What being a young publicist entails

Friday April 21 2017

From left: Shem Kugwa,Fiona Mukuriah, Blax Oduor Nelson and Joy Muruku. PHOTOS | NATION

From left: Shem Kugwa,Fiona Mukuriah, Blax Oduor Nelson and Joy Muruku. PHOTOS | NATION 

By JAMES KAHONGEH
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Name: Shem Kugwa

Age: 25

Education: Mass Communication, Sound Engineering

Job: Political and corporate publicist

Company: Mesh Consultants 

Shem Muriuki, 25, a publicist during the interview with Daily Nation newspaper. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO.

Shem Muriuki, 25, a publicist during the interview with Daily Nation newspaper. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO.

Publicists are generally viewed as a dishonest and manipulative class of people. What is your position on this?

No person or business wants to be seen in bad light. You only achieve this by emphasising and making public your client’s positives, however trivial, and, sometimes, downplaying any negative aspects. The nature of this job demands inventiveness.

To shape the public’s perception about your client and to enhance their image, you cannot afford to tell people what they want to hear. You tell them what they need to know.   

The phenomenon of social media has entirely disrupted the media landscape. Do you consider social media a threat or a boost to the practice of PR?

Social media is both a blessing and a curse to the practice. Recently, someone hacked into McDonald’s Twitter account and insulted US President Donald Trump. The immediacy element of social media helps an organisation to release the first reaction to the public before they can prepare a much formal response to a crisis such as a press release or a press conference. Online crisis management though is a delicate area as it exposes the organisation to attacks from public.    

Propaganda is a popular technique in political publicity. How are you able to walk the tight rope of engaging in propaganda and telling the truth?

Propaganda is a powerful tool in politics, everywhere. Nonetheless, it is not suitable in all occasions. If mismanaged, it may backfire and harm the user. To achieve effectiveness, it must be well-timed, and this is usually after all the avenues of publicity have been exhausted.  

Words may be taken out of context, leading to a PR nightmare. Do you believe that silence is the ultimate weapon in crisis management?

No one can incriminate you for choosing to be silent. The likelihood to blunder while in the middle of a PR storm is usually high. Blunders often result from responding to claims without taking time to evaluate the effectiveness of the tools used. Silence, however, may not suffice for long as lengthy silence may be interpreted as arrogance, further jeopardising the entity’s reputation.  

Which client are you currently representing?

My current engagement is the campaign management of Ms Millicent Omanga who is gunning for the Nairobi woman rep seat. 

Being a political publicist, would you run moles in your rival’s camp?

Information has a natural way of reaching its right destination. Besides, operating moles is an expensive affair. We use traditional methods of sourcing out for information. Some people are manipulative and will dish out false information to excite the client to loosen the purse strings. Spies may also be tempted to collude with the rival against you.  

Through your interactions, you learn many secrets about your clients. Would you release toxic information about them if you parted ways?

Mutual understanding is an integral aspect of practitioner-client relationship. Confidentiality, trustworthiness and absolute loyalty are crucial attributes in this profession. If someone entrusts you with their image, they entrust you with their career and life. Malicious and reckless disclosure of a client’s secrets is inhumane, and may even attract legal action.  

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Name: Fiona Mukuriah

Age: 25

Company: Redhouse Public Relations

Education: Bachelor of Arts in Communication, Daystar University

Fiona Mukuriah, 25, of Redhouse Public Relations at the Nation Centre on April 18, 2017.PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO.

Fiona Mukuriah, 25, of Redhouse Public Relations at the Nation Centre on April 18, 2017.PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO.

What was your motivation to venture into Public Relations? For how long have you practiced?

While pursuing my Bachelor’s degree in Communication, I was initially keen on electronic media. I later opted out after realising that electronic media was very demanding in terms of hours spent on production of content. I tried my hand in PR, which turned out to be very fascinating as it allowed me to interact with professionals in other fields. This is my third year in practice.

If your client was involved in a reputation-damaging sex scandal, what would you do first?

