Up & Ap: Desiree Gomes on helping clients engage effectively with the public via communication

She’s among a handful of women who were the pioneers (and has earned the tag ‘guru’) in Kenya’s PR industry. And for various reasons. She chose and got into PR when the profession (leave alone the industry, which didn’t exist) was still virtually unknown. She grew to lead the Gina Din Group team for over 10 years, during which time they’d count Safaricom, Ericsson, MTN Business and Telkom Kenya, among their clients. Then in early 2013, she’d take a leap of faith and set up her own outfit, Engage PR (where she currently serves as the Managing Partner), later attracting the eyes of Burson Cohn + Wolfe which acquired a stake in the new agency. Since then, she’s never looked back. Here is the story of Desiree Gomes (pictured), what inspires and motivates her and who has been her mentor over the years…

QUESTION: Who is Des? Give us a brief background about yourself.

DESIREE GOMES: I am a spiritual, down to earth person who loves the simple things in life. I grew up in a close-knit family of 3 girls. My dad and mum taught us to be independent from day one and with it came a free spirit of adventure and trying out new things. No matter what life hits me with, I have learnt to come back fighting.

Q: What drew you to PR as a career, are there people who influenced your decision into this career choice?

DG: I have been a leader and a communicator since my school days so it was something that was within me.  However, I do owe my career choice to Gina Din Kariuki who saw the talent in me and asked me to join her agency several years ago.  I thank her sincerely for believing in me.

Q: What was it like when you’re starting out in the profession with (almost) no mentors (or others who’d been there previously) to look up to?

DG: It was a challenge in the PR industry at the time because most of the top Corporate leadership were men and they did not believe that women would be able to provide good counsel. However, building good relationships and proving time and time again that the counsel you gave was the best has helped create more confidence for women communicators.

Q: Who is your mentor or the person you look up to professionally?

DG: My mentor has been and still is Robyn De Villiers who is the Chairman of Burson Cohn + Wolfe Africa and who I have known also for almost 20 years.

                    “No matter what life hits me with, I have learnt to come back fighting…”

Q: You spent over 10 years leading the team at Gina Din Group. What key lessons did you from your various roles at Gina Din?

DG: I actually spent 13 years at GDG.  I learnt that passion, commitment, hard work and excellence are values that are very key in pursuing a career in PR.  From the outside, PR seems like a very glamourous job but behind the scenes, there are long hours of designing strategy, client servicing and issue management that goes into servicing a client.

Q: As a follow up to the previous question, how did (or has) your roles and experiences at Gina Din helped you in your current position?

DG: Networking and building relationships with my clientele over the years has established a trusted advisor position with them, so much so that when they need any PR service their first point of contact would be me or my Partners. Word of mouth referrals in our business are also a strong business building block for Engage.

Q: One can say that PR and communications is undergoing a transition with the development and coming on board of new communication channels – online and social media platforms. As a professional who’s witnessed all these changes – from the period when PR was all about mainstream channels to now when we’ve other alternative platforms to use for passing out messages, how can traditional and online channels complement each other?

DG: I believe that traditional and online channels complement each other because the content and the messaging that is sent out from us is the same.  The difference would be in the timing.  Online is immediate and traditional maybe the next day.  So as opposed to the past, news is consumed immediately on the online channels. Another development is that Social media is key in gauging consumer response and sentiments on new products and Communication campaigns. With the online analytic tools that are on offer, many new measurement dimensions are available.

Q: I believe Engage PR has foreign shareholder(s), that is Burson Cohn + Wolfe. Now, if you’re to advice a foreign PR firm keen to set up operations locally, would you tell them to partner with (or acquire a stake) in an existing agency or just set up their own operation? 

DG: There are very many PR firms who have opened up in Kenya because of its Eastern Africa hub position – both international Agencies as well as local agencies.  My advice for a foreign firm would be to identify a good local firm who is credible and reputable and partner with them instead of re-inventing the wheel.

Q: In your opinion (and based on years of experience in the industry), what are the key advantages of i) a foreign agency setting up operations locally on its own and ii) partnering with an existing company? 

DG: By partnering with an existing company, you already have the local expertise and skill in place.  The local firm also has already established a good client network and client base so why start all this from scratch?  What then needs to happen is a skills transfer and international bench marking.

Q: Every industry evolves and undergoes transformation every once in a while. What are some of the practices that were ideal and applicable in PR a few years back but have since become irrelevant and inapplicable? 

DG: There are many but I will address at least one.  Evaluation of PR campaigns has evolved from how many cuttings and PR Value was achieved to what the output, impact and outcome of the campaign was.  This is a more wholesome approach and understanding of what PR does and can achieve for a Company and the C Suite is now taking note of this.

Q: You founded Engage PR over 6 years ago. What challenges did you have to deal with when you first established the company and how did you handle them?

DG: Challenges are always there in our business.  You train staff, they are poached by the bigger Agencies … however we have learnt to look after our staff and offer them good opportunities.

Q: What can you highlight as Engage PR’s key milestones over the last 5 years?

DG: Below are some of our key milestones:

  • Several local and international awards won at the Public Relations Industry Awards
  • A staff of complement of over 20
  • International partnership with the third largest PR Agency in the World – Burson Cohn and Wolfe
  • Growth in client base
  • Frequent referrals in the industry
  • Great feedback from past and current clients
  • Business jurisdiction for our Agency is Kenya and Tanzania
  • Good retention rate of clients, many of whom are still with us since we started
(Engage Burson-Marstellar Managing Partner, Desiree Gomes – left – MultiChoice Kenya Corporate Affairs Manager, Philip Wahome – centre – and Engage Burson-Marstellar Account Executive, Maria Nkumba – right – with the inaugural Africa SABRE Awards Event category award won for the joint execution of Disney’s Roar of the Lion Guard PR campaign held in Morocco in May 2017).

Q: Your profile states that you provide mentorship and training opportunities for new entrants into the PR profession and also runs an internship and job-shadowing program that seeks to tap new talent from university and integrate their abilities into future PR professionals. Please tell us more about this, especially how it works.  

DG: We receive a lot of applications for internship from all communication universities.  We short list the candidates and then invite them for interviews and do a short test on their communication skills.  We then choose the best communicators and take them on a 3 -6-month internship.  During this time, they are trained on best practices, how to deal with clients, how to work on proposals and events.  By the time they are done with us they are so good, that we actually more often than not, offer them full time employment.

Q: Any final thoughts and what the public (and clients) can expect from Engage PR in the next 5 years? 

DG: As we have a young dynamic team, our offering will be more innovative, creative and out of the box.  With the international affiliation, several latest trends and scientific methods of measuring work done will be on offer!  Watch this space!

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