Good evening, sister and brother propagandists

Good evening, sister and brother propagandists.

What did she just call us, I hear you asking yourselves? Us? Propagandists?

A hundred years ago, there would have been no shame attached to being called a propagandist. The word propaganda had not yet been hijacked by the enemies of democracy. In some parts of the world, notably Latin America, propaganda still has a neutral sense. There it refers to commercial advertising.

Edward Bernays, the friend of Sigmund Freud who is considered by many to have been the father of public relations, was happy to call his art propaganda. He thought it was an important component of democracy. He even titled his groundbreaking 1928 book on PR “Propaganda”.

Propaganda is a Latin word. It means “things that need to propagated or disseminated”. One the reason eggs and bacon is today synonymous with breakfast is that Bernays successfully propagated the idea that eggs and bacon were a healthy way to start the day.

He did that by getting a segment of society that commands universal respect – the medical profession – to endorse the benefits of a hearty breakfast. Then he promoted eggs and bacon as the quintessential hearty breakfast. This was before the discovery of cholesterol.

Gathered here this evening are some of the most talented practitioners of the art of propagating ideas in the world. And while you represent a great and diverse array of clients and interests, one of the most compelling questions that challenges all of us is: how can we do for Africa what Edward Bernays did for bacon and eggs?

How do we propagate the idea that Africa is an appetising, energising and essential part of the world’s day?

The basic ingredients are coming together and the product is perhaps more saleable than it has ever been. Late last year, the World Bank reported that 2005 “may well have been the year when Africa turned the corner” unquote from poverty and debt to prosperity and wealth.

Economic growth is picking up steam all over the continent. A growing number of countries, among them Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Uganda and Ghana, is on course to cut poverty in half by 2010. Primary school enrollment and literacy rates are rising. In many countries, infant mortality is down. Macroeconomic indicators are improving, with inflation falling to historic lows, currencies stabilizing and fiscal deficits dropping, and foreign direct investment surging.

Democratic transfers of power are now the norm and the African Union is starting to stand fast against member governments who come to power through unconstitutional means. African conflicts may still grab headlines, but the truth is they are dwindling in number, largely as a result of the efforts of Africans themselves. And, having overtaken the Middle East as America’s largest source of oil imports, Africa is assuming unprecedented strategic importance.

Too little of this gets projected to the world at large. To the contrary, in the popular culture of the North, Africa remains a source of horror and pity. Consider Hollywood’s latest contribution. This year, two Oscar contenders painted Africa in the direst imaginable colors.

One, the Last King of Scotland, depicted the bloody rule of Idi Amin in stomach-turning detail. The other, Blood Diamonds, dealt graphically with the civil war in Sierra Leone, limb-severings and all.

The conflict in Sierra Leone is now over. Peace has been achieved. Idi Amin is long gone and Uganda has for years been seen as a model of post-conflict reconstruction and is now one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. But the distinction between past and present has also most certainly been lost on most filmgoers in the North.

Last year, of course, an African film made by Africans about Africa actually won an Oscar. But as justifiably proud as we were of Tsotsi’s success, its images were not ones we would necessarily have chosen to have seared into the minds of international audiences.

All these films deserve the accolades they’ve been getting as examples of the filmmaker’s art, but we have to be aware of how they feed pernicious stereotypes. In the same way, just we have to be aware of the messages cherished celebrities send when they come to Africa bearing gifts and professing love and compassion. Unwittingly or not, they tend to nourish the assumption that Africans are victims and incapable of looking after their own.

This assumption is also fed by the media. This is not because the media is malicious. Actually, the journalists who cover Africa for the world’s newspapers, radio and television are generally caring human beings with a strong regard for truth.

Most of them didn’t become journalists to fatten their bank accounts. Many entered their profession because they wanted to shine a light on what is wrong with the world with a view to helping get it fixed.

That being the case, reporters and their editors are not going to spend a lot of time covering things that are working. The fact that South Africa has the lowest cost electricity in the world is not news. Power failures are.

By the same token, reporters are going to spend a lot of time with, and give voice to, people they see working to get things fixed. That is part of the reason NGO’s like Oxfam and Global Witness and Doctors Without Borders tend to be the primary sources for stories out of Africa. Another part is the reason is the journalists have a hard-wired distrust of authority, which is a good thing for democracy.

A lot of NGO’s do terrific and necessary work and make a genuine difference in people’s lives. But it’s a fact of life that they have to compete for resources to do their work, which leads, quite naturally, to their marketing the problems they seek to address. This marketing tends to drown out other more hopeful narratives about Africa and plays straight into Afropessimism.

How, in the face of all this, are we going to re-brand Africa?

One way we are not going to do it, is by assuming an angry and defensive attitude and attacking messengers, challenging their bona fides and being perpetually thin-skinned about criticism. All that will do is reinforce stereotypes.

