Saturday, May 9, 2009

The media, public relations and publicity

By Asuman Bisiika

One of the aspects of the NSSF saga that received limited public attention was how the public relations system was deployed to manage what was surely degenerating into a crisis.

In a panicky reaction to the myriad questions raised over the circumstances under which the NSSF management bought Amama Mbabazi and Amos Nzeyi’s land in Temmangalo, NSSF’s Public Relations department executed an advertisement blitzkrieg in an attempt to sway public perceptions.

The advertisement spree was later stopped by the Parliament Committee investigating the botched land purchase. Mr. David Jamwa was later to retract a testimony he had given on oath. What confusion!

Another incident that exposed poor public relations measures was the October 14 fatal accident at a construction site managed by Roko Construction Ltd. The way Roko Construction Ltd reacted to the incident showed that the company lacked a comprehensive public relations strategy.

Journalists’ weakness
PR officers should know that without a clear PR Strategy (complete with a coded response kit), the media is involuntarily likely to deliver quotes out of context, misspellings and turn technical verbiage upside down. With the media’s general failure to appropriately capture a situation outside the usual coverage of political news, things can get worse.

Otherwise these are the few particulars of the incident at Pension Towers project site. The wall (or bank) of the excavation (pit) on (or of) the construction site of Pension Towers building project collapsed (or caved in) killing seven. The workers were re-enforcing the wall (precisely to prevent it from caving in) at the time it collapsed. Please note that before Roko Construction Ltd hands over a complete building (according to the terms of the contract) to NSSF, Pension Towers building will remain a project.

Journalism is not an exact science, but contemporary practice’s demand for accurate reportage and interpretation is exacting. I recently stormed Sunday Vision to explain the connotative phrase from which Temmangalo derives its meaning. Enkumbi temmangalo (hoeing does not cheat hands, more like enkumbi terimba). Otherwise the media had been writing Temangalo (please note the single m) which means ‘cut hands’.

PR officers should note that in Uganda, a journalist just wants a quote from a newsmaker (perhaps because the editor insisted on wide sourcing), not information to enrich a story. The moment the newsmaker delivers the quote, the journalist’s day is done.

999 PR
A panicky David Jamwa (NSSF MD) appeared at the Pension Towers building project site and drew all the attention because of NSSF’s current Temmangalo land purchase woes. Worse, he spoke off calf.

The NSSF management should have issued a statement clearly indicating the following: Expression of deep sadness over the deaths; declaration that the construction site of the Pension Towers project was handed over to Roko Construction Ltd and therefore NSSF would not be able to respond authoritatively on the particulars of the incident; NSSF expects Roko Construction Ltd to investigate the cause of the incident and come up with a report for the public consumption. For further information, refer you to Roko Construction Ltd.

For the avoidance of drawing more bad publicity to NSSF and its management, a very senior NSSF manager (not David Jamwa) like the Corporation Secretary would have read a statement to the media (of course he would be flanked by the PR Officer who should participated in the writing of the statement or personally wrote it himself). With the death of seven people, the Public Relations function should be taken over by some one more senior as an expression of remorse by the top management.

Roko Construction Ltd, which should have managed the PR responses, is now issuing very impersonal statements in the media. For better measure, the statements of sympathy should have included the names of the dead to give the PR an organic element. Or better still, Roko Construction should by now have issued relatively detailed statement on the incident.

PR Management
Most Public Relations Officers sometimes lack a clear appreciation of their roles. They confuse publicity and event management for public relations; which is why they are obsessed with publicity (visibility in the mass media) than developing comprehensive PR programmes. Other PR officers take the short cut: they buy out bad press with the threat to withdraw their advertisement portfolio in particular media outlets.

Yet they can do better than that (with minimal cost to the organisation) if there is a pro-active approach to the public concerns. One of the main objectives of any PR policy should be the creation of a critical mass of the public with a strong interest in issues related to the goods or services the organisation offers.

A PR officer should write his own news items (good enough articles to meet the editorial quality standards of media outlets) in addition to the official press statement. Given the lassitude of some journalists, this avoids misrepresentation of technical argot, misspellings and out-of-context deliveries. The news item and the official press statement should be electronic (soft copy).

Otherwise the role of the PR officer is NOT to defend the wrongs but to mobilise the publics to appreciate the context and the circumstances under which the wrongs (may have) occurred. The public knows a wrong when one occurs and defending a clear wrong makes a PR officer’s case rather untenable and silly.
Was the Garamba Mission a success?

