Advice for Comms people; working with the international media

There are apparently no shortage of communications courses in Abidjan, but the quality of communications people even in the private sector, is pretty appalling. Here are some tips for those in the job who seem to have certain misconceptions about the way to work with the international media.

In general, the international media can’t be treated in the same way as the national media. That’s not to say that there aren’t excellent journalists working for the national media, but I see many comms people fail after approaching the international media in the same way as local journalists. To stereotype and generalise, international journalists carry many advantages and disavantages and these need to be understood to get the best from the situation.

– the international media have a wide reach. True, you may want to target local consumers with local messages, but most companies care about a supra-national profile and even if they don’t, the international media generally have a wider local reach even in the domestic market. Compare the listener-ship of National Radio 1 and RFI in Ivory Coast. To maximise your communications approach, you need to direct more resources to those media that can touch the most people.

– the international media are often highly respected. This comes from perhaps the key advantage / disadvantage – international journalists are not at your bec and call. You can’t tell him to come to a press conference and expect him to come if you haven’t thought about what could be interesting for him and his editors. You can’t ‘buy’ him with a free soda, a bit of food or even an envelope of $40. His/her time is in short supply and he/she chooses only the events that will be most interesting to his/her listeners. That means that it takes more effort to get them to attend events. But it’s worth the effort, because if they do come they’re likely to lend considerable credibility to whatever you’ve organised. Remember not to treat journalists as poorly paid people who failed to get into the public administration and are beneath you, but rather as people who may have done just as well at school, be just as well paid and are simply exercising their trade, as noble as many others.

– the international media need things to happen quickly. Not just because time is short, but because newsrooms generally function on a day to day basis – what’s the issue today? You need to be responsive and reactive. They are not going to have time to ‘write a letter’ which will take weeks to get a response.

– you can’t tell the international media what to say or when to say it.

– consider that you can get your company in the news, not just by making a major announcement, but also by simply being prepared to speak about life as a business. If there’s a story about the impact of new laws, export charges, a strike, overall economic growth – are you prepared to offer up someone to speak (honestly) about the impact on the company? It’s a simple way of getting some coverage, but it requires i) a relationship with the press ii) reactiveness iii) a willingness to speak honestly without jargon or what the French call ‘langue de bois’ (speaking without saying anything).

– overall, remember that an article in the local press that sings your praises, that cost you a small envelope of cash (per diem), is published exactly when you want and has very little credibility with its readers, will almost certainly have less impact than a report in the international media that cost you nothing, reached millions, but didn’t sound like a marketing brochure.

Many Ivorian companies see press relations as a branch of marketing – that works with the local press who can generally write your story for a small fee (advertising). But it’s an approach that fails to work in every sector and so injures your international profile. Take SMB, one of Ivory Coast’s biggest companies and a supplier of bitumen to much of the region. They don’t even have anyone in charge of communication, a job delegated to the human resources head!

I think one of the key things companies (and the public sector as well) need to do is to take communication seriously. It’s too often seen as a job for the mistress or the pretty young intern, and not a serious profession in its own right. Such people are generally too scared to ‘bother the boss’ so your request for an interview/information never reaches the person it should. Gripe over.

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