Sheila Afari is a young pan-African entrepreneur who launched Sheila Afari Public Relations at the age of 26 after recognizing the opportunity to promote African brands across the globe. Sheila wants to create one of Africa’s leading boutique agencies, and with clients in Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa, she is well on her way to pan-African domination. In this piece, she shares with SLA her entrepreneurial journey and some advice on how startups can develop a public relations strategy that turns heads.
You resigned from a marketing manager position to start your own business. How were you able to make the transition from a steady job with a guaranteed paycheck to the uncertain world of entrepreneurship?
Having been an entrepreneur before taking on the marketing manager position, I was aware that I was able to create something from nothing. The plan was to work to get more business skills and leave. Fortunately for me, I had no debt or people dependents, so I was fearless and able to make the transition being comfortable with my odds in the risk vs rewards scenario. I also had a degree to fall back on as well as invaluable skills to offer if things have not worked out for me. And since I had no large monthly overheads/expenditures, I was able to offer my services for free and do jobs at low paying rates to build a portfolio and show my worth.
What are the branding and marketing tools that you have used to grow your company and differentiate it in the marketplace?
From day one, I decided that I wanted my PR agency to take on a bespoke approach to the clients we service. With that in mind, growth came from referrals as clients were happy with the services they were receiving. Word of mouth is known to be one of the most powerful marketing tools, so I go out of my way to ensure that every client is happy. I’ve spent the past 3 and a half years very hands on in shaping the business and overseeing the work done for each client.
I believe my agency stands out in the marketplace because of the below reasons:
- We have a continental focus and reach outside of South Africa
- We work with traditional and non-traditional media platforms
- We incorporate a social media drive to all campaigns and projects
- We have a bespoke approach to each client
- We have a strong brand development focus
- We operate under unconventional business hours
- We believe in ethical business practices; integrity, honesty, exceptional service and team work
As a lot of our clients are entrepreneurs and don’t operate with an “8-5” mindset, there’s a need for an agency that can keep up with them and service their needs in “real time”, which is what we do. We are available 7 days a week and after hours for our clients.
From a branding perspective, I’ve stayed behind the scenes and that has positioned the business as somewhat exclusive. People won’t often see me unless it’s business related and they’ve done their homework. The work we do is better known than me or the company’s name, so if clients haven’t come via referral then they have done their homework and sought us out.
My 2016 approach to branding and marketing will change somewhat as the company has grown. I’m tackling different industries, and there will definitely be a concerted effort with B2B marketing and advertising/visibility in key industry platforms.
What advice would you give to startups that are looking to develop a PR strategy but don’t necessarily have the funds to hire an agency to work with them?
1) Draft a PR Plan. Even if it is just a one pager, you should be able to answer the below:
- Who am I/Are We?
- What am I trying to achieve in the market place?
- Where do I want to be in the next couple of months, 1 year, 5 years, 10 years?
- What do I want to be known for?
- Who are my competitors?
- Who do I strive to be like?
- What is my unique selling point? i.e. What do I bring that is different from my competitors as well as different from who I strive to be like?
- How can I get my message/service/talent across authentically?
Then take a blank piece of paper and understand that your PR plan is a blank canvas that you can do anything with. Don’t try copy your competitors or the people your strive to be like. Pave your own way. Come up with fresh creative ideas and map out a way to get there.
2) Get online! Make sure that you have a strong online presence. With the digital age, and Google being one of the first platforms people go to search, you need to make sure you have a presence online and can tell your story the way you want it to be told.
To start off with, get on the below platforms (may vary slightly for different industries):
3) Identify 5 people or platforms you deem important/relevant to giving your brand publicity and start making your way through the list.
4) Understand that contacts aren’t necessarily secret and content is king. Pick up a magazine, call the telephone number there and ask for the contact details people relevant to your field that you need to get in touch with. Also understand that media platforms need content, so “pitch” your story with an understanding of who their target audience is and how your story will be of interest to them.
5) Don’t give up. You will need multiple interactions in order to build your brand. Every attempt you make at building your brand’s presence all adds up and you will surely see results even if they may appear barely visibly.
What is the one thing you know now that you wish you knew when Sheila Afari PR launched?
I wish I knew that mistakes and hardships would be my best teachers. I spent so much time “playing it safe” out of fear of not being perfect or not keeping clients happy, that it took me quite a while to learn a lot of the things that have helped my business grow exponentially. Had I allowed myself to make more mistakes at an earlier stage, I believe my company would have been where it is now about a year or two ago.