PROFILE: Pamella Sittoni; a journalist and communication firebrand who continues to shatter the glass ceiling
By Patience Nyange and Esther Kiragu
This week in our #KenyaWomenSeries Vol 29 we feature a journalist, media leader and communication expert who has purposely pursued her passion in journalism, which began during her teenage years in the 1980s, from reading newspapers at home, and later in high school when she started the journalism club with her classmates. More than thirty years later, she feels very blessed to be living her dream.
Ladies and Gentlemen, put your hands together for Pamella Makotsi Sittoni.
1. Briefly introduce yourself and talk to us about your career journey highlighting the major achievements of your career and the events around them?
I started writing feature articles for a national newspaper while I was in my second year at University and never looked back. In 1993, soon after completing my post-graduate studies in journalism, I joined Nation Media Group as a reporter. It’s been a long and tortuous journey that has seen me rise in the profession to my current position as Executive Editor at Nation Media Group and Managing Editor of the Daily Nation.
I was a Reporter for slightly over a year before I became a Sub-Editor. I was later promoted to Assistant Deputy Chief Sub-Editor, then Deputy Chief Sub-Editor and, later, Chief Sub-Editor. In 2003, I took a big leap of faith and career and left Nation Media Group to take up the position of Deputy Managing Editor at the Standard Group.
It paid off as I was appointed Managing Editor of the Standard in 2005. Although I was celebrated as the first woman in Kenya to hold the position of Managing Editor of a daily newspaper, the opportunity came with challenges. The culture and management style in the two media houses was starkly different. I just could not survive. I also started to struggle with my purpose and to question my work’s impact.
I had to be decisive and decided to quit the media. In 2006 I joined UNICEF, where I worked as a Communication Specialist for six years before journalism came calling again. UNICEF had a big impact on me. My time with the agency was both a humbling and learning period. UNICEF works in some of the most marginalised parts of the country, and my stint with the agency enabled me to see first-hand and document the inequity in Kenya. Phrases like: A child in one part of the country is four times more likely to die before the age of five than one from another part, made more sense. I learnt a lot about child survival, education and child protection. I learnt about simple initiatives that could save children’s lives.
While I appreciated our challenges as a country, I also acquired new respect for and appreciation of the brilliant and committed civil servants who make real sacrifices as they serve fellow Kenyans in hardship areas. More importantly, I experienced the power of advocacy and communication. In 2007, we mounted a leadership campaign for children whereby we got candidates to make an undertaking to commit resources towards and pledge to advocate for the fulfilment of children’s rights if they got elected.
After the elections, we followed up with a meeting with some of the elected leaders and made presentations on the situation of children in the country. As a result, we secured commitments from them to support Motions and Bills in favour of children. This campaign was quite rewarding professionally.
In 2012, I re-joined the Nation Media Group as Managing Editor of the EastAfrican. At the time, it felt like the pinnacle of my career. The EastAfrican is a niche newspaper that speaks to policymakers, business leaders, academics, professionals and political leaders across the region. When it was launched in 1994, I was a Sub-Editor on the Daily Nation, and I thought it was the ultimate in journalism. The Managing Editor then, did not hire just anybody to work on it.
To be appointed Managing Editor of such a premium publication was a real honour for me. It was difficult to edit because we were producing content for readers who were more educated, more knowledgeable, more experienced, and more enlightened than us. Whenever I introduced myself as the editor of The EastAfrican, people would undoubtedly throw a compliment my way. I was pretty humbled when President Paul Kagame told me during an interview that he might fail to read other newspapers but would not miss to read The EastAfrican.
Where much is given, much is expected! A lot was expected of my team and I. We had to ensure we made sense to our readers by giving them insightful analysis on regional integration, politics, business, health and science, and arts and culture. I was so immersed in editing the EastAfrican, I did not see the appointment to Executive Editor and Managing Editor of the Daily Nation coming.
2. In 2019, you were named Executive Editor and Managing Editor of a respected regional newspaper; the Daily Nation, making you the first woman to hold such a position at Nation Media Group. Briefly tell us about your experience working in this role and some of your grandest moments?
I have been editor of the Daily Nation since January 2019. Although I had edited a daily newspaper before, editing the Daily Nation demands a lot more because of the special place of the newspaper in Kenya. It has maintained a reputation as an independent publication and publishes only the truth since its launch more than sixty years ago. It is one of the most respected publications in the world. I must, therefore, only make it better. I must always be on my guard and careful to make the right judgement call on what to publish. Thankfully, I work with a great team, and we have a robust editorial policy to guide every decision. I’m also strongly grounded in my values.
Believe it or not, every day on the Daily Nation is a great moment because we are constantly producing and disseminating content that aims to create a positive impact on society daily. We wake up in the morning, review the previous day’s work and plan for the next day. For me, I sleep well when I go home convinced that I have put out the best newspaper possible that day. We never take for granted that thousands of Kenyans choose to spend their money on the newspaper and now on our content on Nation.Africa.
