Monday, 24 September 2018

Towards a communication proficient workforce

That almost all activities in organisations are realised through communication is a reality some people are not aware of. Little wonder not many organisations are keen on investing in this indispensable tool.

Communication is every organisation’s lifeblood. Through communication, leadership is exercised and such other organisational activities as planning, directing, assessment of staff and many others are executed.

Without communication, how could organisational leaders ever appreciate their team members’ contribution towards the attainment of organisational goals? How could organisational conflicts and other challenges ever be resolved without communication?

Some organisational leaders have challenges demonstrating leadership due to their inability to communicate effectively. In this context, communication transcends writing or speaking skills, which are, of course, important. The concept should be understood to include communication consciousness, that is, some level of theoretical appreciation of this important human activity.

In today's dynamic and increasingly sophisticated business environment, only employees with informed communication consciousness and cutting edge communication skills effectively foster positive work relationships, help drive business, enhance organisations’ reputation, contribute to organisational effectiveness and report on work progress with greater clarity.

However, gaps in communication consciousness and skills among employees at different levels at work places, including top management team members, seem endemic. In my view, there are a number of conspiring factors.

First, it is formation. Students’ exposure to organisational communication in training institutions and colleges is limited. What most are introduced to in colleges and universities are language and communication skills courses for academic purposes only, with such courses limited to the first year of study.

That has the potential to prevent students from acquiring work place related communication skills, let alone organisational communication consciousness. With limited knowledge of, and proficiency in, communication, the very tool meant to facilitate their performance at the work place throughout their careers, a lot of college and university graduates are ill prepared for the world of work despite their acquisition of ‘technical’ expertise in their fields.

The existence of communications offices or departments in organisations is another factor that aggravates the problem. In some organisations, the view, explicit or implicit, is that it is personnel in communications offices that should be worried about the quality of communication. Personnel outside communications can as well ‘do without’ communication and still perform, so is the misconception.

The third culprit are communications personnel themselves. Everyday offers evidence that suggests some practitioners act in a manner that propagates this ill-informed view. A lot of communication practitioners limit their efforts to the visibility of their organisations instead of also promoting organisational communication consciousness which is key in the management of numerous corporate issues.

Another reason is organisational leaders’ failure to realise the power that lies untapped in their communications personnel. Consequently, communications practitioners are denied the latitude for unleashing the powerful artillery they possess and contribute meaningfully to the effectiveness of their organisations.
Overcoming these challenges is possible, nevertheless.

The first solution is the full integration of organisational communication courses in all college or university studies, especially in the final year of study, regardless of one’s specialisation. That would prepare students for meaningful communication execution in any type of work environment.

Secondly, if, at the time of their recruitment, staff demonstrate limited communication consciousness and weak communication skills set, employers need to expose such personnel to short term programmes designed to turn their employees into value-adding workforce. The workers’ specialist expertise in their field alone is inadequate.

Organisational leaders should also create space for personnel in their communications offices and departments to lead in promoting best organisational communication practices for effectiveness and efficiency.

Last but not the least important, it is also time various professional bodies and organisations put organisational communication on their professional development agenda and programmes. Organisational Communication should be given space at professional body conferences, team building sessions, staff retreats and other fora that bring professionals and other workers together. Professionals in engineering, finance, health, HR etc should be constantly reminded of the need to continuously improve their organisational communication knowledge as well as their practical communication skills.

The pursuit of these initiatives could be all we need to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of some of our organisations, after all.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Communication competence matters

Over the past years, I have encountered situations that suggest employees’ communication abilities have a direct, though subtle, relationship with their overall performance, regardless of the nature of their work. The abilities also have a bearing on their personal and organisation’s image.

In this discussion, communication competence refers to the skills involved in disseminating a message, orally or in writing. 

Poor message delivery, be it through a letter, an e-mail, a telephone call or a public presentation, creates a loathsome image of yourself and of the organisation you represent. Although one's communication abilities is not a measure of their actual job performance, the reality is that failure to communicate clearly raises questions about your expertise in a given area. 

Some people comfort themselves with the false belief that all that matters is the content of their message and care less about the quality of their communication. This is suicidal.

Apart from the brutal damage it causes on people’s personal and organisational image, poor communication skills have a significant bearing on employees’ work performance in many ways. 

Due to employees’ lack of communication competence, some deliverables are always delayed. For instance, it takes some longer than necessary to draft a one page communication (memo, report etc) due to lack of confidence in their writing or due to lack of knowledge of how to confront the task. Poor performance rating is the sad consequence.

