8 December 2012

Uganda: Public Relations Practice


It can't continue to be business as usual in the era of social media:

People in the public relations industry in East Africa were between Nov.19 to 23 meeting in Kampala to scratch their heads on how to continue to make their work relevant in a hostile environment where the profession is viewed as bent on sprucing up tattered images of companies and businesses, bordering on spin and propaganda.

And they are right to do so. Companies, businesses and organisations are cutting budgets, and trying to look at which sections to throw the knife, technology is empowering citizens to scrutinise the way businesses behave and exposing them on the internet--and journalists no longer have to wait for a press release to write a story.

When I joined The Monitor newspaper (now Daily Monitor) as a reporter in 1997, every morning at editorial meetings, the news editor would have to first check the fax machine to see which press releases had come in, which invitations, and what press conferences were scheduled that day. All these were generated by PR people. They could effectively set the agenda of what would make news in the next edition's copy.

In fact, a news editor's power and authority lay in dispensing and assigning reporters to cover events or write stories from juicy press releases. To their favourite reporters, they would send to cover powerful brands, and to their not so liked, often young reporters, they would for example send you to cover the opening of a road.

All that has now changed. Public relations people are no longer in charge of the news agenda. Their company's brands are in the public domain, and anyone with a cameraphone can take a photo of say a company vehicle driving on the pavement, post it on facebook, and set up a trail of discussions that could ultimately drag the image of the company in the mud. And the PR person cannot prevent that from happening.

Alternatively, a CEO can go at an event and make a lousy presentation, and someone in the audience films the speech on their smartphone, post it on youtube--and get it viral. No amount of spin doctoring can prevent that.

News and information and rumours spread faster today because of social media and internet social networks. People in public relations have to pull their socks to match the gravity of these developments. Yet, many seem to have remained stuck in the old, pre-historic age, where all that a PR person was known for, was the guy who wears a well pressed suit, polishes his or her shoes, smiles nicely, and organises events.

The perception of public relations and the people who work in the industry seems to be at an all-time low. Gone seems to be the days when the likes of Ms Hope Kivengere--President Museveni's press secretary in the 1990s; Vincent Musubire Kityamuwesi, head of PR at the defunct Greenland Bank, Shaban Bantariza, to mention a few were household names, particularly in the journalism fraternity, because they were generally taken to be helpful, highly regarded and respected.

I posed a question on 14 November, on my facebook profile and on a Uganda journalist facebook page: What have been your joys or frustrations of dealing with public relations people? I was shocked to the marrow with how contemptuous the PR professionals are viewed by journalists.

One journalist wrote: The personality traits of these people themselves, do not take their calls, do not call back, they shout, they are lacking in knowledge of the organisations they work for, leave alone the organisation functions, never keep time eh eh eh, ...... the list is endless."

Another senior editor wrote: "Don't pick calls, never return calls, they go behind your back and try and negotiate with Senior Editors and Marketing department to kill a story arrogant, and proud, minimising reporters, and abusive. Some know very little or nothing about the company they speak for/ limited knowledge about their partners/activities of companies doing related work. They are not sensitive to newsroom pressures/deadline, most actually promise to respond and do it the following day when the story is out etc."

Another commenter said: "Most lack basic training in PR. They are pretty faces but no substance."

In the one day that I posed the question, the entry received over 50 comments, with 100 per cent of the comments critical of the PR people, and generally saying they are unhelpful.

A few PR practitioners on the forum came up, putting up a spirited defence of their work, but were overwhelmed by the barrage of failings of their colleagues. The key words from the discussion included: arrogant, lack knowledge of what is happening in their organisations, insensitive, out of touch with technology, despised by senior management, not confident, etc.

Yet, I must say, that today, more than in the past, public relations is crucial--for government, businesses, organisations, and individuals. PR professionals must be prepared to get out of their comfort zones and participate intelligently in conversations about their businesses; they must educate themselves about current trends, and contribute wisely to policy making; they must be at the cutting edge of technology, and use it; they must go beyond simply acting as errand boys and girls to distribute press release and spamming inboxes of editors with unsolicited mail. All this will require a change of mindset--right from the training institutions, to the hiring processes and to the real practice.

Julius Mucunguzi is an Assistant Spokesperson for Africa at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. Email:

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