Crisis communications in the era of COVID 19

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COVID 19 has brought to limelight two significant things in the management of our economy. The first is the sudden realization that our health delivery system is not as weak as we thought; judging from the management of COVID 19 this far. The second is the competent way the government and its agencies have managed the crisis communication.

Overall, the government, led by the Presidency and supported by the Ministry of Information are on top of the crisis communications issues. The efficient management of COVID 19 communication has doused any attempt by the government’s detractors to disseminate discordant information, aimed at promoting fear and panic among the populace.

Moral imagination

In times of crisis like COVID 19, sound leadership often makes the difference. John Maxwell, the authoritative author on leadership has a famous quotation which runs through all his works, “everything rises and fall with leadership.” In fact, good leadership is always about “moral imagination.” In times of crisis like COVID 19, there is always demand for ‘moral imagination.” Apart from the demand for moral imagination in the church, moral imagination is also expected in politics. One man who stood out in moral imagination was Winston Churchill, described as one of the best British Prime Ministers.

During the first World War, his eloquent speeches galvanized a brow-beaten British Army and population. It was reported on June 18, 1940 that, as France fell and Britain stood alone, Prime Minister Churchill spoke to the nation: “Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian Civilization. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and the empire… Hitler knows that he will have to break us on this island or lose the war. If we stand up to him all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail then the whole world… will sink into abyss of the new Dark Age made more sinister and perhaps, more protracted by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves for our duties and bear ourselves that if the British empire and its commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say: This was their finest hour.” Thus, through the power of words and images, Churchill led a nation to fight for the king and country-a nation that had pledged never again to fight and die on foreign fields of war.

Like Churchill, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo needed to galvanise Ghanaians with the six speeches so far. Two quotations from his speeches “These are not ordinary times” and “We know how to bring the economy back to life, what we do not know is how to bring people back to life”, this far been our source of motivation for the battle against COVID 19. I have read comments on social media to the effect that the Presidential speeches were unnecessary. Surprisingly, some highly placed Ghanaians are the brains behind such attempts to poor cold water on the leadership the President has provided so far in the fight against COVID 19. The enormity of the situation demanded that the President became the chief spokesperson.   On the contrary, as the Churchill example indicated, in times like these people look up to a leader to demonstrate courage.

Coordination

So far, the government has ably coordinated both the public health response and the crisis communication. The synergy from the Presidency and the Ministry of Health to the Ministry of Information has been incredible. To coordinate means to bring the parts into proper relations and to cause to function in proper order. Coordination also connotes power relations to determine the allocation of resources, to exert influence over interest groups or competing interests. The Minister of Information, Mr. Kojo Opong Nkrumah has become the star performer and has won the respect of many Ghanaians as a result of his strategic coordination of the communication process. Sight is not lost of the prominent role of the Minister of Health, Mr. Kwaku Agyeman Manu in coordinating with the Presidency and the Ministry of Information to release information incrementally to the public.

The excellent power relations between the two Ministers is commendable.  In fact, the incremental release of COVID 19 information (from the original 2 positive cases to the current 600 cases) is line with best crisis communications practices.  Besides, the incremental release of information is being augmented by the mobilization of other inter-governmental departments and agencies to interact with the media.  In practice, the most challenging part of crisis communication management is reacting – with the right response and timely too. This is because behavior always precedes communication. Non-behavior or inappropriate behavior leads to spin, not communication.

The Dimensions of a Crisis

True crises have several critical dimensions in common, any one of which, if handled poorly, can disrupt or perhaps destroy best efforts at managing any remaining opportunities to resolve the situation and recover or retain reputation. Some of the dimensions are (operations, trust/credibility, behavior, professional expectation, ethics and lessons learned). Failure to respond and communicate in ways that meet public standards and expectations will result in a series of negative outcomes.

In crisis regaining public confidence first requires operating decisions that alleviate people’s anguish and restores public confidence.  Undoubtedly, the Ministry of Information and its agencies have acted so proactively as to restore confidence of the public in the system. The incremental flow of information and public campaigns and education on observing the WHO protocols are forthright. In fact, the commitment to regularly provide the public with information is what stands Ghana out as a leader in the management of COVID 19 in Africa. The dissemination of lessons learned from the COVID 19 and open discussion of positive steps taken to influence our collective success over the pandemic is worthy emulation. In crisis communications management, consultation with stakeholders is key to success. Thus, the government’s prompt request for public support through the use mass media, and directly involving the populace in the communication process is in tandem with best practices. Overall, the Ministry of Communication has effectively reawakened the spirit of public service broadcasting in the fight against COVID 19.

Restitution

In crisis communication someone must pay the price. The President’s decision to absorb the cost of electricity for life consumers and 50 percent for commercial users, and the water bills for Ghanaians is a great response in the spirit public provisioning of public goods. As a public good water is an essential component for fight against COVID 19, as the government is promoting regular handwashing. The government’s communication on the need for improved handwashing through mass media also stands out as a good practice, albeit at a huge cost.

The trust and credibility

In crisis communication trust is an essential attribute for success. Trust is the absence of fear. Fear is the most powerful human emotion to remediate. Trust is based on the expectation that an actor; can be relied on to fulfill obligations and will behave in a predictable manner.  Left unattended, fear turns to frustration, anger, then to retribution. In times of crisis, the communications manager is required to undertake some or all of the following ( to provide advance information, listen carefully, demonstrate that you have heard, stay in touch, speak in plain language). Crisis communication scholars have widely acknowledged that trust can lead to cooperative behavior among individuals, groups and organisations. A careful analysis of the Ministry of Information’s handling of the crisis communication has revealed the highest level of trust, especially in the incremental release of information to the media and the use of simple and plain language. The Minister of Information, Hon. Kojo Oppong Nkrumah has modeled the highest practical knowledge of media relations, which is essential for success in crisis communications.

Relevance of MOI

The excellent management of communications by the Minister of Information and his deputies has reestablished the relevance of the Ministry as the government’s public relations outfit. Previous governments downplayed the significance of the Ministry as government’s anchor for development support communication. In the immediate past the Ministry was merged with the Ministry of Communication, with the latter overshadowing the former, making it irrelevant in the governance process. This was probably done with the notion that information and communication are the same, hence no need to maintain the two as separate ministries. In development communications practice the two can represent both sides of the same coin; but in governance this notion can be misleading viewed against the current roles being played by the two ministries. While the Ministry of Communications deals with technology-based issues, Ministry of Information uses human interface as a process of delivery.  So, the decision by the President to retool and revitalize the Ministry of Information as a public relations outfit is forthright. Mr. Oppong Nkrumah’s performance as Minister has justified that decision. One lesson I have learnt from COVID 19 is that crises often bring out the best in some people. COVID 19 has brought out the best in our health delivery and crisis communications. Kudos to John Oppong Nkrumah and Kwaku Agyeman Manu for justifying why the President appointed them to the positions.

 

(***The writer is a Communications and Development Management Specialist, and a Social Justice Advocate.  All views expressed in this article are my personal views and do not represent those of any organization. (Email: [email protected]. Mobile: 0202642504 0243327586/0264327586)

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