by Carey Finn (@carey_finn) Monalisa Sibongile Zwambila, The Riverbed Agency founder and CEO, talks about the shape of PR during and after the pandemic. Her agency scooped no fewer than 12 titles at this year’s PRISM Awards, including South African Campaign of the Year for its work on underage drinking with

Q5: What is the impact of PR today, and how has this changed — if at all — in the context of the novel coronavirus pandemic?
Monalisa Sibongile Zwambila: If PR serves to influence opinion and manage and build reputation, then we need it now, more than ever. It is my belief that the true value of PR is no longer in its traditional form but the evolution thereof, as the lead narrator in what we at Riverbed call “Whole Idea Solutions”. [These are] solutions that unearth what people care about and, in so doing, ignite conversations, drive behavioural change and allow PR to create meaningful value in the delivery of integrated solutions. In the context of the pandemic, PR’s role is, first and foremost, simple and ongoing communication to the right people at the right time, managing reputation as businesses undergo transformative and difficult change.

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Q5: Covid-19 has forced us to rethink so many areas of business. What does the future of PR look like to you?
MSZ: Brand empathy — an understanding that now, more than ever, brands are defined by how they show up. Their relevance has to transcend their products and services, and they need to have a point of view on issues that are redefining the world in which we operate. In addition, the future of PR is integrated, it is digital and it no longer needs the bastions and vanguards of traditional media to exist. I believe PR is now owning its rightful place, in creating and leading the narrative across channels. At Riverbed, PR is central to our ideation process as we understand the role that the media and influencers play in defining culture and shifting behaviour.

Q5: How about events? Is online here to stay?
MSZ: The future will be a hybrid mix of things. Businesses will review their spend, and what they once deemed essential will change. I’m not convinced, however, that the dramatic changes that are expected will happen. As human beings, our instinctive yearning for connection will ensure that events in some shape or form continue. When that will be, we’re not sure. But our large-scale events will return, and businesses will want to connect with their customers and stakeholders.

Q5: Even though things change, as you’ve pointed out, at the core much remains the same. What, in your experience, are the pillars of a successful PR campaign?
MSZ: Audience insights, the right messages communicated on the right channels. The realisation that there is now a convergence of disciplines, and that PR cannot work in isolation from that.

Q5: For black women in South Africa and globally, what are the barriers to career development in PR?
MSZ: We’ve seen through the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests that, unless there is will and pressure, change is always slow to take place. The same is true of business with few black women in senior roles. The dial hasn’t shifted. I interview many black women who are keen to join Riverbed because it is important for them to have a black female leader and, for them, that is the only environment in which they believe they will progress. There aren’t enough black female leading voices, unfortunately — and that has to change.

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Carey FinnCarey Finn (@carey_finn) is a writer and editor with over decade and a half of industry experience, having covered everything from ethical sushi in Japan to the technicalities of roofing, agriculture, medical stuff and more. She’s also taught English and journalism, and dabbled in various other communications ventures along the way, including risk reporting. As a contributing writer to, her regular column “Q5” hones in on strategic insights, analysis and data through punchy interviews with inspiring professionals in diverse fields.

This MarkLives #CoronavirusSA special section contains coverage of how the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and its resultant disease, covid-19, is affecting the advertising, marketing and related industries in South Africa and other parts of Africa, and how we are responding. Updates may be sent to us via our contact form or the email address published on our Contact Us page. Opinion pieces/guest columns must be exclusive.

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