PR and relationship-building

WE in the News



By Adam Wakefield

James Wilson is the general manager of Waggener + Edstrom (WE) South Africa. An experienced practitioner who has worked on both the agency and client sides of the industry, Wilson believes successful PR begins and ends with relationships, and how they are managed. He also believes a tight budget is no excuse to submit under-prepared work.


Wilson started his career at The Jupiter Drawing Room in the late nineties as a client service manager. A two year “sabbatical” in the United Kingdom followed before Wilson returned to South Africa where he joined Text 100, kicking off his career in PR.

“Text was one of the few tech PR firms that existed and had a whole range of blue chip tech clients, and that is where I cut my teeth, and where a lot of PR professionals in South Africa did the same,” Wilson says.

“I started my career off for the agency at Microsoft. I then moved to a company called Kilimanjaro, which was part of Meropa. That was where I worked on MTN and HP onsite. No one is onsite anymore because it is not commercially viable.”

Wilson worked on a few other blue chip brands before taking up a position with Microsoft as PR lead for west, east, and central Africa, and the Indian Ocean islands.

“I had always worked on multi-nationals that were either South African or the South African subsidiary. I thought it would be a good opportunity to get some Pan-African experience and work in other territories,” Wilson says.

Kenya and Nigeria were two of those territories, which Wilson describes as “very exciting” with different media landscapes.

“It was a great experience working in different geographies, not just South Africa. South Africans think they’re the centre of Africa, but so do Nigerians and so do Kenyans. It’s eye-opening and refreshing,” Wilson says.

“I think Kenya certainly is innovating at a far faster pace than we are, from a tech perspective. It’s pretty impressive what they are doing. Nairobi is like an informal Silicon Valley.”

Wilson first came into contact with WE while still at Microsoft, after WE were appointed in 2010 as the company’s external PR agency. Having sworn to not return to the agency environment, the opportunity presented by WE at the beginning of 2015 proved too good for Wilson to ignore.

“It transpired because I knew the people, I knew the company, I liked what I saw in terms of service delivery and the smart consultants they had,” Wilson says.

“It’s an independent global agency. What that means is the culture is more likely to stick than compared to an agency that has been bought out by five other agencies. We are big enough to make a difference, but also small enough to be agile.”

Wilson’s opportunity at WE arose because of the relationships he had cultivated and managed over the course of his career. In his opinion, relationships are where the success of PR begins and ends.

“If I look at the remit I have and the clients I have, it’s all people-based. Our success begins and ends with relationships. If something goes wrong, it’s very unlikely because of a service,” Wilson says.

“It’s going to be because of a break in relationship and you’ve got to make sure that you are continually maintaining those relationships, and I’m not just taking about agency-client, I’m talking agency-agency.”

This means looking after your colleagues and employees, engaging with them regularly, as a PR should do with clients. A critical skill, one which Wilson would advise on having the most, is being good at reading a situation.

“You’ve got to understand what the issue is, which is not easy in this game, but it’s a natural fit. You’re always dealing with people and you’ll have experience if things have gone wrong or if they’ve gone right. You can learn from both. It’s intuition-based,” he says.

A theme that was discussed a lot at this year’s Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa annual conference was how PR firms and agencies deal with shrinking budgets and tough market conditions.

Wilson is acutely aware of the current macro environment, which not only affects the PR industry but the entire economy. Given this reality, it is “critically important” PR professionals and agencies ensure their quality and output continues to be of an excellent standard, even if the “volume is less”.

“You have to have that excellence in execution regardless. It might sound like a gimmicky phrase but the delivery in what you do is everything, because that’s what’s going to keep the relationship and get you work when things take a turn for the better,” Wilson says.

“I was speaking to a friend of mine who is a lawyer, and she said, ‘We had to pitch for some piece of telco business the other day’ so I said, ‘What do you mean? You sound a bit shocked’ and she said, ‘We had to go out and pitch for it’. I said, ‘Welcome to the real world. That’s what we all do’.”

Beyond just winning work, PR firms and professionals can also bring in revenue through selling their skills.

“You can package content, do media training, PR in a box, digital training. You can sell the skill. You can do workshops. Investigate these sort of things during tough times. The business is still there, it’s just tougher. Everyone is feeling the pinch,” Wilson says.

Public relations is not the easiest industry to succeed in, but the reason Wilson loves what he does and keeps coming back for more is because of the people.

“You are exposed to such a diverse range of thinking and that’s just your clients, and you’ve got your team as well. There is an opportunity for people to be expressive and try out new things and I think that’s fantastic, because no day is ever the same,” Wilson says.

“The flipside of that is its up and down, but that’s what makes it exciting.”