NGO Public Relations in Uganda – Interview with Jessica Lomelin
A few months after I moved to Beijing to work as a gallery assistant, my classmate and fellow student leader from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication‘s public relations program Jessica Lomelin interviewed me about my experiences abroad for a blog post. After Jessica moved to Uganda to work as Invisible Children‘s communications assistant this past February, I had to take advantage of the opportunity to in turn interview her about her public relations experience abroad.
Back in the United States, Jessica was already a young public relations professional to admire, winning the Liz Cawood Award for community service from the Greater Oregon Chapter of Public Relations Society of America as one of the top students in our program’s graduating class and going on to work for the Seattle office of Weber Shandwick after graduation.
Now for the interview:
How did you decide that you wanted to move to Uganda to work as Invisible Children’s communications assistant?
Last year, I was living in Seattle, and although I was very happy, I knew I wanted to work abroad. In the recent years, I studied abroad and traveled internationally, but I knew I was ready to take my work to a global level. I’ve had my taste of working stateside for international organizations, but I decided it was time to be on the ground and in the heart of the work I was passionate about. I was fairly open to different regions and as I was talking to a friend about my interests, she reminded me about the work Invisible Children (IC) was doing.
I did not have a strong knowledge or impression of Africa, but I was always very impressed with IC. They are a global organization founded on youth advocacy and movement. Given the scope of my work, I was also impressed with their use of media to share the story of a war that took place and changed the lives of those in northern Uganda.
I kept my eye on the organization’s web site and one day came across a communications assistant position. Not thinking further than that day, I applied for the position. Never in my mind did I think, “How will I do this?” or “could I even live in Uganda – a war-torn area?” For some reason, during the entire application process, I just had a sense of peace and ease in what I was doing. It just felt like an ideal fit for me. It was challenging and relatively unfamiliar, but extremely intriguing and promising.
How did you get a job in Uganda when you were still in the U.S.? What about you as a candidate do you think impressed Invisible Children the most?
I think this position was unique in that they knew their candidate would likely be from out of Uganda. It wasn’t easy, but the interview and transition process required a lot of patience, late nights/early mornings, and on-going skype calls. Luckily, the office’s headquarters are in San Diego, so they also served as a great support and resource for answering questions and providing information.
Now, living in Uganda, I understand the disadvantage a candidate would be in by living outside of the respective area. Particularly in development, employers not only look for work experience and skill, but also character in terms of cultural sensitivity and immersion, as well as open-mindedness and patience. Unfortunately, that is not something you can often portray through a resume or even a phone interview. With that said, it’s crucial to tap into personal networks, which I believe will put you at an advantage.
I think (well, hope, hehe) that what made me stand out as a candidate was my balance of professional experience with personal desire and passion.
What I quickly learned is that one can have a great heart and good intentions, but if they do not have appropriate job experience, they will not be seen as a strong candidate. Development is a very competitive field and very time and labor intensive, so employers have to be selective to find candidates who have a motivation to improve certain conditions, but also have unique skills that a local employee could not fulfill. With that, I think they were impressed with my international travel and experience of working with international staff and within different working environments. I’ve been very committed to non-profits and philanthropic organizations and am very knowledgeable about major global issues. Most importantly however, I have professional journalism and communications experience. I’ve worked at two global public relations firms, have extensive knowledge of Adobe programs, and am very comfortable using social media tools. Having had this experience in a professional setting and for global clients proved accountability and high quality in my work and experience.
During my interview, I was able to speak confidently about my work experience as well as respond to hypothetical scenarios of working in international settings with people of different culture, background, and work ethic. Being born in Mexico, as well, gave me a sense of living in a culturally sensitive area.
That is my interpretation, anyhow! They may answer differently ;)
What were the easiest and most difficult aspects of transitioning from corporate agency PR in the U.S. to NGO PR in Uganda?
Ha, what is funny is that I don’t think any transition aspect was easy! The months leading up to the move and up until a couple of months ago were terrifying. I definitely received bold comments of “So you’re leaving a salaried job in a global, corporate agency (during the economic downfall, mind you) to take an unpaid internship that in six months would make you unemployed?” Now, I’m able to counteract that statement confidently, but at the time I’d have panic moments of “what am I thinking!?”
What gave me ease was knowing the amount of support and encouragement I had from friends and family. As well, I learned to put less pressure and expectation on myself, and accepted that in taking risks, there may be some hiccups along the way. I think too often we put such high expectations on every single professional move that we often set ourselves up for failure. Being okay with the outcome and having faith in my decisions made me relax and look forward to what was to come. A huge lessonfor me during the transitioning period was that no move or opportunity is a wasted one. If on paper it was deemed a “failure,” in life, it could be seen as a growth and learning experience.
