Challenging media views of SA

Khanyi Magubane

International media perceptions of South Africa, and their effect on the country’s economic development, will come under the spotlight in May this year during the second International Media Forum South Africa (IMFSA). The forum will bring together senior editors from the world’s most important media, as well as South Africa’s leading business decision-makers, government officials and communication professionals.

Held at the Forum in Bryanston, Johannesburg, the conference will aim to address challenges in communicating what South Africa has to offer the international investor community. Participants will discuss ways of building international confidence in order to attract foreign direct investment. The forum will also be a platform for critical dialogue between those who shape South Africa’s image abroad, and South Africans who can change their future for the better by the way they communicate the country’s news.

According to organisers, the main points of discussion will be:

  • How do international communications affect the economic development of South Africa?
  • How important is the South Africa story globally compared with other developing world economies, and how can the country use the media better to compete?
  • How is the media changing as a result of new media takeup?
  • What does new media offer companies, organisations and countries, and how can it be harnessed for advantage?
  • How can participants get their organisation and its missions covered in the media for positive results?
  • How do leading international players use media relations to their advantage?

Branding South Africa

Brand South Africa, tasked with creating a positive and compelling brand for the country, is a major partner in this event. Established by the presidency in 2000, Brand South Africa has a mandate to carry out proactive marketing and a communication strategy that promotes trade, tourism and investment. Through the “Alive with Possibility” campaign, Brand South Africa aims to build a strong and consistent brand that will mould a shared identity for South Africa, leading to a common mindset.

Other partners include Business Unity South Africa; the Public Relations Institute of South Africa and media partners Business Day, Financial Mail, Summit TV and Kaya FM.

Close to a thousand delegates attended the first forum in 2006, with representatives from the international media including the BBC, CNN, CBNC Europe, Al-Jazeera International, The Wall Street Journal and Time Magazine.

The big debate

This year, the programme has been stepped up to include a number of high profile speakers. They include The Economist deputy editor Emma Duncan, Financial Times Africa editor William Wallis, Hindustan Times of India foreign editor Amit Baruah and New York Times Africa correspondent Celia Dugger, who will deliver keynote addresses.

Professor Anton Harber, head of the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Journalism and Media Studies, will chair one of the most important sessions at the conference. Simply entitled “The Big Debate”, this will centre on the common perception that international coverage South Africa is generally negative. Three viewpoints on this issue will be discussed.

The first is that news organisations around the world don’t treat South Africa any differently from any other country, and that South Africa is given an equal amount of positive and negative coverage. The second argues that the international media only focus on the negative issues of crime, corruption, and Aids, with little or no balanced reporting, thus failing not only South Africa but also Africa as a whole. The final viewpoint is that the international media have a responsibility to cover what is happening. The responsibility rests with government and business to tell media what is happening.

Presiding over the forum will be veteran journalist and Kaya FM radio presenter John Perlman. His role as chair will be to ensure that the debates are open and fair to all involved.

“The role of the chairman is to ensure that the debate is as productive as is possible and that as many people as possible get to have their opinions heard,” he says. “Nobody is always right, and no one always wrong. It’s all about the quality of the debate.”

Conferences of this nature, he says, are crucial. “I think this will help foreign journalists to have a deeper understanding of South Africa. While you don’t change people’s minds in one conversation, you certainly need one good conversation to start a debate of that nature.

“Every country has many different layers, and it’s important that foreign media understand that. As long as we all engage in the right spirit, we will have a fruitful discussion. But if you arrive at the conference with the attitude that your opinion will triumph, then you are not going to get much of out of it.”

One of the issues that will top the agenda is coverage of the 2010 Fifa Football World Cup. The question will be, how can both government and business media relations be improved to use the event to promote the future economic development of South Africa in the run-up to the tournament? Mike de Vries, chief executive of Germany Land of Ideas, will share the lessons he learnt from managing the task of changing perceptions of Germany for the 2006 World Cup.

Themba Maseko, head of government communication in South Africa, will also deliver a paper on the view from the government. The GCIS is responsible for all government communications and acts as the mouthpiece for its thoughts and policies. Maseko will outline his priorities for government communication and its relationship with the international media.

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