Letter from Botswana

by Taazima Kala-Essack

Therisanyo, a word in Setswana which speaks to exchange of views on matters of mutual concern or mutual interest, essentially connotes the idea of consultation. Therisanyo is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a new concept or construct. In fact, far from. It is also incredibly telling about the state of Public Relations past, present and future in Botswana.

In many ways, PR in Botswana is as old as the very traditions in the country’s rich history. Since its 1966 Independence, the concept of community dialogue and an almost inherent desire to work towards mutual benefit are aspects built into the very fabric of Botswana’s culture, from therisanyo within the kgotla system (technically a customary court, though more broadly speaking, a platform for democratic dialogue of community matters) to the concept of soliciting and advocating for buy-in before action of big ideas are implemented (a marriage proposal, a community development, new leadership, etc.), a deep dive into our culture in Botswana is very much an educative process on the very fundamentals of PR.

Of course, despite this, PR in Botswana today is its own unique paradox. Still relatively misunderstood and underrepresented, the focus lays largely on butting heads between traditional press relations and new media in the digital age. The juxtaposition of the two, as in most contexts, breeds new opportunity and a myriad of potential that simply needs to be brought back into structure and futureproofed actions. While often looked at as a career one falls into rather than aspires towards from tertiary education stage, formal training in PR can be hard to come by not simply in Botswana, but in the region, and yet regardless of this, some of the most talented strategic reputation management thinkers permeate our borders, and ideas born and bred in Botswana slowly being scaled to other markets. So, what is there to know about PR in Botswana, its present and its pregnant future?

Quite a bit, I would say. Here are the key things I have learned and continue to learn each day in this dynamic and ever-evolving career and industry. Likely applicable in any market, community of context, they’ve proven especially key for me in the unique gem that is Botswana.

 

Relationships matter – The relatively large expanse of Botswana should not fool anyone into confusing it for an incredibly small market. Despite its rapid growth, the small community feel means relationships are central towards ensuring anything can get done or delivered. Reputations precede themselves, networking is crucial, and talent so mobile that today’s client is tomorrow’s PR consultancy representative. Building relationships on a strong foundation and constantly nurturing them has never felt more necessary in hotwiring work and progress, and the importance of building and never breaking one’s trust a surefire golden rule. With no set PR association or regulatory body of its own (though affiliations and chapters from other markets may have some roots, they are not prevalent nor widely enforced or present), individuals’ and teams’ abilities to build, nurture and preserve key relationships is very much at the heart of PR here.

Community matters – the sense of community or togetherness, working in alignment for the betterment of the industry, is key. With no set PR association or regulatory body of its own (though affiliations and chapters from other markets may have some roots, they are not prevalent nor widely enforced or present), this can be tough, and yet even informally, sound PR professionals often put the greater good of the industry before their own individual need to thrive, helping ensure a strong support system in the making. This sense of community amongst peers may be at an early stage, but there is so much opportunity for us to all grow it and create a true platform for progress.

 

Start with a conversation – buy-in matters – So many great ideas, intents or projects have run amok and/or failed to launch because the very basic step of consultation with those that matter most in that situation was skipped. No matter how brilliant a campaign or idea, when jumping the gun straight to execution before engaging the relevant community, you are quite literally hamstringing yourself. A community education initiative is less likely to gain traction, for example, when the local leader, kgosi (chief) or prominent community members have not been consulted, onboarded or engaged, for no other reason than their word of mouth endorsement and position of influence can wield greater strides of progress than one may have ever imagined.   In line with the very principle of botho (a wide and encompassing term for possessing the very attributes that make one a good person) our democracy was built upon, respect to engage and acknowledge or seek counsel from others and feed this into your efforts can spell the difference between embraced and embargoed for good. In this case, respect, manners, tolerance and humility are very much the order of the day, and what helps ensure that any PR professional making it in this market has the strongest base of integrity, an essential towards professionalising this industry.

 

Transparency and being human matters – it is nothing unique to Botswana that people are more demanding of authenticity, compassion, empathy and more human and honest communication. A level of transparency and integrity has always been central to the concept of therisanyo and of botho itself, and even today remain vanguards of good communications. Consumers and stakeholders have been burned before and are more discerning than ever before. Nobody wants to be engaged or communicated to with a cookie-cutter-copy-and-paste approach. They want real, honest, and human.

 

There’s so much amazing potential for PR in Botswana, to grow it from its historic practices in our culture and communities and into an even more professionalised industry grounded on strategy, ethics and sustainable impact, wholly distinct from other marketing disciplines and with a true seat at the table when it comes to being a strategic management function. The foundation is here - in the very tales and practices of our forefathers - and it is simply up to us in the industry to unite, align, and press play for progress responsibly in the true spirit of therisanyo.

 

 

Fast facts about Botswana:

Population:  2,254,068 (2018 estimate)

Political system: Parliamentary democracy

Main languages spoken: English, Setswana, Kalanga, Afrikaans

Main industries: Diamond Mining, Tourism, Agriculture

Currency: Botswana Pula

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