A few years ago, I was part of a select group of journalists who met with one of the four former female telecom CEOs in Ghana. We discussed a number of industry issues, including how each of the telcos in Ghana relate to the media – journalists to be precise. I remember giving a very honest narrative of my view of each of their media relations styles. Both sides of the table agreed that MTN was very proactive with their media relations, while the other telcos maintain either a flat or an occasional touch-and-go kind of approach.
After nodding her head with smiles, in approval of my narrative, that female CEO made a very intriguing comment about MTN’s media relations strategy. Her exact words were: “you are absolutely right, but you must also know that across the industry MTN’s style of working with the media is viewed as corruption.”
For a moment the room became quiet because that was rather a huge “elephant in the room” situation for us as journalists who have worked within the Ghanaian/Africa context for years. For us, MTN’s media relations strategy is a welcoming one, and indeed the best among its peers. So, for a top industry executive to tell us that across the industry, that style is viewed as “corruption”, was an unexpected shock therapy for us.
But we needed to get out of the shock quickly by addressing the elephant in the room so we can continue our conversation. I did so to some extent at that moment, but this piece is intended to do it a bit more extensively.
So what is the MTN media relations style/strategy that is “seen by the rest of the industry as corruption” – and by what yardstick is “the rest of the industry” judging it so? In no particular order, I will attempt to lay out my experience with MTN’s media strategy, beginning from the most recent manifestation. It will become clear from this piece that, contrary to what the rest of the industry supposedly think, MTN actually got it right and the rest are rather found wanting in their media relations.
For the first time in the history of the industry, a telecoms operator organised a dedicated media awards to reward excellence in journalism. It was called the MTN Bright Media Awards. Beyond the fact that it indicates that MTN is the only telco that puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to media development and helping to improve journalistic excellence, it also shows that MTN has contributed so much to media development, such that it is confident that an award scheme will extract enough quality journalistic work from its media partners. For a scheme seeking to reward five people, there were 76 entries, and the quality of the works submitted drove the panel of judges to suggest that the number of awardees be increased to 13 and MTN accepted and did so. The panel of judges also recommended that the scheme be made an annual one, and MTN promised to consider it.
But long before establishing its own media awards to mark its ongoing 25th anniversary celebrations, MTN was a key sponsor of the Ghana Journalists Awards for many years. They had to leave the GJAs, not because they wanted to, but because of number of reasons, including some conflict of interest issue.
Again, MTN till date remains the headline sponsor for the Sport Writers Association of Ghana (SWAG) Awards, which is a scheme run by journalists but rewards sports personalities and organisations. MTN has also been sponsoring the West Africa Media Excellence Conference and Awards (WAMECA) organised by the Media Foundation for West Africa for journalists across the sub-region for several years now.
It is important to note that none of the other telcos has done anything close to what MTN Ghana has been doing to reward excellence in journalism in the country.
Beyond sponsoring and creating media awards schemes, MTN has been putting its money where its mouth is in terms of media/journalistic excellence development in Ghana. The rest just pay lip service to the subject and stop there. They go as far as using journalists as conduits, but do virtually nothing to sharpen their skills in covering such a complex subject as telecoms and technology. MTN has been running the popular Bright Media Series, where journalists get training from experts in various fields such as writing skills, law, telecoms, technology, industry regulations and many more. And when MTN trains journalists, the entire ecosystem benefits because journalists are able to cover the industry better. To compliment that, MTN also introduced the Bright Conversations, where achievers in all fields are put on the spot in one-on-one conversations, from which journalists derive rich knowledge and content for their various platforms. Some of the personalities who have been on that platform are Nana Kwesi Gyan Apenteng, Albert Ocran, Daniel McKorley of McDan Group and others.
What is significant about these two – Bright Media Series and Bright Conversations is that during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, they went completely virtual/digital via webinars, and MTN was consistent with them to keep the media busy and constantly educated in spite of the pandemic. They even added on to this gesture by giving journalists access to several other webinars where MTN officials were speakers both here and abroad. One of such rare opportunities was the CEO, Selorm Adadevoh’s keynote at the 28th Edition of the Wharton Africa Business Forum at Wharton Business School, University of Pennsylvania, USA.
