The state of the communications sector in Uganda, an interview with Dr. Patricia Litho.

Patricia Litho holds a Ph. D. in Innovation and cultural studies from the School of Social Sciences and Cultural Studies, University of East London (UK). She has a Master of Arts in Communications with a bias in Business Communication from Schiller International University (London, UK), a Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism and Media Management from Uganda Management Institute (UMI), and a Bachelor of Arts from Makerere University. She is currently a lecturer at Makerere University and has also taught at Cavendish University and the University of East London, UK.

Outside academia, Dr. Litho works with the Rural Electrification Agency (REA) as a Communication and Public Relations Specialist. Patricia has undertaken various local and international consultancy assignments in the areas of media and gender; the most recent being assessing media capacity to produce gender-sensitive products, for the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Our @publicistEA reporter caught up with her for interaction to discuss the state of communication in Uganda. Below are the excerpts;

Qn: In a few words, how would you describe Dr.Patricia Litho?

Well, I usually like to refer to myself as a communications specialist with a specific interest in gender issues. This is because many people in communications think that such journalistic aspects in the sector should be left to men and the Pr kind left to the women which I completely disagree with. Surprisingly, we see it turn out differently.

Qn: What is your overview of the corporate communications sector in Uganda?

The sector is growing and getting stronger by the day however, a lot is lacking. There is very little understanding of the role of Corporate Communicators. Even at Uganda’s old training institutions, Mass Communication is a relatively new course.

There is also an existing assumption that anybody can do public relations. However, when people actually begin practicing then it becomes almost a retrospective lesson they learn; that communication is an undertaking that one needs to be properly trained for.

Initially, we didn’t invest so much into things like image building, public perception perhaps because of the political environment. The government often made certain decisions, used a lot of propaganda to position itself in a certain way and didn’t question who spoke on its behalf as long as they could speak.

Today, the role of communications has become vital as has been witnessed in the different campaign seasons. We now see candidates increasingly looking out for publicists, paying for media space, looking out for media opportunities to the extent that those who had resources, set up radio stations.

Politicians have appreciated how communication can make or break them depending on their packaging. By owning media houses, they sought to control output and also shifted their attention to ‘problematic’ journalists because of their presentation of certain issues.

During these general elections, we have also seen a massive growth of appreciation of professionally trained communicators. The highly sought out journalists like Don Wanyama were quickly snapped up by the NRM, unlike the past where anybody who thought they could speak, got appointed. Some of my current students handled communications in the previous campaigns.

Another interesting dimension to communications is social media. One of the most intriguing moments was when Amama Mbabazi, the former PM announced his presidential bid on social media. This prompted the president to use social media although it was a medium that he wasn’t quite comfortable with. Social media is precise and concise so you have to know how to use it effectively.

Overall people have started to appreciate what image building can do, what branding means, and why it needs to be controlled.

That withstanding, the only challenge is that there’s still a failed appreciation that communication should be a management function. Most of the time, professional communicators are in positions where they cannot make decisions. They may bring up something brilliant, based on research and their bosses will simply say; ‘No this is how we have always done it.’ This becomes counterproductive because the communicator is indirectly not being allowed to do his/her work. This is even worse in government for instance. The bureaucracy and protocols involved make it difficult for communicators to execute their work easily yet as communicators, we have to make decisions palatable for the common man.

In places where people in charge of communications are in management positions, we see the better implementation, the better impact of communication, and an easy budgeting process.

Increasingly, while there is an appreciation of communication, we don’t actually put our mouth where our money is. People are bringing on board communicators but at junior level…positions where they cannot defend their budgets. Besides, the budgets are really minimal in most cases.

Sometimes you may sit in management meetings and people tell the communicator, ‘We want to for instance be like MTN.’ But when you tell them that that company invested about UGX 100m in a billboard, they all frown, thinking it’s wastage. There is still conflict between the budgets, cost, and impact.

We also see the appreciation of communications when there is a crisis, take an example of NSSF when it was in trouble. It invested heavily in PR and media campaigns.

Qn: As a person involved in the prepping process of public communicators, are you satisfied with the crop of practitioners graduating every year?

That is a challenging question because increasingly, the quality of students has dropped although we also have those who succeed. This doesn’t stop in class alone because they also excel in the industry.

There’s also the older group, like myself who studied Mass Communication. At the time, we were about the fourth or fifth slot, but then most of them left the sector because there were no jobs at the time. Nobody employed you back. This is why we find people who did different courses while at university in charge of communications and are now asking for our advice.

The way we recruit in Uganda is also a big issue. There are very few occasions where we go for professional people especially in the social sciences area, which communication is part of. There is this misconception that PR is all about showing up for events. That is just one of the end products.

Nevertheless, there are some good students that we put out but I would say the majority are really disappointing. I do not really know why but I will share thoughts from academia. We are always theorizing things.

One of the factors is the quality of students that are admitted to universities. When I was a student, once one left O’ Level following the communications track, you certainly studied subjects that prepared you for that role. You came to university ready to write creatively. At our time, we were only 25 students in the Mass Communication class. The year before us, had 15.

