One forum participant, Stuart Thomson, Head of Public Affairs at BDB Pitmans, who is to speak in the "Communication, Marketing and Elections: The Great Media Hold-Up?" panel believes that Africa currently suffers from poor media coverage and needs to funnel money into improving its reputation.
Sputnik: According to Charles Moumouni, a professor of communications at Laval University, a positive image of Africa is a rarity in the Western media. Experts agree that the image of the continent is most often painted in apocalyptic colours: reports of droughts, famine, deadly diseases, inter-ethnic wars, political instability, corruption, and so on predominate. Why is this necessary for the European media? Who or what benefits from this?
Stuart Thomson: The coverage of foreign affairs generally is pretty poor, and domestic affairs [as well], especially when there are so many issues in Europe; as I’m now based in the UK, I’m in Europe at the moment. From my own perspective, here, the only story that has dominated the media for three years has been Brexit. Little else, even domestic, has received much attention, let alone what’s going on outside the country, maybe a few European capitals outside of that. There are few viewers or readers to be gained from a story that says an African country has done well or is doing well.
Therefore, it has to be something that catches the attention, such as the issues that you’ve mentioned. The unfortunate point is that it reinforces the same impression as well. I think my suggestion would be that African countries need to invest in developing their reputation and help educate audiences across Europe; it has to be their own advocates. I think if they do that, they can overcome some of those negative misconceptions and some of the problems that the professor, I think, rightly pointed to.
Sputnik: Will the UK change the angle of how it covers the African continent due to Brexit and due to its need to find a new market for its goods?
Stuart Thomson: I think the answer to it will be yes. As you rightly say, post-Brexit the UK will be looking for international trade deals, new markets, new ways to export, new places to invest and likewise new investors into the UK as well. And if there are those opportunities across African countries, I think the UK will be only pleased – especially given the historical connections to a lot of countries across Africa as well – to take advantage of those existing relationships that maybe hadn’t been as well developed over the last few years while the emphasis has been on Europe. But looking forward, absolutely. I mean, a lot of emphasis has been so far on Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada and others; but I think that Africa is very much in that mix as well. So, you’re right, as a way of [finding] opportunities and changing perceptions, I think Brexit is a brilliant opportunity for African countries, definitely.
Sputnik: What guarantees should be put in place to ensure more diverse media and media coverage in society?
Stuart Thomson: Some people would point to regulations, but I don’t believe there should be a rush towards regulations or more laws, but that might be part of the mix. Social media can play a really valuable role in ensuring the plurality of media; and I’m the one who really enjoys having media from across the world on my smartphone from my own home, so I can get access to much more, and more diverse, information. I am pretty sure that level of access isn’t enjoyed everywhere, not least because there’s a lack of connectivity in a lot of places as well, so that’s the challenge that has to be overcome. But I think that maybe rather than just speaking about what the media can or cannot say and do, the emphasis should be placed on connectivity and allowing people’s access to a broader range of media domestically, from across Africa and across the rest of the world as well.
Sputnik: The Ebola epidemic in West Africa began in Guinea in February 2014 and continued until December 2015, moving beyond the country and spreading to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Spain, and the United States. Among the populations of many countries in the Western world, real panic set in and misinformation began to emerge. How responsible were African countries themselves in covering the issue? What mistakes did both the Western and African sides make? What can the world’s media do to avoid repeating such mistakes?
Stuart Thomson: This is a hugely complex issue; a lot of it I’m taking particularly from the communication perspective. We have to learn the lesson from this […]; and people such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) tried to do that, and also to learn from similar situations around the world. That would be the first thing that, frankly, we should all do, but particularly the countries themselves. There is WHO advice out there right now, which focuses not just on getting information to the right audiences, but considers the emergency measures that need to be put in place on the ground as well as in the neighbouring countries.
That’s part, I think, of a reassurance message; and that’s part of providing the answers that the people are asking [for], and then showing that steps are being made and are being taken. Preparation for the African countries I think is absolutely the key. But it’s the sad truth that the more such things happen, the more we can learn, the better prepared we can be logistically on the ground but also in terms of communications when they happen again. But again, it also comes back to reputation as well, how the crisis that’s dealt with plays into the misconception about how the African countries operate and are run. The better these issues can be dealt with, the less likely those scares towards which you rightly pointed to will be believed if a crisis happens. It shows that the countries themselves can cope, they cooperate with each other, that they work well with outside bodies, such as the WHO; and that all of those different and diverse components mean that crises can be successfully managed.
So, there’re lots of elements to that, the media, but also the ways countries operate as well; but if they can do that and if they learn – not just from that but other international endemics and crises, – then we will be better prepared, I think. As for mistakes, I think the media love a good scare story. Whether that was the lack of preparation or perception of the lack of preparation, or [they’re] not talking to each other, the trouble is that you never know whether these things are true or not. And a large part of that is down to communications. So, the more local populations are reassured, the more international audiences will be reassured as well.
