In defence of a misunderstood profession

Wednesday November 1 2017

 public relations

The work of public relations officers is often misunderstood. FILE PHOTO 

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When Nasa leader Raila Odinga withdrew from the October 26 rerun presidential election, he accused the IEBC of a litany of evils that he summarised as follows:

“It has wasted valuable time engaging in public relations exercises intended to create the illusion of motion without any movement.”

By so doing, Mr Odinga joined a host of politicians, particularly, from the opposition, who have consistently accused the government of engaging in “meaningless public relations exercises”.

But every time they say so, they irk the thousands of fellow Kenyans who claim public relations as a profession.

Unfortunately, politicians are not alone in this mistaken view of the profession.

For many outside the public relations industry, their perception of PR professionals is that of people who plan parties, coerce journalists, and lie for a living.

The alternative title is ‘spin doctors’.


Indeed, there are professionals who — for fear of being branded flimsy — choose titles with the word ‘communications’, which is deemed more serious.

Public relations people recognise that theirs is a “…management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organisation and the publics on whom its success or failure depends”.

The key words here are management function because every organisation has relationships that must be strategically addressed.

This means identifying those relationships and what their interests might be so that they can be nurtured to build and maintain the mutually beneficial relationships.


There is a price to pay for this. Successfully managing the relationships leads to success while the opposite is also true.

The office of the public relations officer (PRO) needs to be an extension of the office of the top-most person in the organisation — the one who drives perceptions and thought processes about it.

The PRO serves as the “intelligence service” of an organisation, picking up the criticism and concerns.

She/he works to correct errors and misperceptions about the organisation and drives the message about what the organisation is doing.


From government offices, to state corporations, private sector and non-governmental organisations, a public relations person will be found.

In the institutions of higher learning from diploma to doctoral level, public relations is now a taught and research subject.

Speaking on behalf of the organisation, creating communication collateral products such as audio and visual materials, training, fundraising, reputation management, campaigns (including behaviour change), and organising events are some of the functions.

The work titles vary from plan public relations officer, communications officer, campaign communications coordinator, manager of internal (or) external relations, PR & awareness officer, chief of protocol, director of communication, community liaison officer, advocacy & publicity, head of corporate affairs, to corporate communications officer.

Philanthropist Bill Gates, the co-founder of the Microsoft Corporation, says: “If I was down to the last dollar of my marketing budget I’d spend it on PR!”

At their annual summit from November 15 to 17, Kenyan PR practitioners will be focusing on the subject of behaviour change communications as part of their efforts towards building professional capacity.

I would be most honoured to have Mr Odinga join us as we discuss the place and practice of public relations in Kenya.

Ms Gitau, a communications consultant, is the chair, Public Relations Society of Kenya and secretary-general of the African Public Relations Association (APRA). [email protected]

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