I’m proud of the work my team has done and continues to do, to give our readers better value for their time and money. Last year (2020), for example, the Covid-19 pandemic notwithstanding, we redesigned and relaunched the Daily Nation. Not only did we give it a new look and feel. We improved the content and introduced new pull-outs. We launched Powering SMEs, a magazine that showcases the opportunities and discusses the challenges in the small and medium enterprise sector. We also launched The Voice, a monthly magazine for women, and Higher Education, one that focuses on higher learning in Kenya.
3. You have won awards such as the Women in News Editorial Leadership Awards and recognitions like being named the 2017 Laureate for Sub-Saharan Africa and a fellow of the Aspen Global Leadership Network Initiative. What do these recognitions mean to you and the women who look up to you?
Awards are an affirmation of one’s efforts. The award tells you that you’re doing something right and that your efforts have been noticed. I won my first professional award in 1996 as a sub-editor here at Nation Media Group. The Excellence Award was a major morale booster. It was the signal I needed to know that my seniors had taken note that I stood out from the pack. It gave me confidence and inspired me to be a thorough editor.
The Women in News Editorial Leadership Award, which recognises outstanding women leaders in media, was a major affirmation for me. I was humbled by the glowing citation extracted from the nomination documents sent by a senior woman journalist who had never worked directly with me. It detailed my leadership style from the accounts of some of my colleagues. Presented by the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), the global association of the world’s press, this award won me global recognition and has opened doors to countless opportunities.
I have been privileged to participate in two phenomenal leadership development programmes, the UNICEF Leadership Development Initiative and the Aspen Global Leadership Network, from which I picked up crucial lessons in leading self, leading others and leading organizations.
4. Based on your practical experience, share how these have played a role in your career life (base your experience as a woman).
• Taking on challenging roles: This is the only way to grow. You can’t run on the spot and expect to move forward. So I push myself; I take on more initiatives, and I’m always learning.
• The power of forging networks and alliances: I’m not very intentional about forging networks (contrary to textbook advice). But as I’ve grown in my career, these networks have evolved organically over time and I have a strong network of professional colleagues and associates. I invest time and energy in maintaining these networks and alliances, and I don’t burn bridges. This would probably explain why my first employer reached out to me ten years later.
Networks have come through for me in most unexpected ways. My selection to the board of the World Editors Forum in 2019 is one such case. I know it came from a recommendation from high up the professional ladder. I try to give to them more than I draw from them. Like respect, I believe these have to be earned, not created. Perhaps that is why I’m rather private and reserved.
• Mentorship; On getting a mentor and mentoring others: I have several people I consider my mentors in the profession, in leadership and even in my personal life. We haven’t had structured sessions as such, but we have meaningful engagements every so often.
• Trusting your voice and decisions: This is what every leader must do. I pray about this every morning for God to give me the wisdom to make the right decisions.
5. Given a chance to share life lessons with women in their 30’s about shattering the glass ceiling, what three life lessons will you share?
• See the professional space as gender-blind. It is not as easy as it sounds because women tend to wear the gender badge all the time. I’m always aware that the people around me see a woman first, and I surprise them by proving that my work has nothing to do with gender.
• Success in the professional space is a combination of many factors, and expertise is the basic. One must add to this, emotional intelligence; values like honesty, integrity and courage; and visionary leadership.
• Don’t ever stop being you. I couldn’t say this better than one of my leadership mentors put it: “It is important to create a harmony between the way you present yourself to the world and the way you know yourself to be.”
6. If you were to choose the two most important values that keep you grounded and shape the way you work and live, what would they be and why?
Integrity and fairness. I live these every day and they have made me who I am. They are also the two values I find lacking most in the world, particularly in Kenya.
7. What does the future look like for women in the newsrooms? Have we levelled the ground? I’m optimistic that more women will work in media going forward. Things are changing and, hopefully, some of the issues that have kept women away, including sexual harassment, will have been adequately addressed.
With digital technology, the media space has become quite versatile, with a myriad of opportunities. The traditional structures which limit women’s participation in media, such as ungodly working hours, stereotypes and cultural biases, will no longer determine how far women can go.
Success for women in this profession will depend on how well they skill themselves for the digital world and apply themselves and their journalism. Lastly, the more women take up leadership roles in newsrooms, the more our young girls will find role models.
8. Any parting shot?
Who we become depends a lot on how we were raised — the things your parents and relatives said to you as you grew up, and the kind of childhood setting you grew up in. I was lucky to have parents who instilled in us a sense of equality of the sexes from a very early age. My mother always reminded us that the only thing our brothers (older) beat us at, was physical strength; otherwise, we had the same brainpower.
It is the same way I have raised my daughters. We made a deliberate decision to take them to mixed primary schools so they could learn to compete with boys early. Minor decisions like this go a long way in shaping girls’ perceptions. I think this is really important to keep in mind as we raise the next generation of women.
About the writers: Esther is a writer, editor, and communication professional in Kenya while Patience Nyange is a Chevening Scholar with a Masters Degree in International Public Relations and Global Communication Management from Cardiff University. Prior to joining Cardiff University, Patience served as an Assistant Director at the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR).