2021 was the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic and some of the best communicators were medical practitioners whose excellent communication skills helped us navigate the turbulent year.
This year brings into focus the importance of communication at an individual and corporate level and our analysis included some organizations who played critical roles during the pandemic and some which are going to be key in 2022 as the country enters its electoral season.
As usual it is certain to generate robust debate and it is our hope that readers will use the communication takeaways and examples to grow their own communication skills.
1.Dr. Loice Achieng Ombajo- calm, knowledgeable, connecting
When a crisis strikes, true leaders emerge. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, one Dr. Ombajo, a physician and infectious disease specialist stood out. When so little was known about the new disease, she became a regular face on TV speaking to a panicked populace and providing insights on the transmission, management and prevention of covid-19.
Her ability to simplify complex medical terms into easy to understand concepts while maintaining authenticity enhanced her connection with audiences. Her conversational cadence and calm mien provided assurance to a worried public being bombarded with scary news of a new disease.
Even during animated prime time interviews at the height of the crisis, she remained unruffled, maintaining a faint smile that belied the weight she was carrying of advising the government and the entire health sector on pandemic response and management of Covid-19.
Dr. Ombajo stands out as a professional who has mastered the art of deploying communication as a tool to advance critical messages in times of crisis.
2. Dr. Rose Mutiso- The communicating researcher
Dr. Rose Mutiso is not only an energy researcher, and co-founder of the Mawazo Institute but also a policy advocate on energy, innovation and environment. Her ability to deploy logical appeals based on her research and incorporate strategic emotional appeals for her policy persuasion agenda is quite masterful.
She has managed to escape from “the prison of technicality” that holds captive so many experts and to package and mainstream her technical knowledge into content for audiences lacking in her technical expertise. It is no wonder that Dr. Mutiso has some TED talks to her name; masterfully delivered as well.
3. Justice Joel Ngugi-The Law doesn’t have to be complicated
The “law is clear” is a cliché deployed by many legal practitioners right before they lurch into legal jargon understood by a very limited audience and judges are no exception. Prof Joel Ngugi is that rare judge who actually makes sure that the “law is clear by communicating his mastery of the law, articulately, calmly and with humble confidence.
The depth of his scholarship, understanding of the law and his delivery of rulings have been applauded by both winners and losers in his court. This year, his informative and persuasive media interview on Alternative Justice Systems was a masterclass on why the “law doesn’t have to be complicated.”
4. Chief of Defence Forces (CDF). Gen Kibochi- authoritative communication
At a time when the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) has assumed a greater role and visibility in civilian and public life, running several critical institutions from Nairobi Metropolitan Service, Kenya Meat Comission among others, strategic communication has assumed a greater role in the military, a clear departure from the traditional secretive approach.
Besides having a vibrant public affairs department and an active social media presence, KDF has gone ahead to launch the Strategic Communication Centre in recognition of the role information and communication plays in modern warfare and as a core element of national power.
At the helm of this renewed communication, push is the CDF Gen. Robert Kibochi. While the CDF does not make many public speeches and appearances, the few times he has done so have stood out. He communicates with the confidence and authority that his office bestows.
In Television interviews and public addresses, Gen. Kibochi comes out as clear minded, reflective, deliberate, and authoritative. One can feel the force of his words as he speaks giving the impression of a man in charge. His unique communication abilities will prove useful in the increasing civil-military engagement. He should speak more.
5. CAS Mercy Mwangangi- graceful under pressure
In the midst of the Covid-19 Pandemic the daily briefings by the Health Cabinet Secretary had become predictable and audiences were no longer actively engaging. The emergence of the Health CAS’s eloquent, measured presentations offered a refreshing messenger to a public that was pandemic weary.
Dr. Mwangangi’s strength lay in her ability to effortlessly communicate science and policy in her twin role as a health professional and policy maker in the Ministry of Health. Her calm presence combined with the candor and thoughtfulness with which she handled questions from journalists certainly helped to educate and allay public fear about the disease.