Matters of this nature are handled on a case-by-case basis. There is no “one-size-fits-all” way to address a precarious issue like this one. Naturally, I would begin by speaking with the client to establish the truth of the matter. Before responding to any allegations, a PR specialist must have all the facts, determine the extent of the damage, and the source of the damaging information. All this assist in crafting a suitable response.

What is your job description as a PR specialist?

I am largely involved with media relations, stakeholder engagements; workshops, round table breakfast meetings, courtesy calls and site visits, mapping of issues, event management and online reputation management through social media, which is a vital component in this digital era. 

Every career has its own setbacks. Which ones do you encounter in your daily activities?

PR is a communication function. There has been a tendency to call on PR practitioners to deal with business operational issues. There is therefore a need to create an understanding that the business needs to first address operations-related issues before going out with any communication. 

Most Kenyans often confuse Public Relations with marketing. What are the distinguishing elements of these two specialties?

This confusion is common in organisations where the two roles are assigned to one person or department.  PR is about brand building and creating a positive reputation through an effective communication strategy. Marketing efforts on the other hand are geared towards earning and maximising revenue for a business organisation.

There is that one blunder in PR that you dread the most. Which one is it?

In the PR practice, rash and reactive responses could do irreparable harm. We ensure that we conduct our investigations properly, acquire accurate information before developing an appropriate mechanism to counter the crisis. 

What insights have you gathered along the way that have made you a better publicist? Is publicity what you wish to do all your life?

PR is a very dynamic industry. Every day you meet clients in different industries and with diverse communication needs. I have had the privilege to work with international organisations in Turkey, South Africa and China. This exposure to different cultures and work ethos has helped me to grow in the practice.

Technology and research both play a critical role in developing strategic communication plans. PR is applicable in life every day, after all, every person is a brand of their own. I cannot picture myself working in a different profession.

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Name: Blax Oduor Nelson

Age: 27

Publicity: Celebrity and political

Education: Accounting - KCA University

Blax Odour Nelson, a Publicist and author during the interview on April 18, 2017. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU

Blax Odour Nelson, a Publicist and author during the interview on April 18, 2017. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU

You are an accountant by profession. How did your career train change route?

Before joining PR, I worked as an accountant for two years. I was also involved with video production for some gospel artists. But a part of me strongly yearned for life in the media industry. I wanted to use the media to bring out the best in the society. Having worked with artists in the music industry, I had seen how a seemingly trivial incident could trigger a career-damaging controversy for artists. That lured me into PR with the vision to become a social accountant.  

Public relations is a delicate career. What are the tricks of manoeuvring this delicacy?

What we hear being reported are normally things blown out of proportion to reflect the point of view of few individuals. The work of PR is to shape the society’s outlook of the personalities or entities that they represent by providing facts. Nothing beats the truth. The truth ends speculation while rendering the matter in question irrelevant. Denial on the other hand fuels more suspicion, and may even drag on for years, consequently hurting the business.   

Do you believe the notion that bloggers today are more influential than traditional media outlets?

This is a fallacy. Bloggers operate in a wild space where they may post anything about anyone anytime depending on their desired outcome, which allows malice to take course. Conventional media entities on the other hand are guided by a set of strict codes, and their content is thoroughly screened, verified and therefore more reliable.    

All is fair in love and war. Does this maxim count in your practice?

I am a spin-doctor of perception, not morals. My Christian values, however, take precedence in as much as I will try to use all crafty avenues to achieve my objective. I cannot use unethical methods to achieve my end however much alluring this may be.

What determines the kind of client you represent?

I have a principle that I cannot attempt to sell to other people what I cannot buy myself. There are controversial personalities who will always have bruised reputation. It is hard to work with someone who seems intent on tearing down their reputation as soon as you have built it. 

Besides publicity, what else do you do?

I am an author. My first title, Beyond the Slums of Heaven, was published last year. I am currently in the final stages of composing Wife Material, which explores qualities of a responsible God-fearing woman. I am also a filmmaker — I have produced Bitter Sweet and Nairobi by Night. 

If you were not a publicist, what would you be doing?

