Government Crisis Communication: Building Credibility and Preventing Panic
When a country is hit by a major crisis, communication is an essential tool for governments to mitigate the negative effects of that crisis on the country’s overall economic well-being. The West Africa Ebola outbreak of 2014-2016 had a dramatic impact on the economy of the three affected countries (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone). The tourism industry of countries like Tanzania and South Africa, located thousands of kilometres away from the outbreak, were also economically hit by that crisis. Here are 5 lessons learned from the experience of managing strategic communications for DRC’s Ministry of Health at a time of national crisis:
Be open about what you know and don’t know.
Crises tend to be unpredictable. There will be a lot of uncertainties and unknowns. Having open and transparent communication from the beginning will help you manage the unexpected blows you might get along the way without losing your credibility.
Keep it simple.
Public health is a technical field with a specific lexicon. Scientific experts tend to live in their own bubble and are not always used to making their work and research accessible for the general public. Some senior level experts may be sensitive to questions and find them nosy. Remember the end goal. Explaining experts’ work in simple terms is important to help the general public and affected communities better understand and accept their interventions.
Bring the story out of data.
Data are the pillars of relevant and efficient public policies. For communication professionals, data are a powerful ally because they always tell a story. Unfold the story behind these data or use data to counter a misleading narrative.
The Ministry of Health website was not operational, making it necessary to find alternative ways to share information about the outbreak with the world in a timely manner. For international audiences, using an email distribution platform with social media worked well. For national journalists, the most convenient platform was WhatsApp. Creating a WhatsApp group for journalists to receive a daily update was the way to go . Journalists also used WhatsApp groups also to directly interact with the Ministry communication team and ask questions that could benefit other journalists.
Invest in training.
When your country is struck by a major crisis, you can expect to receive a lot of requests from media around the world. Firstly, select the official spokespersons for the crisis. During the ebola crisis, the majority of media requests sent to the DRC were from English-speaking international media. Two challenges facing spokespersons at the Ministry of Health were the lack of media training coupled with a low level of proficiency in English. African governments should invest in media training for senior government officials to help them feel more comfortable when interacting with journalists. Governments in Francophone Africa should also invest in English courses for their spokespersons, and all senior officials in general. This helps to avoid missing out on great interview opportunities due to a language barrier.
The biggest challenge with Ebola is not always the actual outbreak but the fear around the spread of the virus, nationally, regionally and internationally. This fear could lead foreign countries and companies to take decisions that could have dramatic consequences on the country’s economy: closing borders, quarantines of Congolese travellers, blocked containers at international ports, cancelled flights, reduction of tourism, and so on. Learning from this experience, strategic communication was placed at the heart of the Ebola response.
Jessica Ilunga is the Director of Communication of the Ministry of Health in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Read the full article and follow Jessica’s work at Africa Communications Week, the premier gathering for communications professionals and thought leaders looking to impact the current narrative on Africa.