By Asuman Bisiika

On Monday March 15, Uganda started withdrawing its troops from the Democratic Republic of Congo. This was three months since December 14 2008 when the UPDF, with the support of the Congolese and South Sudanese armies, launched a military offensive against the Lords Resistance Army rebels on Congolese soil.

The invitation of the media to cover the troop pull-out process was very conspicuous if one contrasted it with the reticence that shrouded the December 14 attack on the rebel hide out.

But now that the troops are home from what the military establishment says is a mission accomplished, it gives us the opportunity to reflect on the achievements and challenges of Operation Lighting Thunder with the benefit of hindsight.

Operation Concept
From conception, Operation Lightning Thunder carried a lot of unnecessary political baggage for a special military operation. The prospect of political capital from the expected success of the operation was so alluring that the political leadership tried to direct it from Kampala.

In special military operations like Operation Lightning Thunder, this kind of attitude by the political leadership tend to influence the dynamics of field craft (ujanja ya porini). The political leadership should have limited its involvement to endorsing and clearing the operation. The choice of Zero Hour (launch time) should have been left to the field commander in order to allow him leverage and space on field decision-making.

Unfortunately for Operation Lightning Thunder, the day the political leadership ordered Zero Hour, there was bad weather. Frustrated by bad weather, the political leadership ordered: ‘whatever-it-takes (kama mbaya mbaya), you have to launch’. This consequently robbed the operation of the elements of right equipment, right time and right target.

It could have been done otherwise though. With information of the D-Day kept tight, the operation commander would have planned for a window of a week for the launch. Within that week, the standby level would have been upgraded to RED (or whatever codes the UPDF uses). This would have given the operation commander the opportunity to factor in variables like weather, enemy troop movement or a chance opportunity for an easy harvest of a high profile target.

The political leadership would have been informed (please note the key word ‘informed’, not ‘seeking permission’ to launch) at least twenty four hours before actual launch. More like… ‘the eagle has landed’.

Managing Public Expectations
Perhaps the biggest challenge Operation Lightning Thunder faced was to manage public expectations from the operations. The attempt to keep a tight lid on information flow to the public led to some confusion.

The public expected nothing less than the capture or killing of Joseph Kony. In all honesty, this was also the main objective of the Operation Lightning Thunder. The Operation expected to achieve this through the elements of surprise, shock and awe.

But the military PR machine didn’t do a good job and left the public to feed on the ominous opinions and commentaries from people who could not articulate issues related to the operation.

The political leadership of Northern Uganda were outright against the Operation Lightning Thunder and dismissing them with gestures was not good PR. The light side of the distortions that ensued can be captured by the media writing Lightning as Lightening (there is a very big difference in spelling and meaning).

Minus the UPDF’s chest-thumping and portrayal of the military as an exclusive practice for the genius, the achievements of Operation Lightning Thunder are worth the effort; notwithstanding the fact that the main objective was not achieved. However, the army’s continued insistence that the operation was intended to force Joseph Kony to append his signature to the Juba Peace Accords is annoyingly pedestrian.

PR Failure
Imagine a news conference that would have been kicked off with a statement going like this: Ladies and gentlemen, the political leadership were frustrated by Kony’s recalcitrance and deliberate refusal to sign the Juba Peace Agreements. They asked us to design Plan B. And Operation Lightning Thunders is what we came up with. It was launched today at 8.00am local time. Initial reports from the field say the operation is going on well as planned. For the time being, I will however not give you details of the operational activities as this may jeopardise the safety of the troops on the ground…

UPDF spokespersons don’t seem to have the capacity to engage the media without speaking on policy issues (and sometimes politics) outside the domain of the army. This is because of the fusion of the Ministry of Defence and the Army Spokesperson’s office.

It is difficult to know whether the army spokesperson is speaking as a Ministry of Defence official or as an army official. The Ministry of Defence is a department of the civil administration while the army (UPDF) is part of the armed forces with a military mandate.

Even when something is clearly a policy issue that should be left for the attention of superiors, the Army spokesperson will always hazard an answer. That’s how we ended up with the line: ‘forcing Kony to sign the Juba Peace Accords’.

During the course of the operation, the UPDF killed and captured LRA rebel commanders and their men thereby disrupting the command and contracture of the rebel outfit. They have also rescued former abductees who were the rebels’ source of fighters.

