YONELA DIKO: Did Malawi win the Bushiri communication battle?
All institutions, and certainly all governments, occasionally are embroiled in controversy, and almost always count on public relations to help them weather the storm and protect public trust in them. The Bushiris' escape from our country is one such controversy, and like all others, it's been a test on public relations for both the South African government and its Malawian counterpart. On this front, I want to argue that the Malawian government fared much better than the South African government.
Timing is everything in crisis communication. Once a crisis breaks out, you need to get off the blocks early, preferably first, communicate regularly, and be constantly available. In that way, you will stay in control of the message. This is what Malawi did through its Minister of Information Gospel Kazako, while the South African government went on a communications blackout for most of the first 24 hours. In that period, narratives were formed; the atmosphere was filled with speculative theories, and by the time the SA government offered any form of communication, it was already swimming against the tide. Malawi, on the other hand, bought itself some time, creating enough doubt about its involvement in the Bushiri escape and ultimately developing a legal process that would, at the very minimum, reflect a country that was doing its part regarding their fugitive citizens who were under legal scrutiny as would be required by regional treaties and their own Constitution.
This is public relations and Malawi's early and constant presence in South African media gave it somewhat of an upper hand to South Africa that was a no show for most of the first day. Kazako hit the right notes. He avoided “no comment” because in a developing international crisis that is looking for someone to hang, silence immediately tells the media that something is being hidden, and worse, it might communicate that the situation is running too far ahead of you. Although not immediately convincing, Kazako was clear and was not scared to push back. He was also comfortable on camera, even when pressed on the matter. He did not seem rattled, there were no "uhms" and "uhs", no fidgeting and pacing; and he remained calm.
Of course, his biggest challenge was that in the first 24 hours, no one really has accurate information. So he was going through the motions, avoiding trapping himself, confirming what he knows, pushing back on questions that South Africa should answer, and opening room for more information later while pushing the South African government further on the back foot, where it has been since.
The purpose of public relations is to build and maintain trust between government and the public. Whenever something threatens that trust, public relations must kick into high gear and envelop the space to minimise a country's mood and disposition going over the cliff. The source of that trust is accurate, timely information.
Unfortunately, in the first few hours this was not available from our government. What's important, as Kazako showed, was to position yourself as the only credible source of any information when it becomes available, as well as the only reliable and present source for the media to consult. Being unavailable for over 24 hours trying to gather information was South Africa's first big mistake. What you don't want is for others to control the narrative with their own version of speculation, most likely underpinned by anti-government sentiments. Early response is vital for credibility.
Over time, there has been an erosion of trust between our government and the public on many fronts, but particularly on government's inability to manage our borders. This means the SA government was already operating on the back foot of public relations, and citizens were then bound to immediately assume and believe the worst.
Part of the problem is President Cyril Ramaphosa doing what some have called "dancing in the end zone". This is government allowing daily stories about it and its controversies grind the mill without any official pushing back or tone setting, with details only emerging at the end of a speech somewhere. Of course, the Presidency has obviously identified this and his weekly letters seem to want to address current affairs and programmes of government on a regularly. But this is not enough.
There is a reason the media corps in the United States practically live in the White House. Every other day the Press Secretary comes out to face the media, with no speech, no opening remarks, just an opportunity for journalists to ask all the questions they feel the public need answers on from the highest office in the land. Research in the United Kingdom also showed that where the public does not know what their elected officials are doing for longer periods, there are lower levels of trust in those people. The irregular feedback from the high office is a weakness.
LESSONS MOVING FORWARD
Government needs to reboot its public relations. A deeper appreciation of public relations' role is critical, not only for government but for all entities occasionally finding themselves facing a breakdown of trust. Public relations - defined as a persuasion business by some and an image shaper by others - is an attempt to persuade the public that a continued association with you will enrich their lives, and it is the life of any institution. It can either elevate an organisation's turnover and reach - or it can be its death knell.
This involves publicity, reputation management, and communication. All public relations tools to connect with the public, used well for this outcome, can help build a thriving, trusted government and brand. The message an organisation sends to the public about how it manages crises and the relationships it builds can set the organisation apart from others. The message may not always be delivered as expected, but enough research and testing can maximise the chances of impact on people.
Public relations also humanises an organisation. After a crisis that most often presents a government and an institution as uncaring and insensitive to human suffering or incompetent, accurate information shared in good time is the most important thing when trying to turn the message around. Once the message is received, it must be aggressively spread in all media platforms, especially the personal spaces on social media.
It's important for institutions to prepare for all scenarios, especially a crisis, so that it is not caught by surprise and unable to respond early to a crisis. Public relations teams must have long-term plans built on priorities.
ENDURING PROBLEMS FOR GOVERNMENT COMMUNICATIONS
For most of us who have worked for political principals, our experience has been that most of them are unwilling to go out and face media on controversial matters within their portfolios. There is never a willingness to pair all that they wish the media would share about their work and the things that the media actually want answers for. Media is not at anyone's behest - it also seeks to benefit from the stories it putting out.
Government is working everyday, so let the people know what the government is doing. There are great accomplishments being registered every day, so share that information. However, there are also many challenges, some in part due to the natural difficulty of turning plans into a reality, and there must be constant willingness to open yourself up to media scrutiny for ever the most difficult challenges.
It is this unwillingness to speak to the media about controversy that results in crises miscommunications. This is unacceptable.
To paraphrase Zanele Mbeki, some government leaders want to go to heaven without dying.
Yonela Diko is the former Spokesperson to the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. You can follow him on @yonela_diko.