6. Dr. Gitahi Githinji- simplifying the complex
Throughout the Covid – 19 pandemic when facts, science and truth have mattered most, Dr. Githinji Gitahi has been a constant face and voice on Television and twitter providing deep insights to help Kenyans navigate through the pandemic.
Nicknamed everyone’s ‘favourite doctor’, the articulate doctor has taken on the role of a public intellectual, expertly simplifying the science and making it interesting for the ordinary folk. His TV appearances which have endeared him to the public have been a welcome break from the usual political diatribe as he educates people on various public health issues like vaccines, healthy lifestyle among other topics.
Dr. Gitahi effectively uses social media especially his twitter handle @Daktari1 to educate the public and advocate for public health issues like access to vaccines.
7. Kwame Owino- economics for all not just for some
Kwame Owino is an economist who has managed to introduce economic theories and practice to a mainstream audience in a language they can comprehend. By effectively using communication techniques like storytelling, and imagery, his economic explanations come to life.
Human beings can get intimidated when presented with huge numbers and the challenge for communicators lies in humanizing these numbers and presenting them in chunks which are easy to understand and process; a skill Kwame has mastered.
His audience analysis skills are well honed, and his passionate speaking technique and good listening skills make him a favorite of public debate forums.
8.Khalid Hussein – authentic advocacy
Khalid Hussein possesses that quality of authenticity and when he communicates he does come across as genuinely concerned about the causes and the people he advocates for.
A Human rights crusader who emerged on the scene years ago as a defender of the voiceless especially victims of profiling he has continued to grow in his ability to not only frame perspectives through the legal prism but to also present his causes as social and political concerns that affect the greater society not just the victims.
His verbal ability to infuse human rights issues even when a discussion is not focused on the topic affirms his standing as a good communicator and defender of human rights.
He has mastered the vocal aspect of communication and uses his voice to effectively project calmness even under pressure or while speaking on controversial issues. Whenever he has appeared on a scene of human rights abuse, his transparent, compassionate and authentic manner has ensured he connects with audiences listening or watching him.
9. Waihiga Mwaura- integrity, competency exemplified
The four – time award winning journalist has a conversational, likeable manner and when he conducts interviews, he shows that ability to balance depth, fairness, firmness, and respect for his interviewees and audience.
He made the headlines when he became the subject of the news himself during the trial in the Rio Olympic scandal. His testimony in court was crucial in the eventual convictions of top officials from the Ministry of Sports and the National Olympics Committee of Kenya (NOCK) and the resultant coverage presented him as a person of great integrity.
One of the key attributes of communicators is credibility and for Waihiga his credibility was greatly enhanced by his ethical conduct. Integrity combined with competence communicates and connects with audiences; and it certainly helps when these qualities come from a newsman whose currency of trade is trust and believability.
10. Susan Silantoi- graceful, sincere communication
Susan Silantoi’s ability to communicate public policy in a reflective relaxed conversational manner won over many viewers to her podcasts and ensured she was also invited on various media platforms to present her perspectives.
A core aspect that connects audiences with communicators is the ability to project goodwill by showing that one has the audience’s best interests at heart and Ms. Silantoi managed to do this so well and came across as the “public’s teacher” on policy issues. Her systematic communication style proved to be an asset and she seems to have also mastered the optics and staging for good presentations.
Worst Communicators and Moments
1.Prof. George Magoha-lacking in connection
The Professor of Surgery is known for his brash no-nonsense approach to issues that has seen him nicknamed the bulldozer. In cartoons, he is often depicted as an angry charging bull to symbolize his penchant for taking on issues and people head on, woe unto you if you stand in his way.
This is reflected in his communication approach that is often combative. Most times when the Education Cabinet Secretary was speaking, he was either ‘telling off’ people, ‘putting people on notice’ ‘warning people’ or ‘issuing threats’ mostly directed to students, teachers, parents or unions.
