Insider Perspective to Africa's PR Scene
Interview with Adeline Sede and Sandra de Happi
For the launch of Sandra de Happi's #BlogGuest column, I had the delight of welcoming Adeline Sede-Kamga, a communications professional who is also the editor of the famous FabAfriq Magazine. I hope you enjoy reading our conversation about the pluses and minuses of the profession in Cameroon. Thanks again to Adeline, and check her out on her Instagram account.
SDH: How did you get started in the field of Public Relations, from the inception stage to finally becoming a consultant?
Adeline: It all started with the launch of FabAfriq Magazine, which I created in 2009. This project brought me into contact with many entrepreneurs. Some of them admired the work I was doing with my media, and they ended up asking me to organize events for them or come up with communication strategies for them.
A few years later, I returned to Cameroon. Here, it all started the day I went to drop off copies of FabAfriq Magazine to an advertiser, Ethiopian Airlines. The lady I was in contact with at Ethiopian Airlines made a remark that I could bring them a lot more, in terms of strategy, beyond merely the inserts. They liked the way I communicated with the magazine. So I kicked off my consulting business in Cameroon with Ethiopian Airlines, especially on social media. One thing led to another, then hotels and restaurants started approaching me to do the same for them. Later, banks, insurance companies, and companies in other sectors followed. Over time, I finally positioned myself in executive coaching and moved on to other countries - Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon, Senegal. That's how I've been in the business for over 15 years.
Honestly, I think my open and friendly personality has played a significant role in this. A consultant does not only share their opinion and expertise but also listens a lot before taking action.
SDH: You have had the opportunity to practice on two continents. How does the PR industry in Africa differ from mature markets like the US or Europe?
Adeline: In Africa, and Cameroon in particular, companies don't quite understand what public relation is. They think that it's a commercial service where money has to be traded or something they have to pay for. Elsewhere, it's not the same. I've worked with American and British clients, so I'll talk about those specifically. They look at what you've done before, who you've worked with, what your network is, and whether it's beneficial to them.
In Africa, you don’t even get a chance. Information relay is bought. Journalists, bloggers, influencers, etc... all of them. Yet in the context of PR, first of all, it is a question of seeing whether the information, the innovation, the event corresponds to your values or your editorial line as a relay. But as soon as they see "Press Release," they think "money." The difference between PR and advertising is not quite evident.
Another difference is that most PR professionals here focus a lot on events. But this is only one aspect of the field.
However, on a more positive note, people are beginning to understand that this is a vital practice. When there is a crisis, for example, people understand that they need to look for an expert, who would use the right words, the right images, and the right emotions to get the right reaction. In England, this is automatic. As soon as there is a problem or a crisis, we call in a crisis management agency without thinking.
SDH: And you, Sandra, do you share the same opinion as Adeline?
Sandra: Yes, these are common things and Adeline has summed it up perfectly. Elsewhere, we "Pitch". Here, there is no longer any difference between information and advertising. Everything has to be paid for.
And that even leads to other problems. For example, when a foreign client comes to do business on the continent, he doesn't understand why he has to pay his PR agency and then pay all over again to have his information relayed. To be honest, it may also be due to the precarious nature of the remuneration of media actors at home. Journalists and other relays are certainly trying to survive as much as they can through this way of doing things.
In terms of understanding what Public Relations really is, those who even understand the notion limit themselves to politics. It's when you have to work on an election campaign that people understand the importance of the message, image, and partnerships, etc. But in other areas, pretty less so than in politics.
Nonetheless, one thing is certain: things are changing with the growing need for personal branding. People are starting to care about their image, whereas before it was only a thing for celebrities.
SDH: Foreign multinationals started looking for new growth markets with the outbreak of the global financial crisis. Several foreign PR agencies have expanded their services to the African continent, following many of their clients. As an African, what do you think of this phenomenon?
Sandra: For me, it's positive. It's going to stimulate the market, push people to improve themselves, and why not, scare away the charlatans (laughs). My vision is that there is room for everyone. Everyone can come with their personal touch and embark on their own niche. As long as you play fair, there's no problem.
The downside, in my opinion, is that we always have to wait for others to come along and show us that it's important. I think this is a pity. We should be even more proactive.
SDH: And you, Adeline. Do you think it's for the best like Sandra?
Adeline: Absolutely. I have one concern: let them try to hire local talent. Sometimes they bring their entire staff from their home here. No. You have to give opportunities to the locals, make partnerships with African universities, and why not, offer internships and professional programs...
SDH: Despite the growth of the PR industry, recruiting and retaining talent with a local outlook still seems to be a problem. What has been your experience, or background, in finding the best young local PR talent?
Adeline: I have been recruiting talents in Cameroon since 2013. And honestly, it has been a great experience. The young people I have recruited have learned a lot and given a lot to my company. I have some who have worked with me for 5, 6, 7 years. It's true that when I look elsewhere, the employees leave much more quickly. So I feel grateful. But that was before.
Nowadays, it's much more difficult. All the young people today want to start their own companies and don't have the patience to wait any longer. The talent coming out of university wants to have their own companies. Maybe it's because of the internet and the opportunities that are available there now.
Sandra: I also have some recruits that I'm very proud of today. I'm thinking particularly of a couple of people I started with years ago, whose progress I've been impressed with. Concerning PR talent specifically, there is still this problem of understanding what exactly it is, and even when they've studied it, it's still in its infancy. There's not necessarily a place or opportunity to work in it. So, they'll do a bit of everything in communications and marketing, then those who know and master it, well, have their own businesses (laughs).
Adeline: Oh, that. And when you find some who are even available, they'll ask you for 600,000 FCFA a month. I'm like, okay!
SDH: A question for you two ladies to end this conversation. What is the bias or misconception that people regularly have about the job you do?
Sandra: "What do you do? I have a communications agency. Yes, but what do you do? ". Simple as that.
Another thing, people think is that there is not so much technicality in this job. A bit like artists. People don't always understand that there are processes, that there is a strategy, no. You get the impression that it's just "blah blah". There is no comparison with the way you would consider an engineer's job, for example.
Adeline: A friend of mine, who is one of the greatest videographers in Cameroon, sat down with me to ask me what I could do, what I could do for him, without posing any problems beforehand, nothing. But he wanted to know how I could be of use to him. In fact, people usually think of publicists as marketers.
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