Employees with weak communication skills and are aware of their deficiency often fail to contribute to organisational growth. Participating in meetings, discussions and in other work related activities requiring them to communicate scares them. Often, such people fail to seize opportunities through which they could showcase their abilities or float the brilliant ideas they could have. For example, such people decline offers to facilitate a session at a meeting or to direct a ceremony.

When they are aware of their communication deficiencies, employees already feel defeated even before bringing their ideas to others. Often, persuading team mates or superiors to buy in your proposal for something requires a firm command of communication tools, including language - English in the case of most work places in Malawi. 

A good idea lost in a myriad of language and communication lapses reduces its acceptability chances. Either your team mates or superior will dismiss your idea outright or they will assure you the proposal will be considered ‘in the next meeting or discussion’. That is a dismissal veiled in diplomacy so you do not get demoralized.  When that happens, chances are you failed to communicate. This is not to suggest that all rejections are a result of poor communication, though. Sometimes it is just that the idea itself has little merit.
Team members in a meeting.

However, to an extent that you could not be aware of, your credibility as a professional and the acceptability of your ideas are dependent upon the quality of the communication involved. The ability to communicate well, perfectly, is therefore key to your career. Ever wonder why many job vacancy announcements include excellent communication skills as an important attribute regardless of the nature of the job advertised? 

Regardless of the level in your career, it is never too late to embark on a communication skills improvement programme, in whatever form. Self-study is one. This works effectively especially if you are aware of your own deficiencies. Another is seeking help from a communication expert. The advantage of expert help is that they can easily diagnose your language and communication imperfections and recommend an effective remedial programme for you.

At the organisational level, superiors may not be able to detect how weak communication competence among their team members affects their performance. For instance, the superiors may not realise that delayed deliverables such as reports by their juniors are, sometimes, a result of distressing and pitiful struggles in putting things together in narrative form. The juniors could be spending hours and days on a writing task just because they cannot find the right words with which they can deliver their message.

Organisations, therefore, need to make a deliberate move to carry out communication competence audits to detect the real communication abilities of their team members. As they do this, the organisations should also realise that communication deficiencies cannot just affect employees’ performance but that these are also a Public Relations risk. 

Communication is a skill. It requires continuous learning. Even communication professionals have to continue acquiring new skills. You or your team should also endeavour to enhance your communication competence.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Why PR People should be part of Management

In addition to the many reasons that show why PR people should be part of Management, I have this one:

When he comes up with something intended for external publics, for example, a media statement, a simple statement, a PR person who is not part of Management needs approval from some top guy before publication. Now, top Managers have their own work to attend to. Their priority, therefore, is their core work. Attending to a PR person’s statement just appears to be ‘extra work’ for the top guy. The statement therefore cannot be their priority.

What happens? The PR person’s work suffers as the review of the statement is left ‘waiting’ for decades. Meanwhile, the PR person cannot proceed but wait until the much sought-after approval is granted.

This wouldn’t be the case if the PR person had a greater amount of authority within the organisation. If he were a Manager he would simply proceed to get the statement published and explain the same later to his fellow Managers. The practitioner's autonomy would help. Some statements are just so straightforward that they do not require a CEO’s approval. But that is only when the PR person is part of Management, not when he/she is out.

What’s the point, therefore? Keeping a PR person outside of Management is one sure way of robbing an organisation of some efficiency. As simple as that.

Of course, as alluded to in the opening, there are a myriad reasons for PR people to be part of Management. What has just been discussed here is just one of the numerous.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Inside Malawi’s withdrawal of Thoko Banda as ambassador to Zimbabwe – a PR perspective

In an interview with state broadcaster, MBC TV, on Tuesday, 3rd November, Malawi’s Minister responsible for Foreign Affairs Dr George Chaponda made remarks that suggested, explicitly and implicitly, that President Peter Mutharika did not have enough information about Mr Thoko Banda who was recently appointed to represent Malawi in a diplomatic mission to Zimbabwe.

Mr Thoko Banda has since declined the offer, following media revelations that in 2006, he described Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe ‘an idiot’ and a ‘horrible’ man.

From media reports, Mr Banda does not deny having described Mr Mugabe as such. He has even gone to tell the BBC that he cannot represent Malawi in a country that has a dented human rights record. Read the whole story on

Well, a discussion around that is not within the TOR of this post but is not unworthy.

Our interest is on the Foreign Affairs Minister’s remarks. Let us look at this: A state president makes an appointment without gathering adequate information about the prospective diplomat. If true, that in itself is a goof. It suggests someone in the Office of the President and Cabinet did not do their job well. That someone has done a big disservice to the president and to the nation as a whole. The president, I understand, cannot go around scouring for information about candidates for certain positions to serve in Government. He relies on his team to do this kind of work for him so that he can make decisions on our behalf.

Now, that someone failed to do their job is bad enough and should invoke the President’s rethink of the caliber of the people serving him in his office. But to have a cabinet Minister make this revelation in the media is unthinkable, a PR malaise, if I can put it that way.

Why couldn’t Government PR team admit it was an oversight to appoint Mr Banda to represent Malawi in Zimbabwe in view of his remarks about that country’s president without saying the President did not have enough information about the candidate? I know some readers cannot help but be confused by what I am saying here.

The thing is: It is one thing to admit you did not know about a candidate you preferred but went on to give him a job and it is completely another to say you overlooked one element that has turned out to be crucial. The former suggests that you do not know how to do your job. The latter, on the other hand, is an indication that you admit you are only human and certain things can skip your good professional judgement. That can earn you a plus with regard to building your reputation as a CEO and that root would not be unethical which is one thing PR practitioners should always be concerned about. That is how I look at it, anyway.

Having said that, my final thought is that Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr George Chaponda should have sought proper advice on how to convey the message of Government’s withdrawal of Mr Thoko Banda as Malawi’s diplomatic rep to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. What are your views on the matter?

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Awakening reflections by a Communication Practitioner

During the many months I have not updated this blog I have encountered so many PR/ Communication  situations worth discussing and reflecting on.

The remaining two months of the year will be used to bring the different experiences, both pleasant and not so pleasant, to PR Space.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Activist Seodi White's public dislike for Rev. Chakwera unfortunate

I am having problems with Human Rights activist Seodi White's public expression of her feeling about Rev. Chakwera's accent.
Nyasa Times is reporting that Seodi White says Rev. Chakwera's American accent irritates her. According to the online news site, Seodi’s argument on her face-book page is that she is only exercising her right to free speech. Well, that is not disputable. She is indeed entitled to her right to free expression as granted by the country’s constitution.
Where I see a problem is the implication of her freely expressed speech on her credibility as an activist.

First, in Malawi, the clergy have been very instrumental in shaping public issues. Rev. Chakwera is president of the Assemblies of God in Malawi and is definately among those whose word on public issues cannot just be dismissed without giving it enough thought.
Second, there have been media reports suggesting that Rev. Lazarus Chakwera intends to contest for the presidency of the Malawi Congress Party, the country’s main opposition party. The party will be holding its convention in a few weeks. If he contests and gets elected, Chakwera will be the former ruling party’s presidential candidate at the country’s 2014 polls.
Credibility implications
Seodi White is a renowned human rights activist in the country and I would not be afraid to say that when she speaks, policy makers and other people that matter in society stop to listen. They may not necessarily agree with her position on issues. Her activism examines issues across a wide spectrum i.e. the interrelationships between culture, traditions, politics, law, religion etc on one hand and human rights on the other.
Such a role in society demands that one’s credibility remain intact. Although there are several factors that can determine an activist’s credibility in the public eye, that standing is largely secured if the activist is seen to be objective in their analysis of issues and in their advocacy. Any allusion to subjective analyses of issues simply serves to erode the authority such a figure might have earned on public issues.
Now, is Rev. Chakwera public figure? We may not have to argue over this. However, one thing for sure is that as president of the Assemblies of God in Malawi, he holds an influential position in the country. He can influence policy at different levels.

That aside, imagine a scenario where the reverend stands for the MCP presidency, wins and gets elected as president of this country.

The question I would like considered is: Should Rev. Chakwera, whether as a religious leader or - if he is lucky - as president of this country,  be involved in some human rights issues deserving the intervention of minds like Seodi's, will the activist's word  be viewed objective and credible, especially if her's is not Chakwera's stand?
My bet is that in such a scenario her objective look at the issue will not be accorded the attention it is supposed to earn. By commenting on the reverend's accent, such a useless thing, Seodi has attached herself to an issue that I dare say is not what a person of her stature should be seen to spend her energies on, at least not in public. The public will judge her analysis as a personal attack against the reverend. Why? She may not have intended it but Seodi's comments  have surely prompted serious minded Malawians to view her as an ordinary person who concentrates on personalities not real issues.
Final thought
Yes, she is entitled to her free speech but as a public figure herself, Seodi White could do better by confining her public comments to issues, not trivia like people’s English accents. Her dislike for public figures’ personalities could be privately shared with her siblings and friends, no?

