Djembe Communications’ Mitchell Prather chats with us about redefining success and embracing opportunities
Role: Managing Director Organisation: Djembe Communications Mitchell Prather, Djembe’s Managing Director, brings over 25 years of international ﬁnancial and corporate communications experience gained in Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and the Middle East. Following the success of our #PRProSeries, exploring the careers of the most powerful PR pros today, Felice Hurst, MD of Hanson Search MENA, sits down with Mitchell to find out how he made it in the industry.
Why did you get into communications?
My father was a politician, running a district back home in Michigan for one of the powerful Democrats. He ran the district so he could deal with various social challenges, and I learned early on that power, public service, and helping people were all good things. I knew that I didn’t want to go into politics because I saw the downsides, but I thought that working with people in communications and trying to make an impact that way, was something I could do. So I started off in financial PR. I sort of fell into it as I was a receptionist at a small investor relations firm. This allowed me to take things one step at a time. It allowed me to explore opportunities, to meet different people and to listen. It wasn’t like I woke up one morning and decided to be a PR. It was just part of how I was evolving as a young man, a human being. It was an incredible journey on both a professional and a personal level.
What personal attribute has most helped you succeed in your career?
My parents were both very positive personal influences. My dad used to say to me when I was a child that the worst thing in life was to be a liar and a thief. I learned early on that honest and integrity were important. And from my mother, I got that tenacity, that desire to succeed. She was a mother of five and put her career on hold to support my dad’s career and all of us. She was also active in the community. I learned about the different kinds of hard work from my father and mother. I think that this tenacity has always led me to work hard, work at being successful and define success differently. Many people see success from a title perspective, or from a financial perspective. For me it was just about building relationships and having experiences. The fact that I can still talk to my intern from 20 years ago shows the type of person I am and that’s what I bring to the table. I think this resonates with a lot of people. I have retainer relationships with clients that go back 10 years. That’s a long time in the communications field.
What would you say has been the biggest challenge that you’ve overcome?
Sometimes a passion overtakes your life. I’m on the road 80% of the time and the biggest challenge I’ve had is taking time off, having down time. It’s been tough; I’ve missed weddings, anniversaries, my nieces’ birthday…You need to compensate yourself for that so I try to go out for dinner or coffee with the friends I’ve made in the course of my career wherever I am in the world.
What is the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
I think the best career advice is to be passionate about what you do. I’m 27 years into this career and I still enjoy the thrill of what we do. I think if you can find the projects that you’re passionate about, and this makes up the greater percentage of your day, then you can go home thinking that you’ve done a good job. Hand on heart, most days I feel that way.
In ten years’ time, what do you think will be the biggest change in the global communications industry?
Obviously there’s the impact of technology. I read an article recently about the internet that I thought was fascinating. It pointed out that when the internet started out it used to be known as the information superhighway, but now it ought to be called Bullsh*t Boulevard. If people have a view they put it on the internet so the biggest challenge for us in the communications field is to recognise the power that this levelling of technology has and how to address this impact. I think technology is going to be the biggest driver, the biggest change and we as communications professionals need to realise that it’s not a question of spinning or throwing out information - it’s all about finding the right context for what you want to say.
What would you say are the three words that best describe you as a communicator?
Passionate. Leader. Manager.
Apart from your current role, what would be your dream role within communications?
Recently in light of what’s gone on in Europe in terms of the refugee issue I think I’d like to support a more humanitarian effort. Refugees are being painted in such a negative light and that is so disheartening. I’d like to be able to provide that context [that could help change the story] and help improve lives.
What have you learned about working in emerging economies?
I think you quickly learn that Africa is not one market. I also think the communications field has failed Africa in that it hasn’t been ‘African’ first and foremost in terms of global insights and knowledge. Going into these markets, Djembe has looked for local people who are passionate about changing the story of Africa. For us, I learned that when you learn in Africa don’t expect it to be just in the boardroom, every person has something to teach you. For example, when you land in Lagos, or Rwanda, you can look out from the taxi and see chaos, and challenges, or you can look out and see interesting things going on. See people living a life and trying to make a difference in their life, or their family’s lives. That’s how you need to see most of these frontier markets, not just Africa. You need to see the potential. If we as communicators can’t see the potential, we’re not going to be successful. I think that’s why we’ve been successful in Africa, we pick the people who have this quality to see potential [and make something of it].
What’s your five year plan?
In 2016 we’re going to start going above the line and getting our name out there about our proposition. I can see us entering a few more African markets, solidifying our vision of becoming the communications partner of choice in Africa and having more award-winning campaigns being promoted. By doing all of that, we’ll be a much bigger consultancy, we’ll be in different markets and we may be in different regions. We may take this approach to Latin America, or Asia. You can see from our growth rate that what we’re doing is already pretty impressive. We’ll be doing more of the same. —
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