The operation has weakened the LRA’s capacity to sustain a serious military offensive. The general assessment is that the LRA would need ‘outside’ support to regenerate its fledgling troops into a fighting force.

These are good achievements. However, there are also secondary achievements of a strategic nature that have accrued from Operation Lightning Thunder.

In the first week of March, President Museveni and President Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo met in Kasese. Something worth noting was their body language. At least the two leaders appeared to have had some good chemistry; a far cry from earlier meetings like the Ngordoto meeting in Tanzania.

So, the other achievement for Operation Lightning Thunder is that it could unwittingly (or wittingly) be the mother of a new entente cordiale between Uganda and her huge natural resources-endowed neighbour. The troop interaction at operational level and the summit meeting of the top leadership are worthy achievements that could be the beginning of a new diplomatic rapprochement.

Regional Dynamics
The withdrawal of Ugandan troops on March 15 followed the February 26 withdraw of the Rwandan troops from Congo. The Rwandans were also on a similar operation code named Umoja Wetu (Our Unity) to dislodge Rwandan rebels with bases in the Congolese provinces of Nord Kivu and Sud Kivu.

The Rwandan troops were withdrawn after protests in Kinshasa over President Kabila’s invitation of foreign troops to operate on Congolese soil. As high a personality as the Speaker of the Lower House in Kinshasa (hitherto a President Kabila ally) made public his discontent over allowing Rwandan troops in DRC. Four Members of Parliament are said to have resigned their seats in protest of the President Kabila’s military co-operation with arch-foes Rwanda.

Uganda still enjoys a reasonable level of acceptance (modest though) in the Kinshasa; seeing as it is that there were no protests against the UPDF’s presence on Congolese soil. Uganda has deliberately (painstakingly though) worked on its relationship with Rwanda.

With the right diplomatic footwork, Uganda is likely to regain the initiative as a central player in the power plays of the Great Lakes region. Perhaps the Garamba Mission was strategically worth it; in spite of its shortcomings. ENDS

About the author: A journalist and a keen watcher of security and political dynamics in the Great Lakes region.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Food crisis

Africa looks on lazily as food shortages surge

We missed on gunpowder, we shouldn’t miss on crop biotechnology

By Asuman Bisiika

Local and international media has constantly reported food shortages and riots over higher food prices. Although the media have blamed it on bad governance in developing countries, food shortages are now like a thread cutting across the entire strata of the development pecking order. However, it is acceptable that Africa’s culture of bad governance and lack of strategic planning compounds food shortages.

That is why there are fears that the now-incessant food shortages could lead to civil unrest; for is it not said that a hungry man is an angry man. Poor masses struggling with food costs driven (whether caused by global oil prices, weather and speculators trading in local market places) is not a good proposition for Africa’s pseudo-democrats.

Over 300 people were arrested in February 2008 in some of the worst violence for years in normally calm, landlocked Burkina, prompting the government to suspend custom duties on staple food imports for three months. But union leaders threatened to call a general strike in April unless prices fall further.

In Cameroon, what started as a taxi drivers' strike over rising fuel costs, metamorphosed into angry riots over the cost of food, high unemployment and plans by President Paul Biya to change the constitution to extend his 25-year rule. Although government said between 25 and 40 people were killed, a human rights group put the toll at over 100.

Famines like the famous Ethiopian one of the 1980s not envisaged. But there is the risk of inflation that threatens the relative economic stability in Africa. Although some governments have introduced price control measure like export caps reduction of custom duties to appease the masses, the people seems to want more than mere tactical responses to what seems to have grown to crisis levels.

Poor food production techniques, coupled with the fact that majority of her people survive on less than $2 a day, Africa is the most vulnerable in this global shortage of food. For Africa, even a small rise food prices is a big because food is the main expenditure in families. It is therefore not surprising that increasing food costs have spawned a rash of violent unrest across Africa. Egypt, Mauritania, Cameron, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mozambique have seen riots over for food costs.

Yet this seems to be a global crisis. A global rice shortage that has seen prices of one of the world's most important staple foods increase by 50% is triggering an international crisis; with countries banning export and threatening serious punishment for hoarders.

Here is a list of some of the recent media reportages on food shortages, rising food prices.

Measures to Curb Asia's Spiraling Food Prices
Governments across Asia have introduced subsidies and have limited sales of staple commodities such as rice, wheat, pork and cooking oil to combat soaring food prices that are pinching consumers at the tills. From India to Indonesia, governments across Asia are scrambling for solutions as it dawns on them that sky-high food prices might not fall any time soon ( Jan 20, 2008.

