Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Communication breakdown: Zambia

By Heather Farr
One of the principles constantly ingrained into public relations majors at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism is know your audience. If a practitioner fails to listen to the wants, needs and interests of the target audience, he or she might as well pick a communications campaign out of a hat. Every day, people get thousands of messages and ideas thrown at them and the only ones that have a chance at creating an attitude or behavior change are the ones that relate to and reach the audience.
A different kind of restriction
This simple PR idea came full circle the moment I stepped into the advertising agency at which I am interning in Zambia. Many media outlets in Zambia are government owned and even those that are not are still affected by politics. This made me wonder: are strategic communications messages dictated by government agendas or rules? A casual conversation with an employee turned into a journalistic investigation when I asked him whether he felt the impact of the government in his work. He said no, but then explained a situation very different from any I have ever experienced in the U.S.
According to the aforementioned employee, the majority of the Zambian public is functionally literate. Even a poor man on the street can watch an American movie in English and recite it back to you or quote it, he said. Yet, many companies want professional communicators to “dumb down” ideas, restricting the flow of creativity that many professionals in the United States unconsciously enjoy. While ad and PR agencies in the United States are constantly trying to push the envelope and take the audience to the next level, the ad professionals in Zambia may be forced to muzzle their ideas at the request of the client.

Context is key
PR practitioners need to recognize not only the audience when spreading a message, but also the environment and circumstances when deciding what communications methods to use. An American professional might approach a problem in the U.S. with the trending solution of social media, but that solution may not apply to a similar problem in Africa.
“People think we are behind because we aren’t utilizing social media. That is great if it works in the States, but we just aren’t at that point yet,” the same employee said.
Utilizing tactics such as social media would not be effective for many Zambian companies because citizens are not utilizing online social networks at the rate of American citizens. According to the Zambian ad professional, Zambian society is where the United States was three or four years ago in regard to online communications, and that’s okay. The country is progressing at its own rate and does not need to “catch up” to be successful because the networks simply aren’t relevant at this point in time.
Through the eyes of a Zambian
Ethnocentrism sometimes causes foreigners to apply alien practices that simply may not work given the context and environment of another country. For me, this point was cemented with our first project as interns at the Zamban ad agency. Our task was to come up with the outline of a campaign to reduce maternal mortality rates in Zambia by stressing the importance of professional medical care before, during and after a birth. It wasn’t until speaking with a Zambian member of the agency that we realized many problems existed here that we wouldn’t deal with in the United States, such as:

· Many families live in rural areas and don’t have instant access to effective healthcare facilities

· Unlike in the United States, visiting a doctor before, during and after the birth of a child is not understood as typical. In fact, it is custom to give birth at home

· Other traditions, such as having the grandmother present during birth, exist that would keep a woman from leaving the home to give birth

· Women who have children out of wedlock are often ashamed and therefore have their children at home.

Thus far, this experience has made me to realize the importance of audience research, regardless of what or where the campaign. Even the most creative ideas can fall flat if the audience is uninterested or able to get to/understand the message.

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