Public Relations is all about catching the right moment, the right smile, the right break. With all the things happening at Makerere University now is the right time for that P.R.O. to shine, or not. For those reading this without context; earlier this week Dr. Stella Nyanzi, a PhD scholar and notorious social media activist undressed herself in protest and ire at her boss Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, the Executive Director of MISR (Makerere Institute for Social research). I awoke to social media posts of Stella’s breasts and nakedness and epithets in a video (video here) Whatever the context of that story is, is still unfolding but I’d like to focus on the handling of this issue. How could it have been done better? Who should have spoken by now, 72 hours after the crisis broke that hasn’t spoken? What other opportunities are being lost every day this story is in the headlines? As P.R.O. has sleepless nights these are the top 8 things to consider when in crisis:
- Seize The Golden Hour: Stories have a golden hour when, if attacked properly they can even be still born. The first hour of any crisis presents an opportunity to negotiate, intimidate, bribe, cajole, or even create a diversion. Seize it, move swiftly and decisively. It helps if you have a crisis management plan (you have to have seen the importance of planning to have this) in place that you can lean back on. If not, consider this your biggest career lesson.
- Stop The Bleeding: The attrition that happens over a few hour news cycle is catastrophic. Justine Sacco, in 2013 sent an insensitive tweet and got on a plane by the time she landed she had lost her job and was an internet pariah. Unfortunately, in Uganda these kinds of shenanigans at Makerere aren’t uncommon. The fact that social media is involved however makes the battle instant and viral; attracting commentary and live coverage each minute. Issue a statement to counter the crisis, even if its to simply say, “We are responding to this…” The bleeding is considered to have started stopping when you get your name in the public conversation. when people start saying, “They responded”
- Appoint a Mascot: With their enemies at their gates the Romans would give up their democratic rights to one man – a general who led them to war. He had absolute control. The mascot should have all information. They are the designated spokesperson, and source of information coming out of the university. A singular, authoritative, clear focal point. Arm them with information, update them regularly, discuss the full situation with them, and go through talking points and possible questions. This not only manages misinformation, it would allow the university to speak as one unit. And everyone is either with them or against them. There is no space for equivocation in war. And this is war.
- Keep Record of Who is Saying What: In the heat of battle, people will mouth off things. Things like they were under “duress”. Record them. Know who said what when. Review this material daily to catch inconsistencies, to open holes in their stories and build character discrediting evidence. When you’re in the court of public opinion, creating situations where your opponent’s character is questioned can turn the tide in your favour. Records also help your learn as a professional and as an institution. They become case studies.
- Bring Your Heavy Hitters: As an institution, there are certain assets that you have, secret weapons, people in your corner who can and should be leveraged to speak in your favour. There are relationships you have by virtue of your size. If you spend up to UGX100M a year in advertising and media relationships with media houses it is incumbent upon you to leverage ALL those relationships to get fair news coverage. If there are websites that are popular among your students or run by university students e.g. campus bee and others reach out to them to get your story out there. Every click counts with the internet. Bully. Threaten. Grovel. Do what must be done but ensure you have your mascot before the cameras. Let the public see that yours isn’t a huge, faceless, brutal institution that has driven a woman to hopelessness. Humanize your brand. People always want to believe other people.
- Create Diversions: Diversions by their very nature are meant to take people away from the point. Some have argued in academic (purist non-practicing) circles that this style of PR is unethical, unscrupulous and portends an underhanded blow. But you work for a university where students get sexually transmitted degrees, you are underpaid and no one notices all your good PR when you do it, how are you supposed to remain ethical or above judgement? Divert to the good things like that sunshine powered bus, or the research happening elsewhere that is not in the area of conflict. Divert to the vibrant sugar daddy- supported economy around the university. It will give you time to breathe.
- Extirpate Conflicted Parties: Anyone who might be compromised by relation or by virtue of their closeness to the conflicting parties should be removed. This ensures people are not underhandedly undoing your work but also draws clear lines and that people must choose a side. In this case the fact that the University Vice Chancellor who is also Dr. Nyanzi’s uncle has not recused himself from this matter does not show that the university is placing itself in an objective space to deal with this matter. In the public’s eye, make sure your side has its ducks in a row and is above reproach You are simply responding to an unreasonable employee.
- Breathe: No matter how bad you think it is. It will pass. Don’t forget to breathe. Its not the end of the world. Yes, if Prof. Mamdani leaves, the university’s ranking will probably drop but Makerere is Makerere. Prof. Mamdani battled the legendary and lugubrious Dr. Nsibambi and has faced down many tough people. If he can’t face down a bare chested woman, then maybe he can’t. We should not expect too much of him. He is human. The university might also not be so lucky to raise that $7.2M he has raised in funding during his tenure. But its Makerere, it will survive.
In closing, whether the PRO is unequipped to handle conflict online and social media where the bulk of the deluge of messages is coming from or they are the “bury your head in the sand” kind of PR person they need to understand that adversity shapes us. They need to be present and be felt. It is those who are awake and present in times of war that can shape the outcome of events. And this is war…