A priest. I have loved priesthood since my childhood, and my mother was okay with it when I shared with her my desire in life. But then our destiny is in the hands of God.

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Name: Joy Muruku

Age: 24

Education: Communication and Public Relations, Daystar University

Company: Impact Africa Limited 

Joy Muruku 24, at the Nation Centre on April 17, 2017. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO

Joy Muruku 24, at the Nation Centre on April 17, 2017. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO

Briefly describe your professional journey

A serial investment company hired me as a Marketing and Communications Officer soon after my internship in 2015. I was charged with organising events and developing communications material and reports. Towards the end of 2015, I felt that I had skipped an important phase in my career seeing as I had plunged into the corporate scene directly without any reasonable experience in PR.

I quit and took up an account executive position with a local PR firm that specialises in celebrity PR and event management. Meanwhile, I won a scholarship from the International School of Advertising to take a course in Marketing Communications.

The programme, offered by the Chartered Institute of Marketing expanded my views and capabilities in the Marketing and Digital Communications front. It was then that I met my current employer — Impact Africa Limited, a Strategic Communications and PR firm.      

PR has various dimensions. What niche do you practice?

We develop communication solutions based on research findings. This means that through knowledge, attitude and perception surveys, media and digital audits, we seek to identify our clients’ underlying communications needs or gaps before we can suggest a solution. The result is strategic and tailor-made approaches to our clients’ communications; the first of its kind in the Kenyan market.

I am also tasked with developing a framework to monitor the effectiveness of the various communication strategies that we come up with.  We also offer the full range of PR s services including Event Management; Crisis Management; Media Relations; Capacity Building in communications; Digital Strategy & Management and Branding.   

In the event of a crisis, do you go for a speedy reaction or wait until you prepare a well-thought after response? What determines how you react to a given situation?

A quick reaction is never the recommended approach in PR practice. Instead, we have crises communication plans. These help to anticipate for anything that could possibly go wrong for a client. We then device approaches to minimise the negative effects of a crisis.

We then train selected representatives on how to best handle questions from the public including customers and the media. Crisis communication plans are essentially safety nets, preparing clients to deal with issues that may affect their reputation.

In the absence of a crisis communication plan, we encourage the affected organisation to acknowledge the situation and give the stakeholders a reassurance of their commitment to address the crisis. 

What are some of the misconceptions about the practice?

Most people are still misinformed about PR. There is a tendency to mistake PR specialists as salespersons or public speakers. Furthermore, most people perceive PR as primarily about events and publicity, often with a negative connotation. However, PR seeks to shape and maintain organisational image and reputation as well as relationships with various stakeholders. 

What is your assessment of Kenya’s landscape in terms of reception in the society, efficiency and development?

There is a growing appreciation of the function of public relations by corporates in the country as illustrated by the increasing number of both home-grown and international PR firms who are setting base in Kenya.

The profession has also diversified, as evidenced by the rise of niches such as financial PR, tech PR, fashion PR and government relations. The industry is also accommodating the dynamics occasioned by technology, which has given rise to such services as online content development and online crisis management. 

Every career person has a mentor who they strive to emulate. From who do you draw your professional inspiration? 

Ms Kentice Tikolo, the founder of Impact Africa and an award-winning PR specialist inspires me. 

Ms Tikolo is the former chairperson of the Public Relations Society of Kenya (PRSK), and is credited with conceptualising the premier edition of the Beyond Zero campaign, and is one of the key shapers of the local PR industry.

Not many people get the opportunity to learn directly from their mentors, so it is an honour and a milestone for me. 

What professional goals do you wish to attain in five years? 

PR is an area that I am strongly passionate about in which I intend to practice for the foreseeable future and reach as many peaks as the profession will allow me. One of these peaks is to serve as a communication, public affairs and sustainability manager for a multi-national. This is achievable through academic progression and continuous dedication to my work. 

How do you spend your free time? 

I am an indoors person. I love reading fiction, lifestyle and professional blogs and watching movies. I am also an editor with a local publishing company, where I edit one or two books in a month.