By Mukurima X Muriuki
If Public Relations in Africa is a submarine, then Gina Din Kariuki through her company GINA DIN GROUP is its periscope-head up, surveying everything around the continent. Her unique and unrivaled ability to brand organizations in Africa is like a torpedo, which clears the way for hitherto unknown entities and springs them to life and the much desired, ultimate success.
Shirley Genga describes Ms. Kariuki as an “elegant and beautiful public relations guru, who cuts a dashing style.” Jackson Biko notes that “most times, Gina Din will never have a single strand of her hair out of place. She is picturesque.”
In 2013, Gina Din was voted among the 100 most influential Africans by new African Magazine. I recently spoke to her on a wide range of topics, and this is what she had to say:
1. Who is GINA DIN and why the name GINA DIN Group?
Gina Din is just a small town girl born in Nanyuki. My family was in the hospitality industry, and I studied journalism in the U.K. When I began my career at Barclays Bank, I was the first PR person they had ever had. I had the incredible opportunity to set up a completely new unit in my early 20’s and create lots of interesting new areas the bank had not been involved in before. It also meant I became the face of the bank and totally by accident created my own brand. 14 years later when I left to set up my own shop, I was already well-known. It seemed the obvious choice to use my already established brand to start my agency.
2. What does Public Relations mean to you?
PR really isn’t about endless cocktail parties, and it is far from the glamorous life many think it is. Public relations means everything to me and it should to everyone as everything we do or say adds or takes away from our brand. With digital media now, we are all brands.
How and what we say on the various social media platforms is all about our own personal brands. To me, PR is more than establishing and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships with a client and its public. PR creates, isolates, and develops ideas that elicit either a behaviour or attitude. It takes a complex situation or story from the brand’s point of view and interprets it to the target public’s understanding.
3. Every day we see or read about a campaign that some deflect as “Mere PR.” Does that mean Public Relations is misunderstood?
I get very frustrated at the way the term PR is bandied about, usually by people that have little understanding of our industry. I often see PR and spin being used together. I don’t like the term “spin” as I see it as a derogatory term that conjures images of disingenuous, deceptive, dishonest and manipulative communication. Granted there are lots of people doing exactly that under the guise of PR. This misunderstanding causes frustration for those who do PR professionally.
We want to provide meaningful advice, help communicate a story and shift behaviour. At the stage our business is now, we don’t really take clients that simply want some publicity. There are plenty of smaller, newer agencies that are happy to do that. We are much more about partnering with organisations that impact society.
4. GINA DIN is celebrating 20 years’ anniversary. How do you sum up the journey
Our 20 year journey has been eventful and incredible. Two decades are a long time in business, and we have had our share of ups and downs but I would do it all over again. It’s been very satisfying to make a mark for the clients we have represented and to make our own mark on the continent. We are one of the most awarded PR agencies on the continent. Our clients have been incredible.
The employees that have worked with us throughout the twenty years have been true professionals. We have been involved with a lot of exciting milestones in the industry and on the continent as a whole. From Safaricom to the Central Bank of Kenya to supporting NBA Africa, we have worked with the best and we have always done so with a lot of passion and love. I really look at our journey as one that has taken the industry in Africa to global standards and proven that PR is the glue that bonds cultures, companies and customers together through a collection of shared conversations, each reflecting our clients’ character, purpose and business objectives and in the process have been able to shape a different more positive conversation about Africa.
5. You are passionate about the African brand. Why?
I am an African, born and bred in Africa. It’s impossible to look back at my own incredible 20 year journey without looking at Africa’s journey as well. When you look at what we have achieved as a continent in the last few decades it is awe-inspiring. The challenges we have overcome and stories that, have emerged from the continent, are something else. I love as a continent we can stand tall and embrace our journey. I love the beauty of this continent, the diversity of its people. The passion and hunger to be someone, to be self-sufficient. We should all be proud and feel very passionate about Africa.
6. Do you think African media have told the true African story?
The media haven’t always been the gatekeeper in Africa(and the same can be said all
around the world). For many years media have been used as political mouth piece and we didn’t even know what a free press looked like. I was very disillusioned with journalism and media when I first left school. Since then it has made great strides and we do see more fair and objective journalism.
However, there is still more to be done. The truth needs to be told more boldly and we must own our story. We have constraints in that most stories on Africa are taken from international wires. Few have bureaus or send reporters outside their home countries, choosing to rely on the same Western reporters that write from a negative stand point.
7. What is your reaction to the Western Media coverage of Africa?
The western media have been telling the same story about Africa for decades. Images of famine, war, poverty and conflict have been so overplayed. It’s disappointing but I am not surprised by it anymore. We have this quote up on the wall in my office: “those who tell the stories, rule the world.” As Africans, we have to tell our own stories.