Unfortunately, this kind of communication is rarely effective, the old mantra is don’t issue threats unless you intend to see them through. People soon become desensitized and ignore the threats as empty rhetoric. Few people can remember anything notable the CS has said of late meaning his messages are not getting through. The CS would be better served by taking a more persuasive and consultative approach.
2. Nick Mwendwa- not ready for the game?
Since taking over the helm of the Kenyan Football Federation (KFF), Nick Mwendwa has been a disaster both on and off the field. He has overseen plummeting football standards in the country with Kenya consistently falling short and missing out on international competitions.
It has been argued that the greatest injustice you can do to Nick Mwendwa is to thrust a microphone in his face. His high-pitched voice, combined with an arrogant and reckless delivery has seen him misspeak severally especially when riled up with an issue. He seemed to lack a strategy for his press interviews thereby making him gaffe prone, which eventually alienated him from crucial allies and led to the loss of confidence by key football stakeholders.
For instance, when he attempted to defend the appalling losing record that saw Harambe Stars recently drop out of the Word Cup qualifications. Mwendwa decried lack of genuine quality and talent within the Harambee Stars squad, never mind that it was part of his job to create systems that identify, nurture and deploy that talent.
3. Hon. John Njuguna Kawanjiku- unprepared, incoherent communication
The newest member of the National Assembly was elected in very contested election and his branding as the common person’s representative seemed to resonate with the people of Kiambaa Constituency.
His parliamentary speeches would therefore be highly anticipated and many expected him to use the elevated parliamentary platform to articulate his agenda and what his election stood for especially in the current political ideological debates.
He went ahead to deliver a poorly crafted, barely coherent and ill delivered speech. At such a pivotal moment instead of rising to the occasion, and using the platform to elevate his credibility and pass across some core messages which would cement his ascendancy into national office, he stumbled. His poor delivery transformed him into a bumbling caricature thereby diminishing his credibility.
4. Pastor James Ng’ang’a- vulgar Inappropriate content
Pastor Nga’nga makes an appearance on the worst list again. Vulgar content in his sermons got him banned for six months from broadcasting by the Communications Authority.
While we are guaranteed constitutional freedoms of expression, whenever we choose a mass broadcast medium to spread our messages, the Media Council spells out clear guidelines on what is appropriate mass broadcast content.
And while as a society we must collectively refuse the “cancel culture” we should also ensure that the content broadcast on mass media does not infringe on other’s rights especially when they do not have a similar platform to defend themselves. Hopefully in six months’ time Pastor Nga’nga will have “cleaned” up his sermons.
5. National Police Service- uninspiring communication
The National Police Service (NPS) struggled to communicate its enforcement role effectively during the pandemic period with its subsequent lockdowns and curfews.
Its initial communication efforts were based on threats of forced enforcements and characterized by the abuse of fundamental rights while completely failing to express a more compassionate security model to citizens whose lives had been devastated by the pandemic.
It was not clear if the NPS’s communication efforts were guided by any strategy but their security operational tactics seemed Ad hoc, reactive and clearly devoid of proactive security communication. The result was a rise in public resentment towards the NPS.
As the pandemic continues and the country moves towards the 2022 elections, the NPS, and its leadership has to ensure that they communicate effectively. Some core messages they must broadcast to the public should be a focus on competency in executing their electoral security mandate, non-partisanship, a high fidelity to the law, and responsiveness to any security threats.
During the electioneering period, they must strive to build trust with citizens by communicating concrete administrative and operational aspects that respect and uphold the rights of citizens.
6. Judicial Service Commission-failure to communicate outside the “bubble”
The JSC while a traditionally insular institution, handles matters of high importance to the public. For the public to have confidence in the judicial services, the institutions must be undergirded by the ideals of integrity, fairness, and ethical conduct by judicial officers.
These ideals were tested and found wanting whenever members of the public raised questions on integrity and also complained about some judicial officers.
While the JSC might have internally invoked its processes for dealing with such complaints, it failed to inspire confidence with the public by not communicating in a clear and timely manner on the procedures it had instituted to deal with these complaints.
The JSC must deliberately become more transparent and communicate to the public whenever there are complaints about judicial officers. Only by demonstrating that the administrative and operational processes it has in place to deal with ethical complaints against judicial officers, work will public confidence in the entire justice chain be enhanced.
7. Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission- non-strategic disjointed communication
The IEBC umpired a number of by-elections in 2021, which revealed that the commission has not learned any lessons from the past. The commission was involved in reactive communication as opposed to proactive communication and even as they reactively communicated it was not clear whether the tactics deployed were anchored in sound strategy.
The IEBC needed to raise its credibility which is still viewed through the lens of history in which both the elections winners and losers have raised administrative and operational questions that need to be answered.
It did not vividly explain the entire electoral process (especially on the contentious dimensions) and how it has learnt from history. It also failed to use the power of strategic communication to explain to the Kenyan voter the administrative and operational processes it has put in place to bolster confidence in its role as the electoral umpire.
Its approach was mainly tactical with a focus on the day-to-day, keen to try and create a good image but failed to connect these efforts with the bigger picture which was ensuring its credibility will be beyond reproach even as the nation moves into the next general elections.
8. Wafula Chebukati – uninspiring, lacking in confidence
Communication is not just about the words spoken by individuals; it also involves our non-verbal cues. The IEBC chairperson has been in office for more than five years but does not seem to have grown his communication skills.
During presentations it was unclear if he had a good communication strategy in place and in many instances, he was uninspiring, devoid of passion, spoke in a monotone and his non-verbal cues did not complement the message. He lacked the leadership communication skills of confidence, clarity of communicating vision and the skillful attainment of it, likeability and believability.
As one of the most important persons to watch in 2022, Mr. Chebukati must know that from the start of the year, his public appearances will be scrutinized. He must put in place measures at the IEBC that demonstrate competence, fairness, non-partisanship, and utmost integrity and communicate the same to the Kenyan public with great skill to inspire confidence.
9. Growing pool of public intellectuals- “A jack of all opinion; diminishes credibility”
The continued expansion of media has introduced Kenyans to a new category of analysts and experts branded as “public intellectuals”.
While these persons are key to enhancing our fundamental freedoms of expression, in some of their media appearances some have proffered opinions outside their realm of specialties and expertise while presenting them as absolute truths and not merely opinions to instigate crucial debates. Some of these opinions have at times been challenged by the real experts in those specialties.
While some of the public intellectuals have welcomed debate on their assertions, others when challenged on their assertions even when they are clearly out of their depth have resorted to deploying “educationism” (which is discrimination towards those they perceive to be less educated) as a defense to being held accountable.
In 2022 the media and conveners of public forums would do well to not only encourage the growth of public intellectuals and the debate of ideas, but also hold to account these experts by inviting and offering platforms for their peers to fact check and review their public assertions.
10. Dunstan Omari- aggressive communication
Dunstan Omari is a legal practitioner who enjoys the limelight and has been known to leverage on the power of media to communicate his agenda in a bid to shift perceptions on matters he is litigating.
He appeared on media repeatedly as he filed numerous petitions against the Director of Public Prosecutions with the Public Service Commission. His statements while filing the petitions against the DPP became increasingly pugnacious, his tone and demeanor were angry and this performance robbed him of any semblance of professional objectivity.
The high drama expressed with his aggressive communication proved that the personalized verbal attacks and contemptuous non-verbal cues can serve to alienate the very people one seeks to influence.
This article is by Paul Achar, Executive Communication Coach & Applied Human Communication Practitioner at Jade Communications Ltd and Dr. Sam Kamau, a communications scholar, and tenured Lecturer at Aga Khan University