Crisis Communication For COVID-19 – By Sule Ya’u Sule (Ph.D)

July 12, 2020

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The covid-19 pandemic caught the world by surprise. I used the word surprise partly because of the skepticism surrounding the outbreak of the virus and the response of world leaders towards tackling it. Some are prone to believe it because it affected their citizens directly at the initial stage (China) while others play politics with it (USA, Brazil, etc). These two sides are visible in the outbreak and management of the virus in Nigeria.

Whether it is politicized or not, is not the question here. What is however important in this discussion is the fact that we have a crisis on our hand which rattles scientists and overwhelmed health workers globally. In the face of this scourge, communication is paramount. How then can we (media practitioners) communicate effectively to combat this pandemic? The solution is an effective crisis communication.

Crisis Communication

When crisis happened, it’s always big news as such the media are so much interested in it as it is claimed that “bad news makes good news”. The media might be interested in the persistence of the crisis because it gives them substance to report. The job of a crisis communicator is to be prompt and factual. Sullivan (n.d) reiterates that “in a crisis, the best course of action is to be forthcoming and honest and to do what it takes to facilitate stories”. She furthers that engaging the media is important because “the media are going to write and air stories with or without your help. It’s in your best interest to participate in a story- even a negative one – in order to have your position correctly represented”. The crisis communicator needs to remain close to the media and keep furnishing them with updates and respond to their enquiries.

Crisis is inevitable in human endeavor. As a matter of fact it should be expected. The practitioner should be proactive and anticipate the possibility of crisis. With Covid-19, the citizens are looking at the government and policy makers at all levels for directives. It is expected that the government communicate with the public about the challenges posed by the virus and government efforts towards combating it. Crisis communication in this regard should be directed to both media and publics depending on the circumstance.

Lattimore et al (2009, pp. 372) describe crisis communication as “using all the public relations tools available to preserve and strengthen an organization’s long-term reputation whenever it’s threatened”.

The social media has the tendency of generating public opinion without due verification or given priority to facts. Nigeria public sphere was awash with a lot of misgivings about the Covid-19. This caused serious damage to the Covid-19 management efforts. Cutlip, Center and Broom (1985) note that “…the power of public opinion must be faced, understood and dealt with. It provides the psychological environment in which organizations (even governments) prosper or perish”. Covid-19 crisis communication should be across board. It should not involve only the traditional media but also factor in the social media and happenings on the numerous social media platforms.

Countering the rumors generated by Covid-19 was not expected to be easy considering the kind of places some of the rumors are emanating from. A popular pastor down south attributed the pandemic to 5G network while an Islamic scholar in the north told his congregation that the virus was a hoax. Although It’s difficult to verify the origin of some of the rumors on Covid-19, how far it has reached and the level of damage it has done or can do. It should be expected that rumors are bound to spread; it is the job of the practitioner to counter them. Lattimore et al (2009, p. 375) suggest that “best defense is offence” as such, they highlight five (5) strategies to tackle rumors which are:

  1. Strive to increase and maintain trust and credibility.
  2. Keep audiences regularly informed through a variety of communication channels.
  3. Tailor each message to the audience receiving it so there’s less likelihood of it being misunderstood.
  4. Establish an ongoing rumor hotline and other two-way communication channels to seek questions and concerns from key publics. Use written communication to answer the questions posed.
  5. Monitor possible effects of rumors so early intervention can be enacted if necessary.

Crises are anticipated and it is the job of the crisis communicator to be proactive. Sullivan (n.d, p. 62) observes that “the key to effective crisis communication is to be prepared before the crisis occurs. Once an emergency happens, there is little time to think much less to plan. Without a crisis plan, you can be overwhelmed by events.” Being proactive will help in early curtailment of the crisis. Communication is vital in crisis situation. A two-way form of communication must be established with the key stakeholders, the media, the publics and the frontline workers if there must be any chance of stemming the crisis.

