Public relations practitioners in Zimbabwe for the first time joined the rest of Africa to celebrate the second edition of Africa Communications Week commemorated from 21 to 25 May. The aim was to stimulate debate around the role of public relations and corporate communications in the revival of the Zimbabwean economy.
By Thandolwenkosi Nkomo
Under the theme, “Economic Integration in Africa: Opportunities for Communicators”, Africa Communications Week brought the spotlight on Public Relations as an integral part of economic transformation on the continent.
In Bulawayo, where members of the Zimbabwe Institute of Public Relations (ZIPR) gathered for a panel discussion, it was an opportunity for PR practitioners, the business community and media practitioners in Zimbabwe to engage on the prospect of a new corporate and national narrative that supports economic turnaround at national and grassroots level.
The discussion on the role of public relations and business news in positioning Bulawayo as an investment destination called for new narratives about businesses in Zimbabwe and about the country, narratives that celebrate the talent and business potential that exists locally and position such businesses as investment options for international investors.
It is good fortune that such a discussion has come on the backdrop of the ‘Zimbabwe Is Open for Business’ campaign aimed at repositioning Zimbabwe as an investment destination. State President Emmerson Mnangagwa has left no stone unturned in trying to ensure that this new narrative about Zimbabwe is shared with the rest of the world as a means of inviting the world to rethink about what Zimbabwe is and what it stands for.
It must be emphasised that efforts towards a new national economic narrative cannot be left to the president’s office alone, but must be supported by corporate and media players, among other stakeholders.
In the corporate world, public relations practitioners are key in ensuring that businesses tell stories about themselves and about the Zimbabwean economy that stimulate interest in potential investors to bring their money into the country.
With the growth in the international recognition of corporate storytelling as a driver of brand visibility and engagement, Zimbabwean businesses are not to be left behind. Zimbabwean businesses must inspire the imagination of investors and consumers through telling stories that celebrate innovation, talent, passion, and commitment for the betterment of ordinary people in Zimbabwe.
This is what corporate entities in Europe and the Americas are doing in their recognition of the importance of storytelling in the reconstruction of corporate and national narratives.
A simple investigation into the drivers of international brand recognition and consumption amongst Zimbabweans will indicate that it is the stories of success, passion and drama surrounding such international brands, that drives locals to subscribe to them.
In the context of the ‘Zimbabwe Is Open for Business’ and the ‘Buy Zimbabwe’ campaigns, it simply means that unless local businesses tell creative, positive and even nostalgic stories about their brands, they will struggle and even fail to strike a responsive chord amongst potential investors and consumers at large.
To avert this, it means every serious business must invest in corporate storytelling, and the starting point is to ensure that not only trained public relations practitioners are employed, but that such practitioners are empowered and equipped to create and share corporate narratives.
This means a total re-imagination of the role of public relations and corporate communication within the business strategy.
At the national level, it also means a serious investment in a national brand positioning strategy that tells authentic stories about our aspirations as Zimbabwean people and businesses.
Commitment to such a strategy was exhibited by the Office of the President and Cabinet’s stand at this year’s Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF) where plans for provincial branding strategies were unveiled to attendees of the show.
Provincial branding will certainly feed into the broader national brand narrative and for it to be a success, a multi-sectoral storytelling approach needs to be championed. To this end, national and provincial brand ambassadors or story tellers are a must and should come from the diversities of communities and industries.
Furthermore, these ambassadors and storytellers must be coached to ensure that what they say and do correctly and confidently projects the new narrative of doing business in Zimbabwe.
The role of the media in this matrix cannot be left unchallenged. As media scholars have highlighted in the past, the media is window through which the world can view what is happening in Zimbabwe.
The effectiveness of this window depends, however, on several factors, such as, ownership and control of the window, the angle of the window, the transparency of the window and the accessibility of the window.
The media plays a crucial role is setting the agenda for corporate and national narratives. Through the tone and angle of headlines and lead stories, images about Zimbabwean businesses and the country at large are projected to the world with either positive or negative connotations.
If the media is to be worthwhile partner in the re-imagination of brand-Zimbabwe, there will be a need for deliberate effort in providing access and space to economic, social and cultural players to share more positive content about the Zimbabwe.
This will come as a litmus test for the media economy which proverbially thrives on the “No News is Good News” mantra which often means that bad news about sex, crime and scandal is generally good to drive media sales.
The flip side of this is that positive news positioning of business and the country at large will result in positive inflows of tourists and investors, promotion of business and consequently, increased spending on media by businesses.
While the curtain has come down on Africa Communications Week, for Zimbabwe it is still the dawn of an era of opportunities to shape a new corporate and national narrative. At the heart of this narrative will be passionate and creative corporate communicators working synergistically with business leaders, politicians, social and cultural leaders and the ordinary man and woman on the street.
l Thandolwenkosi Nkomo is a public relations researcher and strategist who lectures in the department of Journalism and Media Studies at the National University of Science and Technology. He is currently pursuing doctoral studies with the University of South Africa. He is also the president of the Zimbabwe Institute of Public Relations Bulawayo Chapter. He can be contacted at e-mail: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org