Redefining the African media landscape
A former journalist, Nicolas Pompigne-Mognard is a Franco-Gabonese self-made entrepreneur and angel investor. He is the founder, chairman and owner of APO Group, the leading media relations' consulting firm and press release distribution service in Africa and the Middle East which he founded 12 years ago. According to Pompigne-Mognard, he founded APO Group following the challenges he was facing while trying to have access for basic information about Africa. He used to be a correspondent for Gabonews based in Paris. He could not get the needed information as much he wanted and went to contact organizations to give him access on a subscription basis. From there he came up with the idea of establishing a PR company that will disseminate press releases and announcements on behalf of multinationals in Africa and give them more presence in the global audience. Currently, his efforts have paid off and he is one of the multimillionaires of Africa. Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter caught up with Nicholas Pompigne-Mognard to learn more about the challenges of representing Africa’s accurate image in the Western media platforms. Excerpts
The Reporter: How did you came up with the idea of establishing APO?
Nicholas Pompigne-Mognard: I was a journalist working for a Gabonese media called Gabonews. Back in 2005, I was assigned to be a correspondent based in Paris, and I was expected to report on everything related to Africa. I have tried to receive as many press releases as possible because I couldn’t make calls to officials and organizations all the time. Hence, I started to subscribe to the press releasees the organizations were distributing. I was enlisted with the European Union Commission (EUC) since I was covering them from Paris. I was there to cover issues related to Africa. I was covering economy, finance, culture, sports and other topics. I tried to receive as many press releases as I can, and I was telling many organizations that I want to receive and cover Africa related topics. That is where the whole thing about APO started.
I found it extremely difficult to get sufficient information and press releases. Finding persons related to the topics you wanted to report on was so difficult and even extremely difficult to find releases the time you wanted to have it. Some organizations will direct you to search the information you needed from their websites. When I saw how difficult it was for me to receive press releases, a question came to my mind. If it’s that difficult for a Paris-based journalist to receive Africa related press releases from western institutions, then what about Africa based institutions? I started to ask myself and I did a test. I tried to subscribe to organizations such as the African Development Bank (AfDB), the African Union (AU) and the Pan African Parliament.
I found out that receiving press releases from these organization was even more difficult than from European countries. By that time, I was close to the then AfDB President Donald Kaberuka. We used to meet every quarter year. He told me something that resonates with me and that’s where I decided to move and do something. He told me that the dissemination of information is related to the economy of the continent. In 2007, the AfDB was initiating and producing data about an emerging middle class in Africa. That’s for the first time we started to hear about Africa’s middle-class society. Each time I met, Kaberuka I used to ask him about how Africa is doing and what is new about the continent since he has a lot of stored information. I remember when he told me saying, “We have found something. We have found a middle-class society in Africa.” It was like a scientific discovery. That means that there is a huge market opportunity.
We will need more banks, insurance, vehicles and so many things to spend the money on. We are now talking about luxury. That should be made known throughout Africa and in the rest of the world that Africa is meant for business. In fact, it’s about the new image of Africa. It’s no more only about AIDS, misery or conflicts. It has huge opportunities and potentials. There are poverty issues, but if one thing happens somewhere in Africa, it doesn’t mean it’s the same for the entire continent. We needed the international media, the financial community and others to know how Africa is doing in a different positive context. That’s where it all started.
What I did was to help change the narrative about Africa. I started to make sure that all the information related to the economy of Africa is reaching the likes of Bloomberg, Reuters and other big media players. I sat and thought that I should start a company that distributes information. I started to subscribe to press releases distributed by African institutions. I started small and eventually I ended up with a huge news feed. I needed to standardize and format so that I can feed the information to Bloomberg and others. When I contacted Bloomberg, I told them I have news feeds released by major African institutions and its for free. They agreed and started to release that to their subscribers. The same happened with Reuters, Factiva, Nexus and others. We have signed agreements with the major players of the global news industry.
How did you grow since then? You had 35 clients and I assume there are many now, right?
Now we are talking about Africa’s undermined image. Positive news. 98 percent of the press releases came out to be good news about Africa from Africa. That was how it was all started 12 years ago. APO today is a completely different set up. Currently, it has more than 300 clients, out of those 85 percent are multinational companies and 50 percent of these multinationals are based in the US. We have UK, UAE, German and others companies working with us. We serve companies like Facebook, Uber, DHL, Canon, Orange and more. African companies as well are our clients. We have the likes of Dangote and Ecobank with us.