During this entire period, the rest of the telcos have remained virtually dead as far as engaging with and helping to develop the skills of media is concerned. Was it because they thought all those opportunities MTN provided the media in the midst of Covid lockdown was fuelled by an intent to corrupt the media – really?
MTN takes its investment into media development beyond the shores of this country. When it used to sponsor GJA awards for the Best Telecoms Reporter and Most Promising Journalist, the winners were sponsored on an all-expense-paid trip to South Africa to attend the Highway Africa Conference. Even after MTN left the GJA Awards, it kept sponsoring journalists to Highway Africa by selecting them based on a criteria that ensured that journalists from across the country benefited. That is the level of commitment MTN has to media development in Ghana.
This gesture is critical for journalists because sponsorship to such conferences abroad is not easy to come by in this part of the world, and MTN, as a responsible corporate citizen operating in Africa, is very much aware of that, so it offered to provide that opportunity to deserving journalists via the GJA awards scheme, and later to carefully selected journalists across the country.
This writer has had the opportunity to attend several industry conferences outside of Ghana, including the Highway Africa, which was sponsored by MTN because I won the respective GJA Award. For other conferences, I had to struggle on my own to get sponsorship because no one, not even the media house I worked for, would provide the sponsorship. It often took a few individual industry friends who believe in my work to fund my trips. So, if MTN chooses to solve that real problem by selecting deserving journalists to upgrade their knowledge and skills through sponsorship to such conferences, is that corruption?
TRANSPARENCY – MTN EDITORS FORUM
MTN has no obligation to report to the Ghanaian media. Their obligation is to their shareholders and regulators. But even before MTN floated shares on Ghana Stock Exchange and allowed Ghanaians to own shares in the company, they have been reporting to the Ghanaian media, and by extension to Ghanaians, consistently every year in one of the most popular and biggest events on their annual calendar – The MTN Editors Forum. This is where the CEO himself presents their full year report and journalists ask very critical questions and get answers. It is followed by a series of one-on-one interviews on various media platforms for weeks. Besides, the annual report itself is a treasure pot for journalists and researchers in terms of content and context for programming, articles and what-have-you. In addition to that, the MTN Group also shares its half-year and full-year reports on its website, and information about Ghana is always made obvious for journalists, researchers and other stakeholders to feed on.
The other telcos don’t even care about sharing any such information with the Ghanaian media. In fact, if you visit their websites looking for any such information, they have deliberately buried any information about their Ghana operations in technical language and make no mention of the word “Ghana”. It is as if they deliberately want to hide anything about Ghana from the prying eyes of Ghanaian journalists. So even in their reports to shareholders, they don’t even mention Ghana. Lack of transparency is borderline corruption, is it not?
It is rather ironic that Ghana government owns 30% in Vodafone and also held 25% in Airtel for all of its existence prior to AirtelTigo; yet these two telcos feel Ghanaians, on whose behalf government holds those shares, do not deserve to know what is happening in their operations. Until recently, Ghanaians had no shares in MTN but they reported to Ghanaians through the media every year. If this is what “the rest of the industry” calls “corruption”, then one wonders what kind of warped logic informs their thinking. On the contrary, what could be more corrupt than companies going to every extent to make it difficult for Ghanaians to follow what they are doing in Ghana?!
And let me state at this point that, as the most decorated industry journalist, I have had direct access to all of MTN Ghana CEO’s and topmost executives over the years, but I hardly get direct access to the top executives, much less the CEO’s of any of the other telcos in Ghana. And that is not for lack of effort; They simply don’t have an open door policy for the media. Their corporate communications people mount a needless protective wall around the CEO and prevent access to important stakeholders like journalists. So, that should give you an idea of their media relations strategy. One particular telco actually put out a media relations hotline which goes directly to a media agency in Ghana and not directly to the telco. That is how elitist and irrelevant their media relations strategy is. MTN will never do that.
Watch out for part two of this article in the next few days. It has more spice and punch. Very necessary.