What Covid-19 is teaching us on crisis communication

As the Coronavirus crisis deepens in the world’s largest economies, we see it also taking a toll in our very own Kenyan economy. Just like any other government, ours has been facing the challenge of how to respond effectively to this pandemic with more unknowns than knowns.

Fast comprehensive response coupled with effective communication marks the difference between countries such as South Korea and Italy. The former nation’s success against the virus is attributed in part to varied, transparent and innovative ways the government has been encouraging its citizens to participate in its containment measures. Communication professionals recognize their use of openness as well as admire their tactics, speed and technology.

In Africa, tactics used by various governments to communicate directives such as social distancing have fallen short. In its daily briefings, the Kenyan government has been announcing more stringent measures amid threats of dire consequences for non-cooperation. While the daily updates given by the Ministry of Health are admirable, they are not as effective as they should be. This is evidenced by the government resorting to subsequent threats and arrests.

In Italy, contradictory signals from the government confused the populace and contributed to some not taking the pandemic seriously, and as we can see, with disastrous results. Our government’s communication may be having a similar effect, albeit unintended, as shown by its constant complaints about Kenyans not cooperating with its directives.

Instead of complaints, threats and arrests, the government should be treating its citizens more as partners rather than as a stubborn population. In this way, rather than the government dictating directives to hapless residents, or causing confusion by announcing ill-prepared restrictions, they can adopt a whole-of-society consensus and community engagement approach to handle the crisis.

The media houses have tried to ensure proper communication and creation of awareness about the virus. For instance, they run campaigns reminding people of the symptoms of Covid-19, as well as precautions needed to prevent the spread of the disease. However, there is a challenge in ensuring that the information reaches the entire population, not just English speakers. There is still very little Coronavirus information being broadcasted in local languages, despite the fact that in recent years there has been a proliferation of local media outlets.

Taiwan had a similar situation where, at first, their real time public updates were done mostly in Mandarin Chinese and sign language. Updates in other languages such as English could not be found anywhere other than in Taiwan CDC’s website. The government there soon discovered this was a major obstacle for non-Taiwanese residents and travelers and changed their communication formats accordingly.

To ensure the society does not come to a complete stall during long periods of self-quarantine, active engagement with employers, universities and schools is crucial to promote remote working, homeschooling and online education efforts. An example is the slogan implemented by the Canadian Prime Minister, ‘Team Canada Effort’ whose objective is to harness social and community support in managing the crisis.

Singapore seems to be quite successful at containing the spread of the virus. Their use of social media and digital applications such as direct messaging and ‘trace and track’ via WhatsApp, as well as its anticipatory yet measured public communication outings have helped greatly.

Being transparent and accurate in relaying information, preparing the public for what is coming next and expressing a degree of empathy in communicating policies, has proven to go a long way in ensuring effective crisis communication.

How successfully this crisis is communicated and managed will depend on how well each government is able to face it head on and bring society on board while coordinating effectively with all stakeholders.