South Africa is suffering from an image crisis, with the coutry's approval rating in international media having plunged to its worst levels since January 2007 – but, while political news has been negative, news on South African businesses remains positive.
This is according to new research by Media Tenor.
Especially worrying is the emergence of critical news on the country's economic situation and its ability to host the Fifa World Cup.
The impact of this coverage on South Africa's reputation poses a quandary for national government and companies hungry to attract foreign investment and tourists.
In total, 3 515 reports in 96 opinion-leading media from 15 countries were analysed, over the period January 2007 to May 2008. In so doing, Media Tenor South Africa attempted to establish foreign media perceptions of the country, its various political entities, and business and economic news.
The recent high negativity, coupled with the increased coverage South Africa received in the last two months, has created a challenging reputation quandary for any country to resolve. The only times in which ratings moved into the positive were when business news increased while political news simultaneously decreased.
"Time and time again we've seen foreign media express confidence in businesses operating in South Africa," says Wadim Schreiner, CEO of Media Tenor South Africa. "However, the country remains especially vulnerable to reporting on violent crime and criticism of its regional foreign policies."
Though reportage on tourism in the country remains very positive, this news only comprises 5% of the total coverage in international media.
What is especially worrying about the nation's international media profile is the increase over time of more negative reports. This could mean that negative perceptions are becoming entrenched and may therefore, in turn, be more difficult to reverse. Such coverage can also have a particularly averse effect on long-term developmental goals such as attracting foreign investment, and luring higher numbers of tourists to meet industry growth targets. Relations with important trading partners might also be affected in the long term.
A qualitative scan of June and July coverage shows that recent negative coverage of a back-up plan for the Fifa World Cup could be related to the consistent pressure on South Africa's reputation.
Crime and South Africa's foreign policy in Zimbabwe have been the two most consistent and most negative factors linked to the country, and it therefore comes as no surprise that European media have linked these concerns with Fifa's decision to look at contingency plans, should South Africa fail to honour its guarantees.
"It should be of particular concern to South Africa that some UK media are already hinting that the World Cup should be boycotted, if South Africa does not take firm action in Zimbabwe," says Schreiner.
Business news remains one of the cornerstones of foreign coverage (19,7% of total coverage), even when economic news is beginning to compete with it in 2008. Where news on business in South Africa has remained more or less positive in 2008, despite high negative coverage on the impact of the power crisis, economic news has been more often than not negative.
"Mergers and acquisitions news has been one of the key stories in foreign media when it comes to South Africa. For example, MTN's recent talks with its Indian rivals received almost exclusively positive coverage and it also made up 12% of the coverage on South Africa in May," says Schreiner.
"This kind of news sends out a clear signal to prospectors in the international investment fraternity: there are still great deals to be had in South Africa."
However, perceptions of volatility in South Africa's economy might counteract this positive response.
Says Schreiner: "It is therefore essential that companies and government communicate not just locally, but also internationally, on strategies and policies that have been put in place, to ensure the viability of South Africa as a healthy investment destination."