Communication is actually a technical subject because of the way things have to be delivered. There is a whole procedure of how to handle certain issues. Today, certain techniques are not taught simply because of the numbers. Now, we have close to 200 students. It’s even shocking during examination time when a lot more students turn up. It’s difficult to give them the necessary attention that’s why a smaller class enables you to identify the different talents and nurture them.

We also do not have the resources, we take on too many students and the support government used to give to certain training students is no more. It’s almost as if we lost the vision for which we stood for as educators. Institutions now have to look for their own financing. Even management institutions like UMI scrapped off the course of its communications because it wasn’t economically viable. The minimum standards that were used to recruit communicators do not apply anymore. That’s why we have weak students who cannot even construct sentences, yet they are communicators…and you wonder why they are there. I believe communication is really a calling and aspects like public speaking can be nurtured. We need to have people specializing more.

Qn: With multinational corporations looking to set up new frontiers in emerging markets like Uganda, analysts have pointed out that there is insufficient talent and even when available, it is often difficult to retain. What needs to be done?

I think this is a question all professions are grappling with…like the medical industry that has a lot of brain drain. We are unable to invest in talent for strange reasons. There’s a lack of appreciation for trained practitioners. Often these people are treated like they are unnecessary. You find at times business owners making careless statements like; ‘There are so many people on the streets who want this job if you don’t want’…this happens when one tries to negotiate better pay. But how many people on those streets are trained anyway?

Remuneration is one of those important aspects because people have responsibilities. It’s not that people love money so much; money is an enabler. If you are going to pretend that it is not a reality, you will end up losing talent.

Multinationals need to know that there is sufficient talent in Uganda. May be people only need to be retrained. The little talent available though needs to be remunerated sufficiently.

Part of the challenge with multinationals is that they want to outsource to industries in developing countries and then underpay them yet pay close to ten times more to firms in the UK or US.

“Some business owners make careless statements such as; ‘There are so many people on the streets who want this job’…this happens when one tries to negotiate better pay. But how many people on those streets are trained anyway?” – Dr. Litho

In Uganda for instance, in addition to underpaying, you may find that you are actually paying the wrong person because of the several challenges.

Qn: Has the Ministry of Information for instance helped in developing capacity for this nascent sector?

Honestly, I am not aware. But what is the ministry of information? There is a lot of duplication of roles. At one time, it appeared to be playing a spy role, like that of UCC today. For me it’s a bit confusing…may be a little contribution.

Qn: In light of the evolution of communications, do you think that the curriculum of public relations/communications should change to match the prevailing demands of the sector?

Yes, it needs to change…it has to change. At MUK, for the past three years, we have been revising the Mass Communication curriculum. We have gone through several processes. As we speak, a new curriculum awaiting approval from the NCHE is that the Mass Communication department intends to run parallel tracks; Communication track, and Journalism track. We have also proposed a third track, called New media track (social media).

That shows you that attention is being paid to what the industry wants. Part of this is also feedback from the industry. I think there is a realization that specialization is needed…not overly specialized though. There is also debate on whether to include a stand-alone Development Communication track. This will include community communication.

Qn: Just like in other countries, the PR fraternity in Uganda has an umbrella association, (Public Relations Association of Uganda). Has this helped in improving the sector?

Yes, it has tremendously. I believe PRAU has done a lot of publicity and marketing. We have seen a lot more people appreciating the role of public relations. Part of what triggered this is the realization that the public was watching and awarding marks to determine whether to take it on. Amidst all, it also has its own challenges;I have heard some people complaining that it is dominated by marketers. Nonetheless, it has also given confidence to students and a sense of belonging of sorts.

I am told they are creating or have created an association for government communications personnel. I think it is headed in the right direction.

Qn: Where do you see the sector in the next five years?

We are going to see a lot more of social media being incorporated and more trained people being utilized. Some of these can be seen from the ongoing interactions on social media between the public and companies. We have seen Umeme, URA, and UNRA interacting a lot more with the public.

Some of these organizations have actually become high profile because of the way they have been communicating. If you asked people, which are the best organizations to work for, most of the responses will show a correlation between how much those organizations invest in communications and why they become the desired brand.

Qn: Where do you see the opportunities in the sector?

The opportunities are in people realizing that they need to create niches. As it is, we see corporate communications and Mass communications in a very generic way. Anybody can come from nowhere and do a similar job. I believe the opportunities lie in specialization so as to become experts in their fields. This way, we shall see communications working better for us.

Social media is an enormous opportunity on its own. There is also danger in equal measure. The government has realized it; little wonder therefore that it had to be shut down during the presidential elections. People are also building images and brands through CSR, which ties into events.

Qn: Some companies view communications as an unnecessary investment. What advice would you give such an organization?

This is simple; look at the security of your home. Many of us don’t invest in security till the day your house is broken into…then you realize why it would have been important to pay for security.

Just like security, communications is key. You can only take it for granted until something goes terribly wrong which is a wrong mindset to have. Communication makes a huge difference because I have seen it do so. Simply invest in it because it is worth it.

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