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.
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.
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.
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.