Guest 01: Lionel Tousse, founder & CEO of ICONProd Africa, exclusive affiliate for Central Africa, of the prestigious Public Relations firm burson Cohn & Wolfe, member of the Com WPP Group.

For the first article of the series “Impact of the health crisis of Covid-19 for professionals and agencies of communication, events and relations in Cameroon”, we receive Lionel Tousse

Lionel is the founder and CEO of the Integrated Communication agency ICONProd Africa (ICONProd BCW), created in 2009 in the DRC and whose headquarters are in Douala, Cameroon. It operates in the sub-region (Chad,Gabon,CongoB). 

How did you react to this health crisis in Cameroon with your stakeholders (employees, partners, customers)? What methods have you implemented?

Lionel Tousse : Due to the fact that we belong to a large group (Burson Cohn & Wolfe) A leadership meeting was set up every Friday with Johannesburg to exchange on the difficulties encountered on the ground and on the moral level. We also launched a communication operation based on solidarity and a circle of (people around the world on the #StayInReahOut to get news from collaborators, partners, friends and family.

After the 1st case of Covid-19 detected on March 14 in Cameroon, we asked the trainees to stay at home and we advocated teleconferencing for all teams as of March 17. In order to protect office equipment, some employees return to the office spaces. In order to be able to respond to calls for tenders, we have set up brainstorming teams of 2 to 3 people. In this period of recovery, the teams are still small. The commercial and creative staff continue to telework. I briefed the security guards and employees on the importance of respecting barrier gestures, that is, washing hands regularly, keeping a physical distance and using the gels available.

On an ongoing basis, I call my staff to check in on them. We talk regularly on WhatsApp. We haven’t set up an official crisis unit, but solidarity and constant exchanges naturally settled between us. We had a hard blow on May 22nd when we lost our creative director in N’Djamena victim of the Covid-19.  This has affected us so far and the teams are in bad shape. I am calling them to allow them to speak.

I would like to take this opportunity to renew my condolences to his family and wish his soul rest in peace.

Quel fut l’impact financier de la crise sur votre activité ?

Lionel Tousse : ICONProd BCW was in a recovery phase. We had just won a local and international tender that was obviously going to give us a good breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, the health crisis put the signing of the contract on hold.

We were also working on some burning issues that have been frozen until further notice. Events represent 70% of our client portfolio. In February, we launched the “15 min chrono” concept. It is a musical activity allowing 8 selected young artists to have the stage for 15 minutes to demonstrate their talent. The winners see their image associated with our partner companies. We have suspended the concept, which makes us a big loss of income. The impact is significant, especially for the agency, which was already in a delicate phase. I did a participative management with the teams to explain the situation to them and to get us to stick together. The agencies in our sector have not had any support from the government or tax cuts. 

How did your clients react during the crisis (breach of contract, postponement of campaigns, layoffs, etc.)? How did you accompany them during this period?

Lionel Tousse : Locally, we were in the pitch phase. The companies remained silent. It is immediately clear that they are not sufficiently prepared for crisis communication. Everybody has been taken on board. They too… No formal communication on “the way forward”. For the pitches following the calls for tenders, we also had no feedback. “Silence radio”. But of course, we understand that they are also wondering about the future and do not necessarily have the answers at this stage.

Internationally, customer communication was more formal. The watchword was to put contracts on standby.

"On a purely PR level: opportunities are to be seized at the level of crisis communication. We have been telling businesses and government to prepare for crisis communication for 4 years."
Lionel Tousse
Founder & CEO of Iconprod Africa

Which company left its mark on you in the way it communicated during this crisis and particularly during the period of containment?

Lionel Tousse : no communication has particularly impressed me. Rather, I have seen multinational corporations scrambling for donations to the government. It has been more of a leadership battle in terms of donations. I also saw a few banners, but I would have expected more BtoC communication from the companies, more communication geared towards Cameroonians. I would have liked to see actions, messages aimed at everyday life and at professionals in the hospital sector. 

Faced with the promiscuity in the markets, companies could have set up water and soap points to perpetuate the gestures that are barriers in the daily lives of Cameroonians because at the end of the day it is the Cameroonian who needs assistance, support in this health crisis. These millions should have been used to have an impact on the medium and long term. 

What communication and public relations advice would you give to an advertiser (public, private or para-public) wishing to relaunch its business?

Lionel Tousse : already companies have not stopped communicating. We’ve seen the digital explosion, corporate Twitter accounts being reactivated or created. Companies need to communicate with a lot of empathy. They need to communicate about their strategies to get back on the side of events. How will they continue to be one to one? The health crisis has led to the cessation of off-media activities and the difficulty will lie in their ability to restart these activities while reassuring their targets.

Will this crisis change your sector and the way you communicate?

Lionel Tousse : On a purely PR level: opportunities are to be seized at the level of crisis communication. We have been telling businesses and government to prepare for crisis communication for 4 years. The time has come for them to pay more attention to it. This is an opportunity for PR professionals to get together and intensify efforts to promote the culture of crisis communication. Cameroonian PR professionals need to organize themselves and speak with one voice. 

On an event level: I have no worries, because the vent cannot disappear at once. We will have to integrate the risks related to the virus and compensate with digital strategies that will increase the reach. A few days ago, I was talking about phygital with a colleague, that is to say reducing the number of participants and compensating for this drop with a technological dynamic. As a professional, we will have to educate the participants. That takes time. It requires means, but we will have to integrate simple gestures, integrate gloves, valves, signs with barrier gestures, put in place tools that will bring warmth so that people feel as before during the events, this feeling of being in a crowd. The consumer experience, the brand experience will have to be highlighted and pushed.

"We did not wait for the crisis to be useful to Cameroonian society. The agency did not take advantage of the crisis to put employees on technical unemployment."
Lionel Tousse
Founder & CEO of Iconprod Africa

How can your agency help society today?

Lionel Tousse : (laughs) We did not wait for the crisis to be useful to Cameroonian society. The agency did not take advantage of the crisis to put employees on technical unemployment. We are a good corporate citizen and our challenge is to continue to protect our employees. To continue to be useful to the Cameroonian society, we will continue to share our experience, our know-how. We wish to continue to be avant-gardists by setting up a framework of reflection with professionals and PR agencies to develop Public Relations in Cameroon.  

Imagine the world of communication and public relations in Cameroon in 10 years :  

Lionel Tousse : I have been serving brands and companies across the sub-region for 18 years and my dream for Cameroon and Central Africa is to see PR valued and not confused or equated exclusively with a business facilitator or press officer. I hope that in 5 years time, Cameroon PR will be on a par with Anglo-Saxon Africa. PR encompasses several professions and it is important for a country to know how to highlight its assets and work on its narrative through the prism of its culture, values and customs and present to the world its best face; to prepare for crisis communication. On the media side, I would like to see them take a step forward and become partners for PR and thus highlight the image of our countries and our brands, playing a more important role in the quest for truth. I want icons, influencers, companies and the state to understand that a brand image is built and developed over the long term. I want the professionals in the sector to be more united and cohesive. I hope that many of us will build that.

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                                                                                      Par Elodie MBIDA