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.