A day in a life of the Public Relations Unit

07 December 2009

Public relationsCampbell Lyons (in foreground) and Aloy Gowne (far left) escort the Norwegian royal couple into Smuts Hall.

The unit, based at Welgelegen on middle campus, is part of the Communication and Marketing Department (CMD). It is staffed by Campbell Lyons, head of public relations; Aloysious Gowne, public relations and protocol officer; and Zukiswa Dlelembe, a receptionist/administrative assistant.

What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

The unit supports the Office of the Vice-Chancellor on internal and external relationship-development initiatives; on protocol matters relating to visiting heads of state, senior government officials and members of the diplomatic corps; the managing and co-ordinating of high-level visits and events that involve the vice-chancellor; and in organising his open lectures. The section also implements all the arrangements for the recipients of honorary degrees at UCT. In addition, they advise and assist faculties and support departments on protocol matters, deal with high-level visitors, conduct tours for visitors, provide support to internal and external communication campaigns run by CMD, and respond to queries from members of the public.

What are the challenges facing the unit?

One of the key challenges is that invitations are sometimes sent from within UCT to high-level visitors without informing the Office of the Vice-Chancellor prior to the event. This can be a problem, particularly if it involves national or foreign government officials. Often it means immediate suspension of the activities that we're currently working on, so we can redirect our attention to ensure that the 'unexpected visit' happens in such a manner that it puts UCT in the most favourable light possible. This places a considerable strain on other support units that we work closely with, such as the risk-management team. A high-level visit to UCT that involves the application of protocol will affect the Office of the Vice-Chancellor, the Public Relations Unit, the Events Unit, UCT media, UCT traffic services, Campus Protection Services, and the Risk Management Team. And that is just the start of it...

What are the highs and the lows?

The highs of the work lie in delivering on projects and visits in a professional manner and which position UCT in the best light possible, because then we all succeed. The work is extremely varied and is never the same from day to day. It also presents wonderful opportunities to meet people from all walks of life, and also some real characters. Working with the honorary graduates is a high as it is a special time in their lives and always a very happy occasion for all involved. The lows of the work are when high-level visits threaten to resemble something close to a "moveable feast" in the sense that things change by the minute and do not proceed according to script. Then you really need a calm disposition and the ability to think on your feet and adapt quickly, to anticipate and sometimes make something happen out of seemingly nothing. It's very stressful and at the time that it happens you would rather be a million miles away. Fortunately, this is rare. We do our best to prevent things from ever getting to this point in the first place by thorough planning and anticipating the unexpected.

What is the weirdest thing you have encountered?

We tend to encounter more humorous and quirky situations than the absurd. Recently we had to show an advance party that was preparing for a high-level visit a number of venues at UCT that would be appropriate for the occasion. We showed them the Smuts Residence dining hall as one of the options. They were immediately smitten with the venue. One of the advance party members trilled: "Ooooh, this looks just like something out of a Harry Potter movie!" Later, after viewing all the possible options, the senior leader of the advance party emphatically stated, "We want the Harry Potter Hall!" It tickled us no end...

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