South Africa

Speak little, expect much: SA’s crisis communications strategy

By Ranjeni Munusamy 25 April 2013

From the Marikana massacre to the military disaster in the Central African Republic, the South African government has proved to be sluggish and inept in the way it communicates in emergency situations with South Africans. The state seems to impart information in such situations only when it is under absolute pressure to break its silence. Even then, information is limited and does not inspire confidence from the citizenry. No wonder that public trust in government is so low. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

The aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings will be remembered for many things, including human solidarity and the triumph of the human spirit as runners and people on the streets of Boston rallied to assist the injured and rescue personnel. But there are also many lessons to be learnt in how the US authorities communicated consistently, swiftly and smartly to keep their citizens co-operating, limiting panic and showing that they were in charge.

In the days following the bombings, a few high-profile personalities became the voices of authority on the matter. Within hours of the bombings, on Monday 15 April, US President Barack Obama addressed his nation, expressing the requisite outrage but firmly pledging that the perpetrators would be caught and would “feel the full weight of justice”. It was just enough to calm down a panicked and horrified nation and give instant direction without sounding hysterical or vengeful.

Obama addressed the nation again the next day, saying: “Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians, it is an act of terror”. He also issued a proclamation ordering flags to half-mast as a mark of respect for those who died.

Throughout the week of the manhunt, the White House released information that the president was being constantly briefed on the situation, even releasing pictures from the Oval Office showing Obama in discussions with top security officials. On Thursday 18 April, Obama addressed an interfaith service in Boston to honour and mourn the victims of the bombings.

While the normal business of government continued, including wrangling over tougher gun controls, Obama was sufficiently in touch with his people to show he shared their pain and outrage, and was at the same time at the top of a high-powered investigation to find those responsible for the attack.

But the point man in Boston was Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, keeping Americans and the world abreast of developments, constantly addressing press conferences and being interviewed by international networks. Patrick was careful not to give much detail that could compromise the investigation but was a constant talking head on behalf of the US government.

When the police required areas of Boston to go into lockdown to search for the surviving suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Patrick was the one issuing the appeal for people to “shelter in place”.

“Keep the doors locked,” he said calmly at one of many press conferences. “It is important that folks remain indoors.”

The citizens of Boston complied, trusting that their government was doing what is best for them. They also allowed Swat teams into their homes without resistance to search for Tsarnaev.

Patrick was flanked throughout the week by Boston police commissioner Edward Davis, who also constantly addressed media conferences to keep a flow of information on the investigation and manhunt. With the benefit of hindsight, he did not give much in terms of detail but was constantly assuring that this was a top level investigation, the cops knew what they were doing and that it was a matter of time before the suspect was caught.

The Boston police department also tweeted information during this time, including descriptions of Tsarnaev, times of press conferences and areas of focus in Watertown. And when Tsarnaev was finally caught, the news broke via the Boston police Twitter account: “Suspect in custody. Officers sweeping the area. Stand by for further info.”

Despite the intense pressure of the investigation and manhunt while the world watched, the authorities were never hostile to the media and tried their best to co-operate with the 24-hour live television coverage over multiple networks.

When the hunt was over and the suspect captured, there were incredible scenes of jubilation on the streets of Boston with residents cheering and applauding the security forces.

This is a far cry from how the South African state communicates in times of crises. The government has all the same tools at its disposal that the US authorities have; still, it does not know how to use them effectively to speak to the nation.

The massacre of 34 mineworkers by police at Marikana was reported around the world, and yet it took three days before President Jacob Zuma issued a statement on the matter. There was no coherent messaging then, and still there is none. While all debate on the cause of the massacre was deferred until the end of the commission of inquiry, it is clear that the South African government still does not have an intelligible position on the massacre.

In a BBC documentary on the Marikana massacre aired on British television on Wednesday night, Zuma effectively blamed the Lonmin mine for the massacre, saying “the company provoked that”.

“When you have an agreement violated by offering money to a particular category of workers, then you provoke other workers to say you have money, give us as well,” Zuma said.

His comments appeared to be an attempt to deflect blame from his government: “I’m just saying it’s not like the government wasn’t governing properly,” Zuma said.

Government has been similarly incoherent following the deaths of 13 South African soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR). After days of mixed messaging about why the troops were in the CAR and how it is that they got caught in the fire fight, Zuma lashed out at those asking questions about the mission.

“The problem in South Africa is that everybody wants to run the country,” he said. “There must also be an appreciation that military matters and decisions are not matters that are discussed in public, other than to share broader policy.”

At a later meeting of Parliament’s defence committee, Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula effectively admitted that government did not have a handle on the situation in the CAR and therefore could not explain why the soldiers died. The communications on the issue up to this week continues to be muddled, with still no clarity on why the troops were deployed to the CAR and the nature of their duties there.

And to further confuse matters, Zuma and his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, have now contradicted themselves on whether troops would be deployed again to the CAR. Answering questions in Parliament on Wednesday, Motlanthe said in response to a question from the Democratic Alliance’s parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, about whether troops would be redeployed: “With a very straight face, clear conscience I deny that the government is planning to send troops to the Central African Republic.”

But in an interview with Bloomberg also on Wednesday, Zuma said he was awaiting a formal request from regional leaders and the rebel Seleka alliance that controls the CAR to send soldiers as part of a multinational peacekeeping force.

“That will be considered by us when it is formally put,” Zuma said. “If that request comes, if we did not go, it would not be in keeping with our policy.”

On Wednesday, the South African Democratic Teachers Union led protest marches in Pretoria and Cape Town demanding that that Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and her director-general be fired. This follows a protracted go-slow in teaching, all of which is negatively affecting schooling around the country. Despite education supposedly being an apex priority of government, there has been no crisis intervention or communications on the matter. The president and his Cabinet have effectively left the matter to Motshekga to resolve, despite the fact that she is the subject of the dispute.

This is consistent with how government generally deals with all scandals and crises, simply throwing them to the line-function minister and hoping they can limit the damage. It is how the state has dealt with cases of extreme sexual violence, police brutality, the exorbitant renovations to the president’s Nkandla residence and the CAR disaster.

The only issue on which government has improved communications is the health of former president Nelson Mandela. This followed intense pressure from the media, domestic and international, as well as widespread panic among South Africans after Mandela was admitted to Milpark Hospital in January 2011 under a virtual information blackout. Since then, communications has improved consistently with each of Mandela’s hospitalisations.

But generally, government’s attitude to communications on critical issues is that it imparts information on a need-to-know basis. While there is a flow of media releases from government departments on a daily basis, it is in times of disaster, when media interest peaks, that state officials tend to communicate less and messaging becomes garbled.

Despite transparency and accountability being constitutional imperatives, the state prefers to filter information to the public on crises issues and tends to hide behind outdated legislation and official processes rather than respect the nation enough to keep it informed.

As the US government showed last week, in times of emergency, citizens trust and co-operate with the authorities when they are respected with information and taken seriously by those in power. Besides helping the public, the flow of information builds trust and confidence in government.

The South African government does not have this kind of relationship with its citizens, which is probably why it constantly faces resistance and a lack of trust. The media, through which it is meant to communicate, is seen as a hostile, intrusive entity rather than a platform from which to speak to the nation.

If there ever comes a time when South Africa is put to the test, as the US was by the Boston bombings last week, how would the country respond? Will government be able to communicate quickly and smartly, breaking its trend of saying little and expecting no interrogation, and will South Africa’s citizens listen and comply? Hopefully, we will never have to find out. DM

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