In order to address crisis, scholars of crisis communication and management have suggested different strategies but postulation of Marguerite Sullivan appears more realistic because it focuses on the pre-crisis, during-crisis and post-crisis steps to take during crisis communication. Marguerite Sullivan, an American public affairs and communications specialist on crisis communication and management in her book ‘A responsible Press Office: An Insider’s Guide, hypothesizes the followings:

Before a Crisis

  • Maintain trustworthy, credible relationships with the media all of the time. If you do, the media will be less suspicious and more cooperative in the midst of a crisis.
  • Select someone to be the crisis manager (Presidential Task Force).
  • Have the crisis manager collect information on potentially troublesome issues and trends. Evaluate them, gather data on them, and develop communications strategies to prevent or redirect their course.
  • Identify members of a possible crisis management team. Have in place their roles, actions to be taken and possible scenarios. Have a list of their office, home, and cell or mobile phone numbers. Also have copies of their biographies. In a crisis, the press may want to know the backgrounds of those dealing with it.
  • Give designated spokespersons training in dealing with the media.
  • Determine the message, target, and media outlets that could be used in various crisis plans.
  • Have a list of the office, home, and cell or mobile phone numbers and deadliness of reporters who might cover your organization in a crisis.
  • Have a plan for setting up a media crisis center. This should cover such items as desks, chairs, phones, parking, electrical outlets, placement of satellite trucks, copy machines, even coffee. You also need to think about how to keep an office secure, particularly for your own staff.

During a Crisis

  • When a crisis hits, immediately get the word to the press. Otherwise, the media will get their information through other means.
  • Set up a 24 –hour crisis and media center at a central place from which news is released, rumors dealt with, facts gathered, and briefings held.
  • Immediately ‘go public’ with a trained spokesperson at the scene to conduct press briefings. Let the media –and therefore the public know that you are dealing with the situation.
  • Say what you know and only what you know. Don’t speculate. Don’t be bullied into saying anything based on rumor. If you don’t know something, admit it. Saying ‘the matter is under investigation’’ may be the best response.
  • Gather information as quickly as possible. Determine the basic who, what, when, where, and how. You might not get the ‘why’’ until later.
  • Get the government or agency leader and other top management to the crisis center. Cancel other plans. People want to see the leader, not just the public affairs staff. Having top management in front of the press during a crisis lends credibility and shows that the organization is not treating the situation lightly.
  • Inform your internal audiences – the staff and other government offices – at the same time you inform the press. If the press is the only source of information for the staff, morale can be damaged and employees can become confused and hurt, especially if the incident is reported inaccurately in the press. Because of where they work, the staff will be viewed as sources of information, and they can be the origin of leaks and rumors. Be sure they have it right.
  • Communicate with your internal audiences by e–mail, if available, or through press releases and statements delivered to each office. If the staff is small enough, call a meeting at which members of the crisis team are available to answer staff questions.
  • Maintain a calm, gracious, and helpful presence. Avoid appearing flustered or overwhelmed.
  • Pre-empt negative publicity and communicate the actions being taken to solve the crisis. Verify news before releasing it.
  • Arrange for media access to the scene of the crisis. If at all possible. TV wants pictures. If there are space constraints, use press pool reports, with a representative of each type of media, wire service, newspaper, TV, radio, magazine, and photography –at the scene, writing up a report and taking picture for their colleagues. No one may use these reports, including those in the pool, until they have been distributed to everyone.
  • Take care of the practical needs of the press, such as packing, phones, electrical outlet, desks, and chairs.
  • Keep a log of reporters who have called, what they asked, their deadlines, what you promised, and to whom it was delegated.
  • Always return phone calls. If you don’t, reporters will look elsewhere for information. They will write a story with or without your help. Being not responsive takes control of a story away from you.
  • Simple sympathetic gestures can help rebuild the public’s confidence. Offer reassurance. Tell what actions are being taken to solve the problem, to help those affected, and to return things to normal. But first make sure you are doing what you said you are doing.
  • Make sure the press spokesperson is involved with senior management in every decision and policy made. Every decision has a public ramification, whether management recognizes it or not.
  • Avoid fixing blame. That can be done after an investigation.
  • Appeal to third –party endorsement for your effort. Get credible people who have been through similar experiences and command the public’s attention to speak on your behalf.
  • Update information frequently and regularly. Announce when your next update will be.
  • Monitor media reports and correct errors immediately.
  • Establish a web site to inform people about the status of the situation. Put all news releases, statement, fact sheets, and links to other information on the site.
  • Establish an assessment group to study the problem and to prevent future occurrences. This is not for show; they should have real power.
  • Remember: openness and responsiveness during a crisis enhances your respect and credibility with the media. It can help you in the long run.

After a Crisis

  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the crisis plan and how people responded.
  • Correct problems so they don’t happen again.
  • Accountability on palliative distribution and other related initiatives

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