Friday, 12 April 2013

Malawi State House statement on Madonna

The BBC is reporting that Malawi President Joyce Banda is ‘furious’ because of the press statement her communications team issued recently, accusing Madonna of demanding VVIP treatment when the pop star was in the southern African country. I must say I believe the BBC story. That is not to suggest that I believe the President is indeed ‘furious’, though.
It’s not the focus of this post but I want to acknowledge right at the outset that I wouldn’t be surprised if it is figured out the reported anger is simply some PR operation. However, let’s assume President Banda is indeed angry as reported by the BBC.

One thing I am interested in regarding the press statement from the President’s office is the  conduct of the press team. I have to admit, when I read the statement as published on Nyasa Times I was not impressed with the kind of language and tone used. To say the least, the statement resembled some communication from a private citizen to another. No sense of executive decorum. No wonder writing on his face-book page, Malawi based BBC correspondent Raphael Tenthani described the statement ‘yummy’. Was I wrong to read a lot of sarcasm in that one word description? I just feel the press team that worked on the statement did a great disservice to the president, which takes us to the second aspect of the issue around the statement.

Going by the BBC story, the President did not know about the press statement. That raises a big question on PR practice. It is a basic norm that press statements issued by PR practitioners are supposed to represent a position taken by the institution or individual the practitioners work for. In other words, an institution or an individual takes a position on an issue and a PR practitioner communicates that to a target public or advises the institution/individual how they should communicate that position for an intended effect. It is also the PR practitioner’s responsibility to advise their client on the sort of position to take on an issue.
What this tells us is that whatever goes to the media ought to represent the views of the client institution or individual, whether based on advice from PR staff or not.
However, PR practitioners and their clients are not always talking in order to come up with positions on issues. Yet, sometimes, during those times when the two are not in touch, the practitioners are supposed to communicate with different publics through the mass media. It is such moments that reveal the level of expertise of the practitioner. It is such situations that the practitioner’s understanding and knowledge about their client becomes handy. In other words, basing on how they understand their client, a PR practitioner can offer a media statement on behalf of the client without even seeking their view first. But that ought to be done with extreme caution in order to avoid goofing which is what the Malawi Presidential Press team has done.
The press team has demonstrated they didn’t consult their client i.e. the president on the kind of response they were supposed to send out to Madonna. That in itself is a big goof. They were supposed to seek her opinion on the matter.
And if it is true that President Joyce Banda is not happy with the statement by her press team I am sure this means she would not have endorsed it if the statement were sent to her in-tray for vetting. This clearly suggests that the press team do not fully understand the thinking of their client, the state president. If they did, they would not issue a statement that contradicts the way she looks at the Madonna issue.
That leads us to the question: how far should PR practitioners be allowed to express their client’s ‘view’ in the absence of that client’s say on any given issue? If the Malawi president’s press team had bothered to wait to consult their client on the Madonna issue before issuing a statement, would that have any adverse effect on the country’s first citizen’s PR image to the world?( Right now, the issue is no longer a Malawi PR issue, it’s about the president’s image to the world).
An extra question could be, how can the President salvage her ‘image’ in the issue? Publicly disown the statement by her press team?

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Who would your priority be?

I am currently in Nairobi, Kenya, with a team of other Plan International Communications persons from Africa, attending a week long training on Communication for Behavioural Impact (COMBI) being facilitated by Dr Everold Hosein, a Senior Communications Adviser at the WHO.
Just to put you in perspective, COMBI is a communications planning approach that draws from private sector marketing principles to design communication programmes aimed at creating impact on people’s behaviour in social development. Some refer to this as communication for behavioural change.
This morning, we were discussing market segmentation. We looked at the basic fact that at any given point with regard to a behavioural impact/change communication intervention, audiences will be classified as follows:
-          Those who have never heard the message you would like them to hear
-          Those who have the information but are not yet convinced about what you are communicating
-          Those who are convinced but have not yet decided to act
-          Those that have decided to act but have not yet done so
-          Those that have acted but are still not sure if their action is worthwhile
-          Those that are fully into the desired behaviour  and need to maintain that
The question that we grappled with was this: In view of the ever limited resources communications persons in social development organisations work with, implying that one cannot focus on all these at once, which of the categories above should one regard as their priority when it comes to communication planning if they were to chose only one segment ? Is it the first group? The second, etc?
Which segment would be your priority? Why? Remember, the assumption is that the situation demands that you choose only one segment.
To this I would like to add my own question: With what is given above, are there other factors you would consider in order to determine which segment you would prioritise?