Over 1 Million Afghans Face Food Shortage Due to Rising Prices
More than 1 million people in rural Afghanistan are at risk of food shortages due to an increase in prices for staples such as wheat flour and vegetable oil, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said today. ( Jan 14, 2008

Soaring Soyabean Price Stirs Anger Among Poor
On Monday, 10,000 Indonesians demonstrated outside the presidential palace in Jakarta after Soybean prices soared more than 50 per cent in the past month and 125 per cent over the past year, leaving huge shortages in markets. ( Jan 18, 2008

Bread Price Sparks South African Protest
The Congress of SA Trade Unions in the Western Cape is to stage a protest against the price of bread outside Parliament later on Sunday. ( Jan 20, 2008

FAO Sees Record World Food Prices Staying
Record food prices are unlikely to ease in the foreseeable future, as high grain demand and low stocks mean the world remains vulnerable to possible food shocks, a United Nations expert said on Monday. ( Jan 21, 2008

‘Either the price drops or the people will rise’
The government faces a popular uprising, similar to the French Revolution, unless it puts the brakes on the soaring bread price. ( Jan 19, 2008

With rice stocks said to be at their lowest for 30 years, prices of the grain have increased by more than 10 per cent to record highs and are expected to soar further. Already China, India, Egypt, Vietnam and Cambodia have imposed tariffs or export bans, as it has become clear that world production of rice this year will decline in real terms by 3.5 per cent.

The impact will be felt most keenly by the world's poorest populations (a greater percentage of whom live in Africa) who have become increasingly dependent on the crop as the prices of other grains have become too costly.

Rice is the staple food for more than half the world's population. This is the second year running in which production, which is said to have increased in real terms last year, has failed to keep pace with population growth. The harvest has also been hit by drought, particularly in China and Australia, forcing producers to hoard their crops to satisfy local markets. With over eight billion people relying on rice, the impact of a prolonged rice crisis for the world's poor, threatens to be devastating. The consequences are visible across the globe.

In Bangladesh, government-run outlets that sell subsidised rice are besieged by queues comprised largely of the country's middle classes, who will queue for hours to purchase five kilograms of rice sold at 30 per cent cheaper than on the open market.

In Thailand, where the price for lower-quality rice alone has risen by between $70 and $100 per tonne, Deputy Prime Minister Mingkwan Sangsuwan convened a meeting of key officials and traders to discuss imposing minimum export prices to control export volumes and measures to punish hoarders. The meeting follows moves by some larger supermarkets in Thailand to limit purchases of rice by customers.

In the Philippines, activists have warned of the risk of food riots and the National Bureau of Investigation has been called in to raid traders suspected of hoarding rice to push up the prices. Fear is so deep that the country's agricultural secretary, Arthur Yap, asked fast-food restaurants including McDonald's and KFC (which supply a cup of rice with their meals in Asian branches) to halve the amount of rice supplied, so that none would be wasted. In addition, traders who try to stockpile rice have been warned that they face a charge of 'economic sabotage', which in the Philippines carries a life sentence.

The shortage has afflicted India, too: The government banned the export of non-basmati rice and also raised the price of basmati rice that can be exported. Although China has said it is secure in its supplies of rice, the fact that the government has offered to pay farmers more to produce more rice and wheat suggests otherwise.

Fears over the potential impact of the rice crisis have been heightened by estimates by both the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, which has predicted the 3.5 per cent shortfall, and comments from the World Bank president, Robert Zoellick, estimating that ‘33 countries around the world face potential social unrest because of the acute hike in food and energy prices’.

There is now a real fear that poor food production and the consequent effect of rising prices is soon to reach level that demands a strategic response. So, what is the strategic response to this potential crisis?

In Uganda, the Parliamentary Caucus of the ruling National Resistance Movement party requested the government to make deliberate pro-active actions to address the ever increasing food cost and its attendant inflationary aspect. The caucus specifically requested the government to waive Value Added Tax on food production.

In Burkina Faso, the government temporarily suspended custom duties on staple food imports. In Egypt, government sought the intervention of the army to help in the supply of subsidised supplies.

In sum, Africa’s response to the world’s food crisis is merely tactical and lacks a long term strategic element of looking beyond the horizon. Which is why, governments should seriously look at the prospect of adopting genetic engineering technology for crop husbandry.

