Complications of PR

I started out in journalism (several!) years ago, and after a while it became apparent to me that there were basically two ways of advancing your career. It was either you tough it out in the newsroom and wait for a promotion to editor or senior reporter to arise – either in your media house or by moving to a competitor – or to do what many more of my colleagues were doing, which was leave the newsroom altogether and join a corporate communications/ public relations firm. 

At the time, the first option seemed to mostly be a dead-end – the newsroom was steadily shrinking, beset by the pressures of financial insecurity and shaky business models, resulting in wave after wave of retrenchments and layoffs. The second option, that is, joining corporate comms/ PR, seemed to be where it was at. The sector was unequivocally growing, new firms were hiring aggressively and offering remuneration packages that my employers simply could not match. Many, many of the colleagues I started out with in journalism took this route and now work in PR, corporate comms, advertising, and more recently, political strategy.

I can’t really say I entirely blame them for “abandoning” the good fight. Newsrooms have been seriously struggling for most of the past decade, and it’s only rational for people to seek opportunities where they exist. I’ve been searching for Kenyan/ African data on this, but data from the US indicates that in 2018, there were 6.4 public relations professionals for every news reporter. That’s up from 1.9 PR jobs to every journalism job in 1998. I suspect the situation here in Nairobi especially, wouldn’t be very different from this.

Still, taking a long-term and bird’s eye view, a weakened media plus a stronger PR industry (with many competent journalists working in these firms to “craft narratives” for various clients) inevitably results in a social and political problem. I recently spoke to a former journalist now working in corporate comms, and he admitted that seeing his “angles” published uncritically brings mixed emotions.

On the one hand, he’s happy because his clients are happy, but one the other hand, “we’ve created a lacuna in [the] media where any narrative goes – which is good for the powerful and connected, but bad for everyone else,” he said to me. “We corporate strategists – and especially those of us who are former journalists – are doing a disservice to the public.”

In recent years it’s become even more explicit, with former journalists not only working in PR firms but more openly in political messaging and strategy for campaign teams. “When the public sees journalists trooping to become part of government and political campaigns, public trust is heavily eroded,” another former senior journalist told me. “If the public begins to see the media as simply part of the machinery of political messaging, or the work that journalists do in the newsroom as just a ‘stepping stone’ into political messaging or into a government appointment, [then] we’re not in a good place.”

I extend these arguments more in this piece in The Africa Report (paywalled, but this newsletter is a way for you to get a gist of the article – don’t tell them); shout out to John-Allan Namu, Asha Mwilu and Yvonne Okwara for helping me think through this.

In the meantime, here’s:

What We’re Reading: Kisiwa cha Minawe is a Swahili novel written by Mary Ambi. The novel is a fictional story that highlights the social, economic and political life of the people of Minawe, a small island. Kisiwa cha Minawe’s manuscript was one of the 15 that was shortlisted during NMG’s Tuzo ya Fasihi ya Ubunifu (Prize for Creative Kiswahili Literature) national competition in 2015. Ambi was the only woman selected. Order your digital copy (epub/mobi) via or on Amazon Kindle on this link here.

 What We’re Watching: The Creative Process is a short documentary telling the stories of seven Kenyan-based artists. Produced by Upsyd Films, It highlights the journeys of Kenyan artists from diverse backgrounds, contrasting the difference between talent vs. skill, and how intentional support both locally and globally is key to the sustainable success of Kenyan creatives.

 What We’re Listening To:Sema Nasi” a podcast by Josephine Karianjahi and Melissa Mbugua from Africa Podfest, who sat down with Maurice Otieno and Doris Onyango to unpack why podcasts have become the preferred medium for alternative narratives and community building.

As always,

Christine Mungai

Curator | Baraza Media Lab

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