Last year, I was privileged to be asked by Joshua Nicol to speak to the Mass Communications students at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone. The topic was - ‘how to have a successful career in PR’. This I could interpret as widely as I liked, he told me.
It’s a tough question. I don’t believe I’ve found the answer to it yet and I’ve worked in communications in Sierra Leone for over six years now. I remain frustrated by its relatively lowly professional status; which is very likely the result of a widespread lack of understanding of what exactly communications is.
I know I’m not alone when I say I believe that communications has a desperately important role to play in Sierra Leone’s development. I know I’m not alone when I say that - at its best, communications is a stage-by-stage process which aims to generate understanding, engagement and ultimately collaboration.
I’m not alone, but the group of believers is pretty damn tiny.
Instead, communications in Sierra Leone is by and large a process of misinformation, disinformation and propaganda; and the communications department is very often the place where the flotsam and jetsam of our patronage-driven society is dumped.
I’ve had the occasional visionary line manager who would include me in strategic and operational decision making, and onlookers who would question my very presence there.
This is in sharp contrast to the value invested in it elsewhere in the world, where it would be hard to find a successful organisation which does not have a communications/corporate affairs director as an integral part of its management team; or a project where a communications person isn’t an essential member of the team.
So the start point of my FBC talk was that, if any of us want to have a successful career in PR/communications in Sierra Leone, we would first need to change the perception of our profession.
We devised a three pronged strategy.
1. We have to correct the misunderstanding of communications in Sierra Leone and make sure that those around us understand that good communications skills are increasingly among the most useful one can possess, and they are essential to a culture of collaborative development in our society. 2. We have to achieve the sort of strict professional standards that will raise the status of our profession in Sierra Leone. 3. We have to equip ourselves with skills that will make us marketable anywhere and everywhere in the world.
THE MISUNDERSTANDING OF COMMUNICATIONS IN SIERRA LEONE
Many of FBC’s students who would go on to enter the profession in Sierra Leone would probably find that their understanding of their role would be significantly different from that of their employer’s. That is no reflection on what they have learned at university. It is a reflection on how communications and PR are perceived in the working environment of Sierra Leone and what is often asked of us.
Public sector PROs are better described as spokespeople. They seem to spend a lot of time on the radio, justifying their employer’s actions in retrospect, rather than explaining them in advance. In the private sector – communications is most likely to be tacked onto the bottom of a job description for quite a different role.
Then there are those who will tell you that all PR is propaganda. This is rubbish of course.
Propaganda is highly partisan, often misleading, and intended to persuade its audience of the value of a particular political candidate, ideology or cause. It uses every weapon in its armoury including deceit, defamation and disinformation against everything and everyone it sees as the opposition.
Another favourite is that ‘results are the best PR’. This is a bit like taking a trip with a Keke driver who insists on blindfolding you before he/she sets off, on the grounds that your only interest is the destination. It’s lazy and it’s patronising. It assumes that communications has no role other than to trumpet success. It denies the vast majority of people the opportunity to participate in the process, and it’s designed, of course to keep the population in ignorance.
In my opinion, communications and public relations is a research-driven, painstaking process of sharing accurate, factual information that people very often need to help inform their decision making, delivered in a form that is accessible and engaging.
It should encourage collaborative and engaged decision making; it should create equity by sharing the power of decision; it should acknowledge that we are all on a journey together.
As an addendum to this, can we please eliminate the term ‘beneficiaries’ from the language of development communications. It’s lazy (yes, I have been guilty), its emphasis on the donor/recipient relationship deprives people of dignity, and reminds us that many of us are still beholden to the generosity of the great benefactor from overseas.
If we, as practitioners, understand what communications and Public Relations are and what they are not – then we should be able to see more clearly how to practise our profession. Misinformation or disinformation – these are not our job, and they do a great disservice to us and to our audience.