With global haphazard climatic changes, the future seems to lie in genetically modified crops. African political leaders can no longer afford to view biotechnology as a Frankenstein sci-fi fantasy of Western scientists.

The advantages of genetically modified (GM) crops are in themselves a realistic response to the challenges of food production the world over. Biotec crops have improved plant breeding, increased and stabilised yields, improved plant resistance to pests and diseases, enhancement of nutritional content and they can survive abiotic stresses such as drought and cold.

Each year, global population grows by more than 70 million; agriculture is required to produce more food with limited land and water resources. Scientists believe biotechnology holds great potential to help farmers produce more food with fewer resources.

What is holding the mass adoption of GM (biotec is the more acceptable word now) crops back is merely fear of the unknown namely that the long term effects on humans and the environment is unknown.
But after 12 years of use on more than 1.7 billion acres (690.9 million hectares) worldwide without any safety scare, African leaders need to change their attitude about biotec crops.

A 12-year history of safe use should assure leaders that the regulatory regime has been successful. Experts estimate more than 1 trillion meals containing ingredients from biotech crops have been consumed with no reliable documentation of any food safety issues for people or animals. And with a full-blown food crisis on our hands, disadvantages like reduced nutritional value and a difference in taste (which can be improved using the same technology by the way) from naturally grown foods can be ignored.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotec Applications (ISAAA), farmers in 23 countries on six continents are using plant biotechnology to solve difficult crop production challenges and conserve the environment. Over the past decade, they’ve increased the area under biotec crops by more than 10 percent each year, increased their farm income by more than US$34 billion, and achieved economic, environmental and social benefits in crops such as soybeans, canola, corn and cotton.

GM crops are among the most studied and reviewed foods in the world. Using well-established, internationally accepted standards of risk assessment, regulatory authorities worldwide have reviewed all biotech crops now on the market and determined that they pose no more risk than crops produced through traditional breeding methods.

Numerous international organisations also have endorsed the health and environmental safety of biotech crops, including the Royal Society (UK), National Academy of Sciences (USA), the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the European Commission, the French Academy of Medicine, and the American Medical Association.

Over the next decade, biotechnology promises to deliver products that address land and resource limitations, such as improved drought tolerance, saline tolerance and increased yields. The research also will deliver products with direct consumer benefits such as enhanced nutrition, convenience and taste.

Anecdote: On March 28, a report on the global status of commercialised Biotec/GM Crops was launched in Kampala. During the launch, the scientists revealed that scientists at the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) were genetically engineering bananas (Uganda’s staple food).

In support of biotech crop production, Dr. Tilahun Zeweldu, the Ethiopian director of BIOPSTRA International threw a challenge to the audience: we Africans missed on industrial revolution, ICT revolution, nuclear technology, space avionics and many others. Shall allow ourselves to miss on biotechnology? We all laughed.

Yet Dr. Tilahun had touched a raw nerve on African history of misses. The most critical technology that Africa missed was gunpowder; with which contemporary world history is written. This is the reason why the African continent has been on the receiving end on almost every aspect of social, cultural, political and economic life.

The 2007 report on the global status of the genetically modified (GM) crops revealed that South Africa is the only African country with commercial-level acreage under genetically modified crops. The trend of global climatic changes and the population growth points to a future where the world may fail to feed its people. With that scenario, Dr. Charles Mugoya told their audience that that an escape route lies in the development and usage of technology (biotechnology or otherwise).

Like any new technology, the fears of the negative aspects of the biotec are legitimate and should be addressed. However, a failure on the part of the African leaders to provide a strategic response to the incessant famines and food shortages in Africa is unacceptable.

From 1996 when the genetically modified crops went commercial, farmers have continued to pant more biotec crops every year. In 2007, the global area of biotec crops has increased to a 12.3 million hectares (30 million acres) representing a double-digit growth rate of 12%.

In 2007, the number of countries planting biotec crops increased to 23. In their order of acreage strength, they are: US, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, China, Paraguay and South Africa, Urugay, The Philippines, Australia, Spain, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, France, Honduras, Czec Republic and Portugal, Germany, Slovakia, Romania and Poland.

Incidentally the number of developing countries in the biotec cluib now exceeds that of developed countries. Will this give African leaders some confidence to adopt GM foods? Otherwise we may miss on the use of yet another critical technology like gunpowder. ENDS