Again, you can’t separate these things out; but I would very much look at those who are messaging about that and directly rebuff some of the lies, some of the misconceptions and the scare stories themselves. Whether that was done enough or not is very difficult to say; I’m placed in London so it’s very difficult for me to comment on that. I think those are certainly the things that I would be looking at happening and doing in future. But again, it comes back to that point about the reputation of a country. If it’s one of the well-operated, well-run, cooperative places, effectively the scare stories just won’t run as well because they’ll grind, they won’t seem true because the reality, as we all know, is the cooperation and the working together. That’s what the populations will think of; so when a scare story comes along, they just simply won’t believe it. So, there’s the preparation side and then there’s the actual dealing with the crisis as well.
Sputnik: How important are Africa’s informational ties with the rest of the world at the moment? How viable and strong are they?
Stuart Thomson: That varies between countries both in Africa and across the world as well. There’s such a range in diversity of the countries across the continent that I think it’s inevitable that some reputations and some relationships will be stronger than others. The informational ties are stronger between some countries than others as well. Sometimes I see that it is down to the historical relationship or a shared language. But then you can move into areas, such as the economic relationships, cultural relationships, literally transport links between the countries and other aspects as well. The really important thing is that the countries recognise their reputations, and then work may need to be done to strengthen them; and once they are with that stronger reputation, that opens up those wider opportunities and those ties that you’ve mentioned. So, I would say that the ties are really strong in some cases, less good in others; but they can be improved through better communications.
Sputnik: Can the Western world help Africa improve communication and international ties, or should Africa improve these ties from the inside out?
Stuart Thomson: I think it’s a combination of all those things. We do have to be extremely careful; we don’t have [a letter of] arrogance in the West that sort of says “Do it our way and it will be great” because we have our own media and social media challenges; it’s far from perfect here as well. But if we can learn the lesson of how the media has developed here and some of the challenges we’ve faced, and our own ways of how businesses and others have learned to communicate effectively over the years and apply some of those to African countries and other organisations there as well, then I think both Africa and the Western countries can be improved. So, it’s not us telling them; I think it’s a dialogue, it’s a discussion, it’s learning the best bits, avoiding mistakes and, frankly, us learning as well. So, I think it’s a combination of all those things.
Sputnik: Media outlets play a crucial role in the political arena, especially during election cycles, and their power is able to guide or even turn information-sensitive public opinion upside down. At the moment, the media in Africa is not as strong as it is in the West, so it’s much easier for the latter to win an information war. What can be done, internally or externally, to protect the political processes in Africa?
Stuart Thomson: That’s another really big question. Fundamentally, people have to have faith in the political institutions, and that’s everything from votes counting through to the probity of those who win the elections. But with that comes the rule of law, checks and balances, freedom of speech, the right to demonstrate and increasingly and particularly, something we’re seeing here more and more, transparency in decision making. I think this is where a properly balanced social media can play a really crucial role because it can help shine the light on those in power and allows alternatives that need be shared and gives access to a wider range of media for people to consider as well. So I think that social media can be a force for greater scrutiny, which would really help in issues that you’ve just described.
Sputnik: What role should social networks and new forms of media play in terms of electoral marketing?
Stuart Thomson: There’s already no doubt that they already occupy a huge role and rightly so; I mean you can’t stop progress and I think any attempt to do so will just exert pressure elsewhere in the system. Social media is great […]. It involves more people, [it] can give information about issues; that in itself is better for democracy. The trouble is – and this is a bit that we are struggling with in the West particularly at the moment, but all countries are – there’s the downside, and the downside is fake news, unregulated political advertising, personal abuse, particularly of women; religious abuse and others as well. So, there’re lots of downsides as well; and I think they need to be addressed in several ways. First, the platforms themselves need to take action.
Secondly, we as consumers need to be better educated so that we can know what to look out in terms of suspect activity or bots. And if all of this fails – if companies themselves aren’t doing anything or we can’t spot anything, – then I think governments need to step in with regulations. But whether that regulation is each individual country doing that or, for instance in case of Europe, the European Union coming together and putting rules and regulations in place, there’s still discussion to be held. There’re other things to be done first, but regulations are undoubtedly part of the mix.
Sputnik: What can we do in order to foster a positive image of the continent in the eyes of the international community?
Stuart Thomson: I would say engage, talk, build networks of stakeholders; and I think this is the chance to see what a fantastic continent Africa is with all its historical, geographical and cultural diversity. In simple terms, I don’t think people know enough about Africa and all that diversity I just mentioned; but that’s up to the African countries to put that right. So, the emphasis has to be on them to promote themselves and to counter those misconceptions. So, I would point to them and their role.
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