You’ve done quite a bit of personal fundraising for your trip. Could you take us through an overview of your planning and implementation process for this?
Yes, fundraising was crucial! To be honest, it was one of the most difficult aspects of the pre-trip phase. I’ve never felt comfortable asking for things, let alone money, so it was a component of my pride I had to swallow and accept. I had to be honest with myself that I wouldn’t be able to do this without the support of others.
After talking it through with friends and colleagues, I approached the fundraising as “help me help Invisible Children support the people of northern Uganda.” Knowing that it was something I couldn’t do alone, I positioned this as a group effort. Thinking back to basic elements of PR helped me as well. I don’t think the difficulty lied in asking for support, but rather, continuing the relationship and assuring that the donors felt satisfied in their contribution. Just as you would handle a donor, client, or stakeholder, there requires a delicate inter-personal relationship. I know that the economic climate is an extreme burden, so I was very appreciative of people’s support – no matter the monetary value. Given my work with IC, I particularly wanted to focus on youth and reiterate mass advocacy. Meaning, emphasizing the idea of what support would be like if 500 people donated $5. Donations don’t need to come in mass quantity, but in large volumes. I knew it would be a big time investment, but I wanted to bring people along on my journey and serve as a lens into this world and experience.
With that said, I created a Web site, along with videos explaining the work I was doing. I used my social media knowledge to create material that was impactful and visual. I create a digital package that contained a variety of materials – videos, FAQ’s, and bios of northern Uganda, Invisible Children, and myself. I encouraged people to pass it on to interested friends and families. I then contacted Seattle-based organizations and pitched myself for potential product or monetary support. Although it was a bit difficult to get actual funding, I did receive support from Nike and Emergen-C! Hey, every little bit counts, right?
Once someone donated, I listed them on my Website, thanked them via Facebook and Twitter, and sent a personal thank you letter. Now being in Uganda, I send frequent emails with pictures and personal stories. What is important now is maintaining the relationship and involving the advocates in what I’m doing.
What about Uganda do you wish more people outside the country knew?
That the country is full of beauty and opportunity! Due to the media exposure, people only associate Uganda with the LRA and conflict in northern Uganda. Although it is important to be familiar with the history of the war, it is more important to realize that an immense amount of work and rehabilitation has since occurred. The country has been peaceful since 2006 and is focusing on bettering the community through health, educational, and agricultural initiatives, to name a few.
What I love is the character of the local people (speaking primarily in Gulu district). Considering what they’ve gone through, it is incredible to see these people persevere and continue to live their lives with hope, respect, and determination. I’ve encountered the most selfless, genuine people I’ve ever met. I came to Uganda thinking (as a Westerner) I’d be providing a service and assisting the community. What I quickly realized, however, is that this experience is very reciprocal and I, in fact, was learning a great deal from the community.
Northern Ugandans do not need pity or sympathy. They need outlets to share their stories and resources to thrive and live a healthy and sustainable lifestyle.
What will you do once you finish your 6 months at Invisible Children?
Ah, that’s the golden question! Stay tuned and you will soon find out.
Just kidding. I’m considering a few options, but it is still too soon to tell. I am definitely staying abroad and every day, I’m realizing how much I love my life in Uganda and how I want to stay in Africa. I love working with a development organization that has allowed me to use my communication knowledge and passion to tell IC’s story and shed light on the community. I’ve been fulfilled in more ways that I could imagine, and lucky for me, it is only the beginning!
Any other thoughts?
Working abroad, particularly in the development sector, can be challenging and often emotionally draining, but entirely possible. I suggest tapping online resources (Idealist.org, Relief Web and MyDevJobs) for job and internship postings. As well, start volunteering for local organizations and seek mentors who can serve as a wealth of knowledge. Do extensive research to help narrow your focus on a particular initiative and region.
Most importantly, however, continue to share your passion with others and tap into your networks. You’d be amazed at the groundswell of support you will get to take this leap of faith. Moving abroad may be terrifying and unpredictable, but entirely worthwhile.
You have nothing to lose, but everything to gain.
Please contact me at Jessica dot lomelin at gmail dot com or on my Website, www.jessicalomelin.com if you have any questions. I’d love to hear from you!
Photos in this post were taken from Jessica’s Facebook profile.
Update July 12, 2010: Jessica’s coworker was killed in Uganda’s World Cup terrorist attack. Read the blog post on his work and memorial fund here.
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