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Society

Crisis communication steps

Mutahi Kagwe
Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe addresses a Press conference on the virus on March 15 in Nairobi. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NMG 

While the world isolates, erects wartime-style barriers, and stares fearfully at the expected coming days and weeks, many Kenyans go about our daily lives with only minor changes. Many workplaces have shut down, but non-salaried workers mostly continue to pursue their crafts undeterred due to cash shortfalls and consistency gaps that make their self-isolation impossible.

Meanwhile thousands of salaried workers buoyed by work-at-home orders socialise in restaurants and malls. Many children released from schools now play with other children in estates, thus keeping contamination risks high instead of staying inside their homes.

From hand washing to social distancing to self-isolation, why do some people heed instructive crisis communication and take pandemic prevention more seriously than others?

Crisis communication scientist Robert Heath explains that the most effective crisis communication entails pre-crisis communication, communication during the event, and post-crisis communication. Pre-crisis communication builds trust that some entity cares about their well-being while preparing recipients to get ready and wait for more detailed communication on a possible crisis. Communicating during a disaster or pandemic event gives vital information on behaviour that receivers should take.

Then post-crisis communication calms the target group or population and frames how to view what they just went through together with an eye to the future.

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Kenya’s Ministry of Health press conference on Friday March 13, stood as an excellent example of pre-crisis communication. During the televised press conference, we learned that one case of the dreaded coronavirus entered the country from a Kenyan who recently traveled abroad.

The next Press conference came from the President directly and constituted communication during a crisis event. The March 15 press conference informed Kenyans that the virus had spread to two more people thus beginning the pandemic transmission everyone feared. Specific actions were given to Kenyans and institutions on what to do next, which is typical in crisis communication.

However, the glaring question staring a communicator in the face: will people heed the advice and modify their behaviour? Communicators need their receivers to intend to follow directives during a crisis.

Researchers who study communication highlight that crisis efficacy determines how people react.

Crisis-efficacy means someone’s perceived ability to perform an action during a crisis to achieve a specific outcome of personal, organisational, and societal safety. Research shows that efficacy stands as one of the strongest predictors of behaviour.

Inasmuch, crisis efficacy proves exceedingly useful to inform message design in crisis communication.

Elizabeth Avery and Sejin Park delineate that communication that enhances citizens’ crisis efficacy increases what is known as “WTR”: willingness to respond. When large portions of a population exhibit low willingness to respond, then it harms everyone during an emergency. If shopkeepers neglect washing their hands while stocking shelves, if people still attend group and religious gatherings, if while seated near someone we refuse to keep a one-metre distance, then the crisis communication failed to motivate our willingness to respond.

Avery and Park devised several statements to gauge whether receivers of crisis communication hold enough crisis efficacy in order to respond appropriately. Communicators should note the types of information or resources needed.

Knowledge: I am confident that I can respond in the best way to protect myself and/or my family during the crisis. I know I can find the information I need during a crisis situation. I evaluate information from several different sources during a crisis when deciding how to react. During a crisis, I collect as much information as I can before taking action.

Resources: I have adequate resources to respond to crisis situation in the recommended way. I have the means to respond to any crisis situation in the best way possible.

Behaviour: I follow response protocols issued by spokespeople directly involved in the crisis. I follow response protocols issued by government officials during the crisis situation.

Given our low societal willingness to respond and over-reliance on false news outlets for pandemic information, we need greater credible crisis efficacy building communications.

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