As part of the 50th Anniversary celebrations of the Public Relations Society of Kenya, Nelson Opany features career stories of three young public relations and communications management professionals, focusing on how they started (then) and how they’re fairing (now). Morgan Ochieng wraps up this three-part interview series dubbed “The Communicator”.
Tell me a bit about yourself. Who are you and what do you do professionally?
I am Morgan Ochieng and I consider myself as a community leader since I have been working in informal settlements to address pressing issues in the community. Over the past 4 years, I have been in Mathare working with community leaders to address issues of peace and security. I have organized community dialogues and led the Viongozi Mtaani Initiative with young leaders to find solutions to community challenges. I have been part of the regional effort to come up with strategic interventions to counter and prevent violent extremism.
Professionally I’m a communications practitioner specializing in public relations. Though I don’t practice formally, I’m still passionate about it and sometimes use my skills to help with writing press releases, petitions, and communications strategies for different partner organizations I work with. I founded the Scion Creative and Innovation Centre where we develop strategic communication interventions to address social issues. I am also a storyteller and hosts the Tambali Podcast, where we tell stories of bold leaders serving their communities in times of great difficulty.
When and how did you first find yourself in the PR/Communication industry?
This is something I’ve never said before. (laughs). So, I left my hometown and moved to Nairobi to study Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science at Kenyatta University. Even though I went to register at the institution, I never stepped foot into class. I decided to go job-hunting and got a cleaning job at Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC). I was there for three or four weeks. I didn’t like the idea of young presenters coming to use the washroom that I was cleaning. I was envious and asked myself what I lacked and why I was even doing that work. Here is where my passion for the media started. I used to visit the newsroom and try out things with friendly journalists. I am good at networking. After around three weeks, I started to look for a way of being on TV or radio. One day, as I was passing through the Kenya National Theatre (KNT), I came across an advertisement for set book actors. I expressed interest, and I went to the Norwich Union Towers for auditions. I knew that this was the only way I could get on TV as an actor. Later, I left KNT and joined Moi University to study communications and public relations, which I knew nothing about, but wanted a course that would take me to the media but not as a journalist, so I majored in communications and public relations.
Was that your training background, or you trained for something different? If not, how did you make the switch?
From having initially been destined to study environmental science, my turning point was working at KBC as a cleaner and later as an actor at Kenya National Theatre. Here is where I got to learn about communication, journalism, and later, did my research on public relations, which was not a popular course then. This was my first degree.
What were your typical tasks in your first job?
My main responsibility as a community organizer and peer educator in my first job was to create work plans and worksheets. I was walking around my Migori neighborhood, talking to teenagers about the importance of abstinence and making healthy choices. As you can see, I was in a completely different field.
How did a typical day look like for you?
Working as a community organizer provided me with numerous opportunities to learn about people and cultural diversity. I would get up in the morning and go to work. At around eighteen years old, I was the youngest so my coworkers, who were much older, would occasionally send me to deliver letters or update their work plans. We would then be assigned roles and sent out into the field. The most humbling task I perfomed was interacting with young people and women. It taught me a lot about resilience and dedication.
How easy or difficult was it to execute your role as a young professional with little or no experience at all?
By then I didn’t appreciate it, but looking back, I can say it was the easiest thing, since nothing much was expected of me apart from learning from the job. I thank God for the colleagues I worked with since they allowed me to make mistakes and learn from them. Today they see the man I have become and are happy with my leadership journey and achievements.
What are the lessons you picked from that experience that shaped how you do things today?
Nothing comes easily – you must be resilient. You must work hard, and you must learn from your failures. You fail today and pick yourself up tomorrow. Another important lesson I have learnt is never to get a perfect person to work with. Choose someone who is enthusiastic about their work and teach them how to do it if they are willing to learn.
What were the greatest challenges and how did you overcome them?
Being a working teenager, it was sometimes difficult to work with people who were older than you, especially on sensitive topics like healthy choices, family planning, and the use of condoms. I managed to overcome this through learning and being able to appreciate diversity and people’s points of view. At the end of the day, I had to demystify the myths and state the facts. I thank the organization for always taking us for capacity-building training that exposed us to how to handle diversity and rejection.
Fast forward to today. How many years has it been and what has been most outstanding in your career so far?
It has been eight years since I was a peer educator. In between, I went to university for my undergraduate degree and continued volunteering with different organizations. Went to the United States as one of the most outstanding student leaders in Africa in 2016. On coming back I joined Footprints for Change – an organization that changed my life in terms of the opportunities that they gave me, including being part of the regional efforts to draft strategic communications in countering violent extremism. There is a lot, some I can’t even believe. My career has been a roller coaster. Fast forward to today, I am running the Scion Creative and Innovation Centre where we devise strategic communications to address issues in our communities. And we are also now telling stories of bold leaders making change in their communities in times of great difficulty on the Tambali Podcast.
Has your role evolved, or it has remained the same? If so, what is different now?
Yes, from a naive teenager in Nyayomo Village in Migori County, to one of the most outstanding leaders in the county making change in Kenya. As mentioned, I now have my own organization. I lead a team of young people that I work with to grow our organization. My specific roles now include seeking partnerships, fundraising, communicating with donors, writing proposals, and organizing events. I am also still doing community organizing, working with the Run for Office movement to support young leaders running for political offices and am part of the Youth Serving Organizations in Kenya.
Have you changed jobs/employer or you’re still at the same place. What made you change or stay?
I transitioned from a full-time job since I wanted to do much more and be more flexible with what I do. It has been three years and can’t regret. I was baptism by fire, but I am picking up with additional roles.
What is the one thing you love about you’re as a PR/Communication work?
As you have noticed, I don’t practice PR directly. But one thing that PR has helped me with is building relations with organizations and doing stakeholder mapping and analysis. PR has made me easily connect and build long-term relationships that have had a ripple effect on my day-to-day work.
Where do you draw you motivation to rejuvenate yourself from the pressures of work?
I keep saying, tomorrow is another day to do something right. I failed today. I will get it right tomorrow. So, I keep going and never give in.
What would be your advice to young PR/Communications professionals who are just starting off like you did years ago? What do they need to know/do to succeed in the profession?
Things were different when we first started, and technology has advanced so rapidly in the last five years. You must continue to learn, unlearn, and relearn. You must also stay current on changes in public relations techniques. Please be professional with your work and drives the numbers and influence on social media and you’ll go a long way.
What is your take on the IPRAC Bill being fronted by the Public Relations Society of Kenya? Is it a good or bad thing/ How will it impact the profession?
Any profession embraces regulation will win big. The bill will be a big step for the profession. It will add value to the field because today anyone can call themselves a public relations practitioner simply because they have a following on social media.
In your opinion, what does the future of PR/Communications look like in Kenya and globally over the coming 10 years?
PR is a young profession. With technological advancement, we will see the profession grow even more. But again, it is us the professionals who must navigate this field. Let’s make it valuable. Let’s not just allow anyone to masquerade as a PR practitioner. Let’s be felt – just to paraphrase advice from one of my communication lecturers, Prof. Ong’ondo, who happens to be the Director of the Kenya Institute of Curriculum development (KICD) now.