The only media that consistently reports “good news” is the media in closed societies and closed societies tend to be the least successful in today’s world. We might do worse than to learn from the American cognitive linguist George Lakoff and what he has been trying to teach his country’s Democratic Party about framing its message to voters. In his book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant”, Lakoff makes the simple point that if you ask someone not to think of an elephant, an elephant is precisely what will leap into that person’s mind.

What this means is that when we talk to the world and tell it our story, we must use our own frame of reference, not the frame supplied by Afropessimism or existing stereotypes. If we start out defensively by confronting the Afropessimist or stereotypical viewpoint directly, we have conceded control of the frame.

Take the example of crime in this country. Government is talking about this issue in a reactive and defensive way, using the frame supplied by its critics. It needs to establish it own frame, a frame that gives people a sense of hope that crime is a problem that can, and will be dealt with. Instead we need to create a vision for what a safe, secure and successful country will resemble.

A good example of the approach I’m talking about is an article that appeared in the Financial Times last year by Jim Sutcliffe, the CEO of Old Mutual. He was worried about the way BEE was being seen by foreign investors. But instead of beginning his article by mentioning investor concerns, he created his own frame. Here’s how the article began:

“South Africa’s drive to bring the long excluded majority of its people into the mainstream of its economic life is paying healthy dividends. It is pushing the growth rate – nearly 5 per cent in 2005 – onto a higher trajectory. It has helped the 12-year-old democracy move ahead of India as a destination for foreign direct investment. And it was a factor in the 47% total return on equities traded on the JSE last year.

Broadly defined, the black economic empowerment (BEE) strategy hammered out between government and business is helping fuel an economic and social revolution as millions of South Africans start to enjoy disposable income and upward mobility for the first time in their lives. This is making South Africa both an exciting place to do business and one that holds the promise of long-term stability.

How real is the transformation? Consider this. Just over 20 years ago, South Africa’s most famous newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail, closed because its readership was increasingly black and of no interest to advertisers. Today, South Africa’s most successful newspaper is the Daily Sun, a three-year-old start-up targeted at the black working class. Its circulation is 450 000 and rising and advertisers are clamoring for space on its pages.”

This is a great example of how we can all work to redefine Africa in the minds of the world. It’s about telling our story on our terms – and telling it truthfully and without trying to pretend that everything is perfect. Sutcliffe did go on to respond to concerns investors have about BEE, but not before establishing a whole new way of looking at the subject – a new frame — as a reason to invest and have faith in South Africa’s future.

Importantly, he told a concrete and unexpected story – the extraordinary success of the Daily Sun — to illustrate his case and help readers see South Africa in a new way.

This is the way we have to start talking about our continent as a whole – as a region ripe with opportunity, a market 800 million strong, rich in resources, human and natural, and with huge pent up demand for goods and services. In short a great new frontier. Having established this frame, we can then build its credibility by being totally candid about the problems we still face.

Above all, we need to be armed with gripping stories that stick in people’s minds. The way we perceive the world is shaped strongly by anecdote, and the more memorable stories we can tell that defy stereotype and illustrate the strengths and capacities of our continent’s people, the more we will change mindsets. The more we demonstrate a country Alive With Possibility”, the more we will create Afro Optimism.

There are great stories to tell, if we’re willing to look for them and encourage people to tell. Story gathering is something we can’t simply leave to the media which, for the reasons I’ve outlined, are not focused on our kind of story. There are or course exceptions, like the American filmmaker Carol Pineau, whose documentary, “Africa Open for Business”, has been winning prizes and accolades around the world. In this film, Carol introduces to the world an extraordinary array entrepreneurs, from Pierre Sauvalle, founder and artistic director of Senegal-based Pictoon, the only animation design studio in Africa that produces television series and feature films, to-Adenike Ogunlesi, who owns and operates the “in” label in Nigeria in children’s clothes, Ruff ‘N’ Tumble, to Mohammed Yassin Olad, who runs a thriving airline in the truly business environment of Somalia. She has another film on the same theme now in the works. We must do all we can to encourage this kind of work.

Ultimately, as the article by Jim Sutcliffe and Edward Bernays with his pro-hearty breakfast doctors showed, very little beats credible third-party endorsers when it comes to selling a product or propagating an idea.

We need to get what Simon Gladwell has called the mavens, the connectors and the persuaders – the key players in dramatic shifts of public perception – to propagate the idea of Africa as the opportunity continent. This is a process about which there is a great deal of expertise in this room tonight. I am confident that we are close to the tipping point. Africa is on the move. Yes, there are huge challenges still to be confronted, and yes, movement is by no means uniform. But many of the challenges are really opportunities, if properly viewed and properly framed.

That is an idea Ogilvy and its supremely talented people can to much to propagate, and in fact, have a responsibility to do so.