For too long we have outsourced the role of shaping the African conversation to the West and what has happened is, as Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie calls it “the danger of the single story.” I find it absolutely crazy that when I travel and say I am from Africa, the question that follows is “whether we live in the jungle” It is common knowledge that only about 5% of Africa’s landmass is considered jungle. Africa’s incalculable, natural wealth, which is barely available to its indigenous population and her ecosystem, are endangered by insatiable Western consumption. It’s sickening that with a stroke of a journalist’s pen, Africa can be reduced to nothing: a bastion of disease, pestilence, war, famine, despotism, conflict, poverty, and pitiful images of children, flies in their food and faces, their stomachs distended.
These “universal” but powerfully subliminal message units, beamed at global television audiences, on the one hand, give the perception of a hopeless continent. On the other hand, little is said about Africa’s contribution to the worlds industrialised economies, the strides we have made in technology, our growing movie making industry, or that of the fastest growing economies of the world, a number are Africa. We rarely see or hear of the incredible African art that smart collectors overseas are buying up for very little and we have all seen international fashion houses shoot commercials with an African backdrop and using Africa as inspiration for designs.
Yet we as Africans don’t tell those stories, nor do we value our own brands. In fact we read the studies and “research” coming out of the West, often written by researchers who have never lived here or who briefly come in and out, usually not venturing far from the airport or the hotel, folks who can find only the negative. There is no question that the international media has played a significant role in the marginalisation of the continent. In the last few years with the increase of social media, we are starting to see a lot more Africans tell their own story. For instance, you can’t call Kenya a hotbed of terror without answering to Kenyans on Twitter. Broad generalisations just don’t cut it. But I do believe the onus is on us to continue to tell our own stories, embrace our own brands and travel our continent more so that our truth is reflected fairly to the world.
8. George Orwell in his book “1984 “writes about use words to change meaning.
Do you think the calls for “peace” in Kenya are misplaced granted we have
refused to implement TJRC?
I think Kenyans need to feel more Kenyan and less about belonging to a tribe. Ethnicity is the biggest problem we have. Traditionally election periods bring out the worst of us, with everyone retreating to their tribal cocoons when it comes to voting time. We need to move beyond that. Our leaders must be leaders for the entire country and encourage much more of a national outlook. It really shouldn’t matter which tribe the President is from as long as he’s a Kenyan who will deliver for all Kenyans. I believe we can have peace if no community feels marginalised. It’s up to our leaders to make that a priority.
9. What would you like to see more from African youth?
I would want to see a more assertive African youth. The big question, for me is, ‘will African youth deliver or disappoint?’ It would be wonderful to see the youth more involved in the social economy and in political leadership. The majority of the population of Africa is made up of the youth.
They are literally our future. Their ideas, their vision and their strength are what is going to mould this continent. We need to empower African youth by giving them access to capital that will allow for them to start a venture and channel their energy for good causes. Quite often we speak of the demographic divide or the youth bulge with trepidation. When, in fact, it can be a great opportunity for the continent if leadership provides the right environment for youth to thrive. I would also encourage the youth to take initiative and go after their dreams.
10. Do you think Public Relations helps in dispute resolution? If so, how?
Part of PR is bringing stakeholders together to create amicable relationships built on trust. I was involved with the 2007 African Unions panel of eminent personalities under the leadership of Kofi Annan and Kenya’s private sector CEOs who came together to help resolve the contested, general election in Kenya. The messaging part of the forum was vital for it to be a success.
Public Relations has been used to galvanise people to support important causes such
as The Kenyans for Kenya initiative to encourage Kenyans to donate towards the 2010
famine. Leveraging on partnerships and networks can be a very effective way to resolve challenges.
11. What legacy would you like GINA DIN to be remembered for?
I would like to be remembered for the significant work I have done in my life. For brands I have built and for the children I have raised to be good human beings, whom I hope have learned to help other people, reach their full potential and to have love in their lives. I also hope I will be remembered for the many employees over the 20 years that have come to us as strangers but leave as family.
But a legacy isn’t only about leaving what you earned but also what you learned, and we all have an opportunity to make a difference. It doesn’t call for wealth, fame or even taking giant steps. You don’t have to be a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King Jr. to leave a positive mark right now, one that will linger long after you’re gone. What I do with The Gina Din Foundation, The Red Cross and UNFPA is fulfilling because it is all about creating an impact and transforming lives…I remember when we opened the maternity ward in Nanyuki in 2011. It was the hospital I was born in. Seeing how something as simple as an incubator could literally transform so many lives was very special. That is the legacy I hope I am remembered for and I hope the little I do will inspire people to do more.
12. What is your favorite line/quote from a movie?
“Why are you trying so hard to fit in when you were born to stand out?” – from What
a Girl Wants
13. Other than being known for economic remittances, what other roles should Kenyans in diaspora should play?
Whilst remittances are of course, important, Africans in Diaspora must tell the African story. It is also key that this community helps bridge the skills gap on the continent. Multinational companies quite often hire Africans abroad, and then send them back to Africa to run their African operations.
14. Any parting shot?
I would love to know what African success story from the last 20 years has inspired
you the most. Join the conversation on social media with the hashtag