The SGR project, a PR Disaster?

By Joy Muruku

I missed the news on the launch of the SGR so I went online to catch up and was met by the following top headlines:

  • “Uhuru renews attack on Joho ahead of SGR launch”
  • “Blocking Joho from SGR launch totally unacceptable”
  • “Uhuru threatens death for SGR vandals, declares Kshs. 700 fare at launch”

For a project that is considered a major milestone in Kenya’s history, I couldn’t ignore the bad press and later realized what a PR disaster the project has been right from inception. Let’s break it down:

1. Land compensation

During its initial stages, the SGR project came under fire particularly in the coastal region where land owners whose properties were taken up to create room for the railway cried foul over government intentions to compensate them. 

2. Threat to environment/ national heritage

Plans to have the SGR cut through the Nairobi National Park saw activists and conservationists seek to bar the move claiming lack of justification and availability of   alternative routes for the railway. The project stalled but it soon resumed amid claims that the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) illegally issued the project’s license.

3. Misuse of fnds (an extra Shs.100 billion incurred)

Hassan Joho, Mombasa’s governor prominently featured and topped the headlines after he was blocked from attending the launch where he apparently intended to raise questions about the use of an additional Kshs. 100 billion in the construction of the railway. Besides aggravating the political animosity between the Joho and the President, this diverted attention from the SGR to the political rivalry as seen in the highlighted headlines.   

4. The launch

The unveiling of the SGR wasn’t without its fair share of troubles where the event attendees particularly the media voiced disappointment. Disregard for time emerged when the media was ferried to the launch venue of the cargo train at 2:00 pm only for the president to arrive at 5:00 pm. The frustration was exacerbated by lack of clarity on the designated train for the media trip, resulting in a lot of back and forth. In other words, organization was at its worst. 

5. Translation disaster

We have all seen the pull-up banner doing rounds on WhatsApp. For a nation whose national language is Swahili, the poor translation on the “Escalator Notice” is a shame and an unforgivable communication failure.

6. National sentiments

That the SGR is a significant milestone post-independence is not debatable. Thus, one would expect elation and a sense of national pride especially given its unveiling on Madaraka Day, a day of national importance.

On the contrary, public sentiments towards the project are not the least bit encouraging. The comparison between our diesel run trains and those in Senegal and Ethiopia, which are electronic and apparently of “better” quality demonstrate this. Further the President’s insistence on the fact that the SGR belonged to the nation and not himself and his aide is a display of national distance from the project. Relevant communication experts failed in the course of the project to impress upon the common mwananchi the significance of the new railway system.

I will emphasize that the SGR is a source of national pride and a true mark of economic progress. Nonetheless, the events above speak to the improper communication in the course of the project. For an undertaking of its nature, which was inherently politically sensitive, crisis management, proper advice on communication and efficient management of the unveiling of the SGR would have considerably managed public perceptions and attitudes.

From a Public Relations perspective, more harm than good was done for a project meant to be The highlight of the current government.