Leon Rademeyer, courtesy of LinkedIn
Manager: Media Affairs
Medihelp Medical Scheme
On Friday, September 21, I had the privilege of interviewing Leon Rademeyer, Professional Manager at Medihelp Medical Scheme, via Skype. I had previously connected with Leon on LinkedIn. He has had an extensive education and has been in Public Relations for over 20 years. He studied journalism for three years right after school. In addition, he worked as a journalist and photographer for an air force magazine. “My dream had always been to work at a big daily newspaper,” he said. He graduated from the University of South Africa with a BA degree in African politics and philosophy. He also achieved an honors degree in international politics at the University of Pretoria. He will be completing his Master’s Degree in October. Leon is a member of some forums such as the Press Club of South Africa and the Public Relations Institute of South Africa.
During his time in journalism, Leon mostly worked in crime and general reporting during a “turbulent and violent time” when there were many stories for a journalist. He interviewed a variety of people, including Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa and Desmond Tutu, South African activist. He described journalism as a “fast-paced and racy type of environment” and that a typical day is very busy and complicated. Leon explains that there is pressure in getting extra information that your competition wouldn’t have, because merely knowing someone’s age could give you an edge over a competitor.
After working in journalism for five years, he decided to broaden his scope and study Public Relations. Since Leon had experience in reading, writing, and communication, he felt that “being on the other side of the spectrum could be very interesting.” He soon applied for a position at the University of Pretoria as a spokesperson. Public Relations, he said, is a world full of opportunities, and you can make a much better living out of PR than you could with journalism.
Even being in South Africa, Leon’s organization is easily connected to the rest of the world. “Because of the electronic age of globalism,” Leon said, “the world has shrunk and has become a very small place.” Technology has unlocked several possibilities for global organizations through the use of social media and other means. Most companies in South Africa know fluent English, which provides even more effective communication with different publics. The company still communicates in both languages because some of the other older companies have an Afrikaans clientele.
Leon said that social media has been a positive factor for his company. It has been one of the chief advantages in keeping current with the PR industry. The idea of social media is fairly recent to the 107-year-old business. The medical aid organization started their involvement with social media approximately one year ago, starting with some of the largest platforms. It currently has Facebook and Twitter accounts, in addition to a blog of which Leon himself is the author. Leon said that the organization has been very successful since their debut in social media. After about another year, he said, they may decide to reconsider and add some other platforms.
Leon makes it a point to meet with journalists, target publics, and target markets face-to-face. He said that personal communication is highly important to the industry. “I make it my business to know what’s going on to a certain extent in the personal lives of my top 10 or 20 contacts,” he said. The most effective thing you can do in an organization is to target your publics’ needs, which you can then adjust to, Leon said. His advice for working in Public Relations is to be both proactive and reactive as well as speedy. He said that there will inevitably be problems, but it is how you handle those situations that distinguishes you. In PR, when you communicate to the public about your organization, you are the first person people will come to when there is an issue. It is especially important that you portray your company in an honest yet positive manner. Your first concern is to protect your company, or demonstrating, as Leon called it, transparent integrity. He said you must have the basics in place, a media policy, and some type of crisis communication plan.
One of the most intense and arduous experiences in PR for Leon involved a vaccine for a cure for HIV/AIDS. The scientists in the faculty of medicine for the organization developed the vaccine without telling the University’s management or the PR department. Later, one of the academics leaked out the information about the cure because some of them had connections with journalists. Leon was the spokesperson concerning this matter, and he received calls from the New York Times, BBC, and BBC radio. The best thing to do in that situation, Leon said, was to be honest. The company let the three scientists go and Leon apologized and explained that it was not their fault. There was some debate, then, as to who the spokesperson should be. They wondered whether they should have the Vice Chancellor speak, but they were worried that he would be contaminated. Since Leon was the regular spokesperson, they took the risk and left the chancellor out of it. In the end, he remained uncontaminated and the problem was resolved.
With PR, Leon said, everything depends on you as the Public Relations professional to get the best deal. Before entering the field, Leon said he was overconfident at first. He soon realized that if you don’t know your internal audience and if you’re not on the same page as the management team in the organization, problems can develop. He said that it’s important to make a connection with the management in the organization. You must see eye-to-eye with them because you work for them. They tell you what to do, how to do it, and when. To work in PR, Leon said, you must be able to stand on your own two feet, be positive, and form a balance. There will be times when you must take the fall for your company, and as you build trust with the company, they will ask you to do more.
The field has changed significantly since Leon began working in PR. At the stage he started, PR was slower and used a lot of print media. The interactions were more focused and one-on-one. He said that you would have three or four major contacts in the media and maybe one corporate social investment. He said the field was pretty basic; even now, though, the main principles have stayed the same. Current PR has become much quicker, and there is no gatekeeper position.
Leon says that having a career in PR is truly an exciting and fulfilling experience. Every day can be rewarding. He says that if you like an adrenaline rush with each new day, then PR is the job for you. He left me with some advice: In PR, once you have the basics in place and internal staff and management under your wing, you can go out there, be creative, and take calculated risks. You must be able to think on your feet and yet still be sensitive for your company’s internal needs.
I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to speak with a legitimate Public Relations professional. He was very patient and understanding as well as extremely helpful. I learned quite a bit just from listening to his story. After this interview, I feel more likely to pursue a career in PR because it sounds interesting and engaging.