The APO has been structured in three different departments. We have the APO Group which is the umbrella organization. Then we have the APO Communications that manages the news and press releases, interviews, press events, Op-Eds and PRs. We have also APO Technologies that focuses on digital platforms. We have APO Consult which provides consultations on business planning, business expansion and related topics. It helps corporations that are operating in Africa and those that want to have a presence in the continent. We are a Pan African organization covering 54 countries in Africa. Our CEO comes from the Orange Business Service, the business to business division of the Orange Company who used to cover 18 countries, in Africa, Middle East and Eastern Europe as a senior executive.
It possible to imagine how APO managed to become a big player. How does it manage to stay in the game where in most part information is not regarded as an essential commodity?
I think we are getting there. The question is who considers information as a vital resource. The value of information is quite essential. Africa is evolving. The rest of the world understands that information is business. It is progress. I want to believe that the value of information in Africa is evolving. There are big challenges. Fake news is havocking. I have a concern about the African media landscape. African media outlets are not doing well in financial terms. If your customer doesn’t give value for your service, then that is a challenge for media to operate in any given business model. Many government institutions in Africa have very limited culture on information sharing and dissemination. Governments of Africa are very good in communications. There might be one or two governments that are active in areas of tourism and foreign investments. They are good students in the classroom.
You distribute press releases on behalf of organizations. Is there any chance reporters and media outlets can come back to ask, crosscheck or interview those organizations?
In all the press releases you might have received from the APO, we write all media contact details at the bottom. We always have email addresses and officers contacts for media relations. When our clients release information, on average they receive five interview requests. It might not always be a one-on-one interview, but some ask for more figures, explanations and clarifications or else. That’s the very purpose of media contacts. We have two ways of communications and whenever a reporter or a media wants to have detailed information, we can send email or call the specific clients. We are by far the largest Africa related content provider. We provide text, image and video contents and in a few months, we will launch soundbites ideal for radio. We also provide access and business opportunities to media outlets as well.
What role is APO Group playing in building Africa’s image?
We want to believe we are participating in the process of changing the narratives of Africa. We are distributing press releases, but we are much more than that now. We have an initiative we call, APO Pioneers where we invite African journalists to participate in one of the global events. This year, I think we have invited six journalists to participate in international events. For instance, we have invited some to attend the Web Summit, the largest global tech event held in Lisbon, Portugal. We have invited another for the Africa Hotel Investment Forum which was held in Addis back in September. We are sending another for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
In addition to that we try to teach university students about media and entrepreneurship in the sector. I had lectures at Addis Ababa University and Mekele University on topics about the expansion of the international media in Africa as a positive platform and how journalists could become entrepreneurs. We want to change the image of Africa in such various ways. I was there when 80 percent of the noise and news about Africa was made by the global media. I was there too when 80 percent of those 80 percent news were bad news. Currently, the image of Africa is evolving and I believe we are participating with likeminded individuals on that front. We have the power to make Africa visible and to put the right image of Africa in the global media landscape.
Let me give you an example for that. We are the major sponsor of the World Rugby Association for Africa. I know Rugby has very little presence in Ethiopia. Back in 2002, there were only six national Rugby Federations in Africa. But that now has grown to reach to 38 federations. Following the time, we started to sponsor Rugby Africa in 2017, we were able to put Africa on the map of the global Rugby. We were able to create access to Rugby Africa Federation to appear on the likes of CNN and Al Jazeera. You can complain about Africa telling bad things through the international media so easily. But you can’t complain against the global media when you fail to provide the other side of the story. That’s what we are doing. I, as chairman of the APO Group, can look in the eyes of any journalist that might work either for CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera or else and will ask why they chose to cover a story from the bad angle that hurts Africa when there are so many good stories to tell. There are startups. There are amazing women entrepreneurs. The African contemporary art is booming. The competition the National Basketball Association (NBA) organizes globally was won by a Nigerian team this year. You have so many nice things to tell the world.
How do you see the growing presence of the global media in Africa?
It’s increasing as multinational companies are investing a lot in Africa. Pepsi is putting up an investment of USD one billion in Africa this year. Great part of that amount is dedicated for advertisements and they are not kidding. Dangote is sponsoring CNN for six programs that are dedicated for Africa. Glo is advertising massively on CNN and others. BBC has opened its Africa office out of the UK. The coming of global media into Africa, however, has its own problems, too. They are draining the best talent from Africa’s local media outlets. The Washington Post is expanding its workforce as the BBC has already hired 270 journalists. The French speaking media have huge presence in the continent.
