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). Tonui Kipkurui kicks-off this three-part interview series dubbed “The Communicator”. 21/01/2022
Tell me a bit about yourself. Who are you and what do you do professionally?
I am Tonui Kipkurui, a trained and qualified journalist and public relations practitioner. I hold a Bachelor of Science Degree in Communications and Public Relations and a Diploma in Journalism from Moi University and Kenya Institute of Mass Communication (KIMC) respectively. I presently serve in the water and sanitation sector as a Communication Specialist.
When and how did you first find yourself in the PR/Communication industry?
I joined the water sector in the year 2014. Previously, I was an intern at the Parliament of the Republic of Kenya (National Assembly) as a Hansard Reporter.
Was that you training background or you trained for something different? If not how did you make the switch?
My first training was journalism at KIMC. The first employment opportunity that came my way after college was in the field of Communication and Public Relations. Initially, I had trained my guns on working as a journalist in the mainstream print media with a bias on hard news but as fate would have it I found myself in PR. Two years into Corporate Communication, I enrolled for an undergraduate programme in Communications and Public Relations at Moi University to enrich my knowledge and align myself to fit into the space of PR.
The switch to PR was not hard for me given that the two disciplines share a lot in common in terms transferable skills such as writing, editing and publishing. With the exposure and knowledge gained thus far, I am of the view that PR borrows heavily from the practice of journalism. I am tempted to think that one easily fits in to PR if their first training or background is journalism than vice versa.
What were your typical tasks?
My typical tasks then were media monitoring and newspaper review. I was tasked with spotting and analyzing editorial mentions, public comments about the company, its products and services for appropriate response measures.
How did a typical day look like for you?
My typical day started at 8:00am with first order of the day being newspaper reviews. After that I checked on the planned and pending tasks like follow up on payments for consultancies and service providers; responding to queries of walk in clients and attending meetings to take notes and minutes.
How easy or difficult was it to execute your role as a young professional with little or no experience at all?
I would say it was both easy and at the same time challenging. Easy because I was able to deploy some of the journalistic skills to fit into the field of PR. It wasn’t a walk in the park grasping some concepts confined to the practice and functions of PR like branding, publics, and protocols. I could attend meetings for staging a corporate event and could not connect the dots whenever such terms popped up in the planning process. I would only be useful when it came to taking minutes.
What are the lessons you picked from that experience that shaped how you do things today?
I have learnt that when an opportunity comes your way you first grab it and roll up your sleeves as you learn the ropes. You don’t say, ‘I did Journalism and so I can’t be in PR’. It also pays to adopt the habit continuous learning because new knowledge and practices keep emerging and evolving every day. Today, I can do a thing or two comfortably in PR my first training notwithstanding.
What were the greatest challenges and how did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge was fitting into PR given my first training as a Journalist. The college I attended specializes in media training and PR was taught in passing as a unit. While journalism concerns itself with news to inform, educate and entertain, PR on the other hand manages perceptions and building relations. The two related but distinct disciplines gave me a dilemma as I could not immediately establish their meeting points. Every time I was performing a task I found tackling it from the perspective of journalism. I overcame the odds through continuous learning and research.
Fast forward to today. How many years has it been and what has been most outstanding in your career so far?
This is my 7th year in Communication and Public Relations. I have been able to document and tell water and sanitation stories – news and features that positively impacts on target audiences. This has been possible through corporate communication collaterals such as newsletters, press releases and media supplements.
Has your role evolved, or it has remained the same? If so, what is different now?
My role hasn’t changed much. The positive thing has been the many channels of information distribution courtesy of ever evolving technology. Today, for example, I am able to do a press release, share and circulate on variety of platforms for real-time reach.
Have you changed jobs/employer or you’re still at the same place. What made you change or stay?
I am still working in the water sector. I have decided to stick around because of the many communication opportunities that continue to emerge in the water sector. The future of communication in the water, sanitation and environment sectors is quite promising given that global discourses around climate change and global warming that places advocacy communication at its center in creating awareness on the impacts of phenomena.
What is the one thing you love about a PR/Communication work?
The platform to tell impactful stories is what intrigues me. Water is critical for human and ecosystem survival. The fact that I can get a platform to tell stories means that am impacting lives. Water as they as say is life while sanitation is dignity.
Where do you draw your motivation to rejuvenate yourself from the pressures of work?
When am not doing communication stuff, I spend most of my free time reading fiction and non-fiction stories. That is how I while away my time. I am also passionate about growing trees and normally do some research on the species that do well in my village. In July, 2020 I started a project dubbed, “Nature Nurtures” back home. I target to plant as many tree varieties as possible. So far I have grown close to 4,000 cypress seedlings and counting. I started the initiative after reading Wangari Maathai’s book titled, “Unbowed”. The book reads in part, “Anybody can dig a hole, put a tree in it, water it, and nurture it.’’ This tells you that you do not have to be an environmental expert to grow a tree, anyone can no matter their backgrounds.
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?
They need to have mentors early in their careers so that they can tap into the expertise of the gurus. They also need to pick on a niche within the broader scope of PR. But more importantly, they need to be adaptive and receptive to the ever evolving nature and practice of the profession for them to thrive and survive.
What is your take on the IPRAC Bill being fronted by the Public Relations Society of Kenya? Is it a good or bad thing and how will it impact the profession?
The regulation could not have come at a better time. We need to separate wheat from the chaff. We cannot have quacks and professionals reading from the same script. Today as it stands, quacks are running the show and calling themselves PR and Communication experts thereby giving the discipline a bad name. The law will streamline the practice of PR and give the practitioners a sense of belonging, identity and authority.
In your opinion, what does the future of PR/Communications look like in Kenya and globally in the coming 10 years?
The future of PR/Communication is sure to be driven by technology. There is talk of Artificial Intelligence (AI) either taking over or augmenting some of the functions of PR. AI is going to be the game changer and we have got to watch the space. With the efforts by PRSK to streamline the PR practice through IPRAC Bill, I can only hope a law will be in place down the road.