Renee Bota in Nairobi Africa
Strategic communications is an expansive field in which just interest is not enough. This interest needs to specified and experienced as strategic communications encompasses many different subgenres. Within Strategic Communication one could work within an agency, a nonprofit, a political campaign, a health organization, etc.
Renee Bota, an Associate Professor of Health & Development Communication at the University of Denver studies, practices, and teaches strategic communication. She entered this field during graduate school where she added a Masters in Health Communication to her Journalism Bachelor’s degree. At grad school Bota did strategic communication work for Health Care Consortium and Comprehensive Health Support System.
Bota was able to develop and hone her interests through school and work, so that after graduate school she knew she wanted to practice Health Communication and has been happy in this field ever since. Renee’s experiences and knowledge of Strategic Communication are valuable for anyone potentially interested in working in this field.
After working within Journalism and Strategic Communications Bota was able to understand the fields and see her passion lied within Health Communication. Internships are necessary within this field before full time work not just for building one’s resume but also for what Renee calls, “interviewing the field”. Where one can learn about different subgenres of their interest and see what appeals to them most.
University of Denver students looking for internships within this field should contact Erika Polson, the director of internships for the Media, Film, and Journalism School.
After receiving her PhD Renee worked as a Fullbright scholar in Zambia studying HIV/AIDS communication. This made her fall in love with both her field and Africa, having continued her work in both.
Zambia is a country in Southern Africa which has long suffered from high HIV and AIDS rates. The culture has a significant stigma against HIV and AIDS which results in people not getting tested. Also Renee worked here at a time when antiretrivirals were low, so Zambians would frequently not get tested because there was no cure even if they were identified as positive.
Bota worked on a communications campaign with a mining company to educate and reduce the stigma around HIV and AIDS. The company was losing many of its trained workers to AIDS so they purchased antiretrivirals which were very expensive at the time and opened a clinic. However, none of the workers attended due to the stigma as well as being scared it was a trap to test for AIDS and fire those who tested positive.
Bota identified the most effective communication plan in Zambia as peer education workshops. A worker- with their understanding of the culture and how to communicate, and geared with the important information taught to them about HIV and AIDS, was able to effectively communicate Bota’s campaign’s message.
“And that’s the difference between messaging and strategic messaging, and that’s so important, what makes it strategic is that you’ve done a lot of research a lot of relationship building a lot of communication before you start doing your messaging, so you’re right understanding the context is a huge part of that.”
Renee Bota also worked within Kenya on a Sanitation campaign. This was the most satisfying project Bota ever worked on because of the success of the campaign. Bota’s group identified the “barriers to action” which were causing poor sanitation, like running water, water supply, and expensive bar soap. Renee explained, “Strategic communication is not just the messaging, it’s not just telling them to wash their hands right? Strategic communication is about communicating with people to figure out what their barriers are in the first place and then figuring out what are solutions that work for them within their lived reality.”
After studying the area and how sanitation was treated Bota and her team found a local woman making soap out of local ingredients. This soap was cheaper than the normal bar of soap as well as locally sourced and manufactured. A nonprofit came in and expanded this soap creation into a viable business where the soap workers were getting well paid and the area was using more soap.
Another strategic plan that worked in Kenya was training community health workers to be hygiene trainers. This strategy, like the peer education workshops in Zambia, worked because of the local’s ability to communicate well.
When asked what she believes is the most important skill within Strategic Communications Bota answered that most employees would answer writing. However, she believes listening is just as important because of the strategic aspect which requires research, listening to the media and the public’s communication as well as the advice of those in your team.
The most important information I learned from Bota was the amount of research and context necessary before beginning a campaign, especially an international one. Communication varies quite significantly with changes in geography especially with certain topics. Before beginning her work in Zambia and Kenya Bota spent a lot of time studying how newspapers discussed the issue at hand as well as communicating with locals and understanding their sentiment.
The field of Strategic Communications can feel confusing and broad and for those reasons intimidating. However, as Bota said, it is important to “interview the field” with internships, and in this way one can understand more about strategic communications as well as find what they really enjoy. Breaking down strategic communications as well as one’s own interests is necessary before one can begin their exploration and begin making decisions to advance their career.