In the past five years, Euro News, CNBC Africa, Sky News and the like have expanded and invested a lot in Africa. Do you know that Nigeria alone gathers 25 percent of BBC’s global audience? That’s huge. There is a reason why CNN has six programs dedicated to Africa. For instance, in Nigeria the upper middle class has started to watch CNN and other international media outlets than it watches local outlets. When you connect the dots, on the one hand, you have big multinationals, full of cash, hungry to communicate with consumers. On the other side, you have the so-called international media outlets competing with local media. Studies are showing that when there is a segment of society with good purchasing power, local companies tend to shift advertisements to foreign media. In that case, what do you think is going to happen? In addition to the brain drains, there is also another problem. Our kids will be learning about Africa from the likes of CNN than from their own sources. It’s an issue of sovereignty. Today, I think 50 percent of Ethiopian youth is learning the news about Ethiopia through the BBC. That’s problematic. Through time, due to lack of finances and other resources, local media might not exist anymore. There is a French saying that goes “Fat people get thinner and thinner people dye.” I’m afraid that’s what going to happen on of the African media landscape. I think it’s a bigger treat to the continent. We might be facing a new form of colonization. The worst is yet to come as the media serves as a tool in controlling our thoughts.
Every journalist, including myself, what to work freely and express ideas freely and everyone what the watch listen to or read good stories. However, there are also bad stories and journalists are required to report that because it is what it is.
I was a journalist and the freedom of journalists is certainly what we don’t jeopardize. I never pressure a journalist and we don’t encourage that in our company. If journalists are interested to report on certain events or issues, we welcome them. But there is one thing where I can be personally be aggressive and blatant is that when the truth is not reported. It happens once a year. I think it’s fair to demand facts to be reported. Sometimes, clients call us to ask for stories to be amended or corrected. In the media industry, we have the legendry term affability. Some PR practitioners tend to introduce themselves as good practitioners and will request companies saying they have good networks with journalists and they would even say they have special relationships with some editors. That’s so unprofessional and completely rubbish. It doesn’t work that way. We work for many corporations than governments and try to avoid controversies as we can. Our focus is mostly on positive images and messages.
Where do you see Africa going in terms of its media contents and what will be its position in the coming five years?
I’m very concerned regarding the African media landscape. When studies show that Africans are watching foreign media than their own national media, that’s so concerning. By the way there is no international media except a national media with geographical coverage. Foreign media have their own biases and interests. There are not like the UN and they don’t operate that way. If you ask why Africa watches more foreign media than its own, I think, partly its because of the content. I don’t know whether it’s because of the quality of the content or because of the angle.
Do you buy the idea that ‘bad news sells’ than positive news?
Yes, in the international media it does, and I have seen that. Recently, I saw the face of a beast that we are fighting against. It was a year ago and the story was related to Rugby. The national team of Zimbabwe was traveling to Tunisia to play against the Tunisian side. For some reason the hotel was not up to their standard. From what I understood, it doesn’t have Wi-Fi or a swimming pool. The players refused to stay in that hotel and opted to stay outside. It was during the night. One of the players took a photo of players who were laying on top of their bags on the street. That photo was posted on Twitter. The story came out to be the largest hit and if Namibia won the World Rugby tournament it might not get that huge coverage. It was painful. The story was one of the top ten stories about Africa in terms of coverages. The reason why that story was so popular was because it fit the narrations and biases the west had for year for our continent. It confirmed their preconceived image about Africa. I was so upset. Hence, yes bad news still pays more than good news.
Let’s turn to APO. Where will you take your company and what’s your next step?
Our next step is to consolidate our position in Africa to become the leading consulting firm in advising multinationals and African companies in the various aspects of their operations. In addition to their communications strategy, we like to advise them on the use of technology and business plan expansion and new ventures. We might not be the next Accenture, but we want to achieve that status in Africa. We are not an asset-based company. We depend on our talent and on our people. We have some 75 staff and we have the right pool of talent. We will continue to enter into strategic partnerships with leading and big corporations. We have the potential to become not only the leading Pan African communications company but also a leading consulting company and help change the narratives towards Africa.
But why is that governments are not joining hands with APO after seeing what you have done?
I think its because of two reasons. One is that we are not searching for them. We are in a place where we are cheery picking. To some people we say thanks but no thanks. We want to focus on corporations than governments. We want to work with people who understand the value of what we are fetching. Traditionally, I was working with governments and it wasn’t always making sense from a business point of view. But it’s a shameful thing and I am sorry that we couldn’t do better in that regard. Even in areas of tourism and investment where African leaders seem out and upfront, I don’t think some governments have the right mindset to do better. I never met a government official who truly understood the value of the work we do and what it brings to the continent. But I would say that the first government that would come to APO and want us to offer whatever we have in our power, that government will definitely be put on our map.
In financial terms what can be said about the size of the APO Group?
We don’t necessarily disclose our financial assets and turnover and we don’t have to since we are private company. But in the last two years, referring the 2017/18 financial year, we have doubled our turnover and we grew by 60 percent from the previous year. The forecast for this year is 40 percent growth and our plan is to grow by 40 percent for the coming three years.