How African governments are changing the way they communicate

How African governments are changing the way they communicate

The shift from aid to trade and investment, coupled with rising public expectations, has set new communications challenges for governments across Africa.

Governments’ own domestic public will remain their top constituency, of course. Here innovation in public engagement and service delivery continues apace, whether it’s the widespread use of social media, Tanzania’s online mapping of water reserves to improve supply to villages, or Rwanda’s partnership with Visa to roll out mobile phone payment systems.

But change is also needed in reaching those that matter outside their border. Even a decade ago the priority was often seen to be attracting donor financing for health and education. It meant development correspondents automatically got first pick of the interviews with government ministers, even above domestic media outlets. International donor meetings went into busy diaries ahead of conferences on global trade agreements.

Today it is the investment climate or the ease with which goods cross their borders that is at the top of the agenda.  It is the views of Bloomberg or the Financial Times which carry most weight. An invitation to a banking conference takes precedence over a meeting with a visiting minister from a donor government.

It is easy to overstate the newness or the extent of this change. Trade, investment, remittances and tourism, alongside aid, have always been an important part of the international relations of governments in Africa. But it is clear that a steady rebalancing is underway. Those governments which do not adapt their communications to this new reality risk real damage to the long term growth of their economies and their wider ambitions.

Last month Ernst & Young’s Africa Attractiveness Survey which found a large gap between perceptions and reality underlined these dangers. Seven out of ten investors already working in Africa saw improvements in the business climate over the past year, while less than a third of those with no business presence perceived improvements. This was despite real progress reported by established third party assessments like the World Bank’s Doing Business Index.

Improving rankings in these major indexes has become a major and costly preoccupation for governments. But the truth is that these gains count for nothing if those thinking of investing or working in Africa for the first time do not know about them.

It is no coincidence that a simple Google search by country name shows the top five African countries in the Ease of Doing Business ranking have lively and user-friendly government-owned investment promotion websites on the first page.  A similar search for the bottom five countries generates only third party news and foreign government sites, with recent bad news stories or advice against travel. The government in each case has no presence at all.

In some instances there may be simply there is no good story to tell. But look for example at Kenya, the 10th best place to invest in Africa according to the World Bank. Their first page of Google search results gives you a mix of good and bad news from the Guardian and BBC, tourism websites, and the facts as the CIA’s World Factbook sees them. Only by clicking through the website of their Embassy in the US, at the bottom of the page, do you start to understand investment opportunities on offer.

So what do governments need to do differently? Whether they like it or not, Google is where most people new to a country form their first impressions. Narrowing the perceptions gap will require governments to build their own digital and social media platforms where these don’t exist, and to generate engaging written and visual content that rivals third party sites in quality and accuracy.

Their messages will also need to change. Attracting investment and trade means not just updating international audiences about progress towards Millennium Development Goals, but telling them how long it takes to get a business visa, how many flights go in and out of the capital city each day, and how their people’s skills and qualifications can help their business. Using communications to facilitate genuine engagement will be an important part of this. Governments need to be accessible when potential investors want to find out more, and informative in their response.

It requires the recruitment and training of skilled communicators to government, from those monitoring social media debates about the country to those who drive smart engagement with journalists in Beijing or London. It will mean building the right systems and processes to engage and respond nimbly. The lessons learned from decades of donor investment in civil service growth and reform to a government’s communications function will have to be applied, whether it is more political nous or more focus on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of getting systems working rather than overarching frameworks.

Tactically, potential investors, analysts and reporters must be encouraged to see the country first hand. It will mean going out and meeting them where they are too, whether it is in global investment hubs or at the growing number of meetings where governments get a speaking slot. Domestic and pan-African media must be taken more seriously since it is more likely than ever that a story on international newswires will originate in a domestic media outlet.

Across a vast continent the solutions will of course vary. But however they are applied in practice, making the case for more trade and investment is one of the best things a government in Africa can do to position itself for long-term growth that delivers real results for its people.

Laura Kyrke-Smith is an Associate Director at Portland. She was previously a speech-writer and policy analyst in the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office.