Laughable things Public Relations officers tell reporters

If you are attentive in media school, you can amass skills that will enable you to operate in the wide and vast space that is communication and media. From where I studied—Maseno University—creative folks like me had core units from the Creative and Performing Arts department where we were was to be performers as well as managers of performers; philosophers like my friend Frank Njenga were always in the library reading bulky books on “State theory” and whatnot;the programmers who went to learn web design and hacking in the computer science department… I mean, it was a package for you to pick from.

Then there was public relations— a whole area of specialization—headed by one humorous DO Onuong’a. In the 80s, PR was teething in Kenya because organisations did not appreciate the need for having a professional on payroll  to handle the media. The media is a powerful tool. Now,political figures and companies have realised that there is more to giving press conferences and issuing rejoinders. That is why the PR officer has had her/his fortunes changed, in Africa and abroad. As a practising journalist, PROs have certainly been helpful. I have met excellent PROs— Claire Wamalwa, Lianne Kiruiru, Erick Otieno, Monica Muthwii, Annie Mwirikia, Wambui Ndonga, Douglas Waudo and many who I can’t mention.

However the relationship between journalists and PROs has been dwarfed by some statements which I am about to highlight.

“This is a biiiiig story, it will sell your paper tommorow”

I remember one PRO asking me to go cover a sanitary towels donations by a big corporate giant that made billions in profit. The sanitary towels cost about Sh70,000 (about 700USD). I asked whether this would be a long term plan. No. Were these towels special or they were just bought from the supermarket? They were not special. But, she insisted, this was a big story given the issues girls were facing and how they could not stay in school. Some PROs were once practising journalists before so they can judge what would be newsworthy and what editors would spike on the spot. Some are kind enough to open your eyes to an angle that would be worth exploring about a subject you have written about for long. However, there are those ones…

“This story will be good for your name”

You come pitching a story and you think you are doing me a favour? Come on girl/boy! That this will win me an award. Are you effing kidding me right now?

“The meeting is at 7am so you are lucky to have a 5course breakfast”

I appreciate that you are keen to take care of my tummy—truth be told I like eating— but do you have to make it look like that is the peak of the meeting? You think I do not have breakfast in my house?

“I have just spoken to your boss and you must…”

We, reporters, are the people who bust our asses in the field, dealing with egos the size of the continent as well as seeing people in such painful circumstances. We jump on potentially good stories even when they are coming from people we do not like. So when you call me, and you acknowledge that my beat is in-say-agriculture, you should trust me when I tell you “I have covered that angle about Aflatoxin, why don’t we try this new angle?” Then you are not pleased, then you call/email my boss and demand that I write that story in the angle that I just advised you against. So how do we work with respect from that point forward? One PRO had the audacity to ask my boss to compel me to write a story in an hour so that it is published the following day because it was international day for the environment. She was convinced that she had given me all that I needed to write a good story. I had told her that I would come to the ground and see all that she had described in the press release. So I wondered, what was more important? Publish a one sided he said she said 300-word story or flesh out a whole page of balanced coverage of the good work you are doing?

“I know you are just going to sensationalise this….”

I know o colleagues in the newsroom who scored straight As in sciences. They graduated with first class degrees in STEM-science, technology, engineering and mathematics- courses. Then they came to the newsroom to be trained on writing about their areas of specialty. When I was in high school, I solved Math in the evening preps for fun, to relax after I had read that long shit about Kinjekitile Ngwale in History. So even though our grades could allow us access to med schools and other STEM subjects, we chose this career because our personality was best accommodated here.

When we came to the field, we went through rigorous interviews to be hired because we did not have godfathers. In the newsroom, you have to show you are worth the spot even with a godfather. You must continually mine stories from your creative bank every day. For people without a science background like me,  we bust our asses to learn from the professionals whose jobs we write about. We read journals in such technical languages we are ever camped in WhatsApp inboxes of the authors of those papers to ask silly questions until we get it. We make mistakes and pinch our noses never to repeat it again because without sources, you are dead in this career. So after you have gone through what I write, and thereafter contacted me to report on something, why do you assume that I have the brain of an ignoramus that will miss the point?

“Where did you get that information? You are unprofessional because it was not authorised by me”

Like I was supposed to come ask you to take me to the bad shitty stuff your organisation would not want the public to know? Like “Hey, can you give me the data that shows how you have been underpaying and mistreating your employees?” Come on!

“That story is true, but it hurt our client”

I always remind PROs that I owe them fairness, objectivity and utmost professionalism. As I have a job that I protect too, I understand the PROs needs theirs as well. So I would not go after an organisation out of sheer malice. However, in the process of being fair, objective, professional and serve the greater good of the public, I cannot guarantee that my stories will paint your organisation in good light. PROs are supposed to be concerned about the following: Is what I wrote true? Did I give you ample time and chance to respond before I went to press? Anything outside that is fuckery!

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