Effective communication from leadership is essential during a crisis

COMMENT

South Africa’s response and communication efforts in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic have been widely described as a sign of what dedicated leaders can achieve. 

Minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkhize has been championing the government’s communication efforts in the fight against Covid-19 and thus far he has been positively received by citizens —  and indeed by others across the world — who have mostly praised his commitment and the effectiveness of his communication.  One Twitter user commented that political leaders “have a lot to learn from the minister of health”. 

Richard Poplak described Mkhize as “a vastly capable former medical doctor with decades of administrative experience, and has become a global bureaucratic superstar with his calm, science-based, best-guess decision-making”. 

Literature on crisis communication informs us about effective and ineffective strategies. Some of the factors that cause ineffective crisis management are late release of information, not countering rumours or fake news and sending out mixed messages. 

Effective crisis management involves timeous response, credibility, empathy and visibility.  These three key factors which stand out from Mkhize’s crisis leadership communication are outlined below.   


Timeous response: Keeping citizens up to date

In any crisis, time is the enemy.  Speed, robust content and effective distribution of the message is key.  The minister has been able to apply one of the principles of crisis communication, “tell more, tell it fast, tell them what you are doing”.

It all began on January 23, when Mkhize issued a media statement providing an overview on China’s status on Covid-19, and further, a background on how it can be contracted and prevented.  Travel advice was issued based on the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. 

A multi-sectoral National Outbreak Response Team (MNORT) reconvened on January 24. Communication was sent out to all provinces and stakeholders, with a 24-hour hotline set up.  These were complemented by the website resourced with media statements, flyers, posters, a WhatsApp number and department of health social media platforms.  These were followed by a media briefing, reassuring citizens that South Africa was adequately prepared. In all the briefings, the minister has been direct, clear and honest.

When there were reported cases in other countries, the first person who tested positive, recovered or died from Covid-19, the minister was there to brief the media.  

Credibility

According to Jonathan Bernstein, of Bernstein Crisis Management: “Well-crafted messages alone won’t help if you are not perceived as being credible and being perceived as credible and being the most legitimate source of information are not necessarily the same.” 

He further posits that for one to be credible, they need to be compassionate, confident and competent. The minister ticks the boxes with ease in terms of the three Cs.

Perhaps one can point to the fact that as a trained medical doctor, this makes Mkhize credible and reliable in a health crisis, and it is also easier for him to be eloquent on issues related to the Covid-19 outbreak.

Profoundly, the minister has immersed himself in understanding the pandemic in such a way as to provide clear and simple communication, making it easily accessible to citizens.

Empathy and Visibility

In his communication, he has shown sensitivity, especially acknowledging and sharing his encouraging words and condolences with those who have tested positive or lost their loved one to the virus. 

Mkhize has also been appreciative of the health workers who are at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19.

Similarly, he has shown excitement when communicating recoveries.  

His empathetic leadership was evident in one of his tweets: “We are concerned about the developments at St Augustine Hospital.  66 tested positive over the past few days. About 48 of them are staff…”  

Mkhize has not only shown empathy, but he is also visible.  Visibility is close to “listening”, as it presents opportunities to observe what is happening on the ground.  He has not just been talking, but he has been seen visiting different hospitals and communities that have reported Covid-19 positive cases. 

He also has a Twitter presence and consistently posts and responds to comments. This enables the ordinary citizen to speak directly to someone they would not usually be able to, in this case, the minister of health. This online visibility is important for the minister to listen to people’s concerns, criticism and even recommendations — which is issues management in summary.  This has surely enabled him to adjust his crisis management strategy and communication too.

It was Warren Buffet who said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” Mkhize has thus far done well in building and maintaining a good reputation.

Government is hard at work rolling out mass screening and testing. Overall, there are already signs that the pandemic will have a devastating effect on the socioeconomic conditions of the majority of the South African population.

Bold leadership will thus be required to deal with the aftermath.

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Brightness Mangolothi
Brightness Mangolothi is the director of the Higher Education Resource Service – South Africa
Malesela Maubane
Malesela Maubane is Prisa’s immediate past president and former Limpopo regional chairperson

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