Supervise your superior

Obvious! It’s a ‘taboo’ for you as a junior to supervise the work of someone senior to you. But not when they are meeting the media.
One day I accompanied a team of Plan Malawi’s disaster preparedness team to a southern Malawi district where floods had destroyed houses, property and crops and had displaced hundreds of people. Plan was visiting the area to distribute relief items to the floods victims.
My role was very clear. I had to pitch our story to editors at local media houses and I did just that. A team of journalists came along.
The journalists and I had agreed very well on the time they would need Plan’s and other officials for interviews. When the time came, I alerted who ever the media had asked for. I listened to the media interviews as they were being conducted and everything went on well.
However, one experience prompted me to arrive at a resolution I will leave with as long as I remain in charge of Media Relations for any organisation or for any individual.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Clearly communicated principles enhance your reputation - Thumbs up MCP
In the week 17th -23rd February 2013, Malawi politics offered an invaluable tip for the enhancement of an organisation’s reputation.
The country’s main opposition the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) denied Gwanda Chakuamba re-admission into the party as a member. Gwanda Chakuamba has been in Malawi politics for a long time and is founder as well as former president of the New Republican Party (NRP).
In 2004, while still in MCP (before forming NRP), he led a coalition of political parties that was facing the then presidential aspirant Bingu wa Mutharika who was being sponsored by the then ruling United Democratic Front (UDF). Gwanda was so popular that he was late president Bingu wa Mutharika’s fiercest challenger at the 2004 polls. Gwanda missed the presidency by just an inch. That is how high the old man from Nsanje had risen in Malawi politics. Ordinarily, one would not expect a political party to close the door for a man of such a stature if his 2004 political ‘achievement’ is considered.
In view of this, MCP’s rejection of Gwanda Chakuamba’s re-admission into the party is attention grabbing. The party argues that Gwanda has an unstable political mind, meaning he changes party membership at every available opportunity. Like so many other Malawian politicians, especially those in ruling People’s Party and former ruling Democratic Progressive Party, Gwanda has offered his allegiance to several political parties, not once but more than that. In other words, he has been all over the place, from party A, B, C and beyond. A few years ago, he announced his retirement from active politics, only to bounce back onto the political arena later.
Now when last week Gwanda announced that he was ‘going back home’ to MCP, the party clearly said the old man was not welcome due to his political prostitution.
This must be the first time for such a thing to happen in Malawi’s politics. Political parties have always pursued an open door policy, one that welcomes whosoever wishes to join, regardless of their political career background. It is such a policy that left many a Malawian disappointed with the composition of the National Executive Committee of President Joyce Banda’s People’s Party. With the exception of the party’s Secretary General Henry Chibwana, the former Polytechnic Principal, the rest are figures that have camouflaged several times between mainly the United Democratic Front and the Democratic Progressive Party.
The UDF and the DPP too have politicians that have recycled themselves in their desperate attempt to make themselves relevant to Malawi politics. Such recycled politicians do not hold any unique philosophy. They do not live any distinct principles that can earn them any respect from those that value principles in politics.
MCP’s rejection of Gwanda Chakuamba’s membership is the most prudent thing any party that cares about its reputation could ever do. An organisation that is concerned with its public image and reputation never compromises anything, especially its values, for anything else.
If he were accepted in, Gwanda would obviously come to the Malawi Congress Party with several, a hundred or possibly thousands of sympathizers. That would grow the party’s membership which is political parties’ most pursued strategy for achieving their ultimate goal i.e. to rule. 
In rejecting Gwanda, MCP looked beyond this immediate membership growth. MCP looked at the real value Gwanda’s rejoining of the party would bring. Deducing from his political prostitution, he would bring zero value to the party. And it is not just about failing to add value to MCP. Gwanda’s rejoining would bring down the public’s perception of the party from whatever levels. In other words, the party’s reputation would be significantly traumatized and deformed.
Every organisation needs to have its members focused and have all their efforts point in one direction. It is that sense of unity of purpose that helps the organisation achieve its goals. However, it is hard to have that unity of purpose if members do not have a firm belief in, and conviction about, the mission of their organisation. Gwanda’s propensity for different political colours signifies he is not capable of holding onto a particular purpose. He just cannot be trusted in any political organisation as someone who can fully commit himself to that organisation’s core mission.
MCP may face or may be facing other reputation challenges but surely, such challenges do not and will not emanate from the pursuit of an open door policy to accommodate every Jim and Jack. Managed well, MCP’s rejection of Gwanda is a big plus for the party’s reputation. And that’s what every political organisation ought to do – have principles, communicate them clearly and live them.