July 14, 2020

PADDY D KAYONDO: Why Strategic Communication Has Been Crucial In Handling The COVID-19 Crisis


FILE PHOTO: Health workers wait to screen travellers for signs of the coronavirus

Mankind has always faced the threat of large scale death and destruction from disastrous situations. Mention of Pompeii, Krakatoa, and Chernobyl, Banda Acen, and New Orleans and recent terrorist bombings evokes powerful images for many people.

Despite all the advances in technology, disasters affect and will continue to affect, whole communities in many significant ways.

Research indicates that the number of people at risk from extreme events continues to grow at an alarming rate (Bouwer et al. 2007: 753). This includes threats not only from traditional geophysical events such as earthquakes and floods but also from anthropogenic major emergencies such as the release of toxic substances, major transport accidents, terrorist-related incidents, and pandemics that threaten the whole human existence.

Covid-19 pandemic has been registered as a new threat to humanity with an unmatched magnitude.

Therefore, as the world faces these challenges, especially the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a need to keep everyone aware of the threats and available options for mitigations, this is only possible through effective communication purposes to inform the world citizenry of the dangers and how to manage them.

One of the critical components in crisis management is communication’,  but somehow the vague concept of  ‘communication‘  is always cited as a  problem in crisis situations. This is attributed to the use of traditionally known ways of information dissemination, which is routine, monotonous, and boring too.

However, this is changing as countries adopt strategic communication to be a new tool for effective communication.

Communication as we know it is the act of transferring information from one place, person, or group to another. And every communication process involves (at least) a sender, message, and recipient, this may sound simple, but communication actually is a very complex subject and the transmission of the message from sender to recipient can be affected by a huge range of things. These include our emotions, the cultural situation, the medium used to communicate, and even our location. The complexity is what good communication skills are considered so desirable by employers around the world; accurate, effective, and unambiguous communication is actually extremely hard. This is the reason why before you communicate there are things you must put into consideration lest you risk talking to yourself all through as your intended audience is doing other deemed important things.

The process of communication refers to the transmission or passage of information or message from the sender through a selected channel to the receiver overcoming barriers that affect its pace. The communication process consists of certain steps where each step constitutes the essentials of effective communication.

Communication is a Latin word which means ‘to share’. It is the sharing of information between different individuals. It includes the sharing of ideas, concepts, imaginations, behaviors, and written content. Communication is simply defined as the transfer of information from one place to another, and this transfer of information can be conducted in different ways.

Strategic communication, on the other hand, has been defined as the study of how organizations use communication purposefully to fulfill their overall missions (e.g., Frandsen & Johansen, 2017; Halahan, Holtzhausen, van Ruler, Verčič, & Sriramesh, 2007).

The aim of strategic communication as an academic movement has been formulated as an ambition to break down the silos surrounding closely related communication disciplines and to create a unified framework that integrates public relations, organizational communication, marketing communication, and other areas. The fundamental idea of strategic communication is thus inclusive, which is a laudable ambition, worth collective support.

Financial Times & ft.com/lexicon define communication as strategic when it is in line with an institution’s vision, mission, and core values and is able to improve the positioning and competitiveness of any institution or organization. This underscores the critical role of communication through information dissemination as the most effective way of achieving the desired message in the best possible way, using the right channels that are measured against well-considered organizational and communications-specific goals.

During a crisis situation it is important to involve the media because it is a powerful medium of communication. It is important to stay in touch and update the media of the situation at hand so that they can communicate the same to the internal and external publics alike. Failure to do so opens avenues of media speculation, leading to misreporting and in the process fuelling the crisis further.

Crisis and emergency risk communication allows the public to make the best possible decisions about their well-being following a serious life-threatening event and within very narrow time constraints.

Beyond the requirements of the communication, one must consider the challenges of the current information environment on government strategic communication. The news comes from many sources to include mainstream broadcast and print journalists to someone on the street with a camera, cell phone or a blogger with a laptop and internet service. Images and stories (both accurate and inaccurate, rumor and innuendo) can be transmitted inexpensively and in real-time. The government cannot dominate this environment, so it must ensure that it manages it as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Public experience in receiving and assessing information is critical to a State’s demonstrated success in achieving cooperation from its citizens because it acts as a means to manage expectations and instill confidence.

President Museveni Yoweri reads his Bible during the second National Prayers in search of divine intervention for the current challenges of the country especially the COVID-19 pandemic.

Strategic Communication during disaster response directly supports the ability of the government and its agencies to establish a safe and secure environment for its citizens. We saw how this was possible here in Uganda when the government security forces effectively maintained peace during the lockdown without resistance by the citizens. Accurate public information is critical in managing expectations and positively influencing perceptions by proactive education and training is equally important, informed kept flowing throughout the lockdown and various methods were employed.

The Head of State kept updating the citizens on the situation in the country and the whole nation would be looking forward to his speech and he never disappointed us for he had a way in which he would connect with us and make it easy for the population to stay home and maintain the Standard Operating Procedures without defying, as our security forces and sister agencies who were in operations 24 hours kept updating the nation of their operations, this strategically also endeared the whole nation to the cause and made the work of keeping Ugandans safe easy.

In the context of interactive crisis management, the issue of communicating in crisis situations is facilitated by the possibility of offering the necessary official information and thus, the communicative pathology of a rumor is prevented from being active, the constant communication from both the Head of State and the government agencies provided accurate and timely information that fake news regarding the pandemic and the general operations of the Ministry of Health (MoH) and security were minimized. This has saved the population from committing suicide as a result of speculative news lines.

Health Minister Dr. Jane Ruth Aceng and PM Ruhakana Rugunda

Strategic communications fuse the “pushing” and “delivering.” Since “being strategic means communicating the best message, through the right channels, measured against well-considered organizational and communications-specific goals, it’s the difference between doing communications stuff, and doing the right communications stuff.”

The low community infection rate and the ZERO death in the country can be attributed to this effective, timely accurate and transparent information dissemination process by the leadership in Uganda, this is why, and even international media houses credited Uganda for having got it right in dealing with the pandemic.

Whether it is during a natural disaster or a policy consultation process, citizens expect honest and useful communications from their government agencies.

This expectation isn’t misplaced, as we now live in a world where mobile phones and the Internet are ubiquitous, any lapse in true information dissemination form the government gives room for the famous fake news and would derail the unsuspecting population and would be very hard to undo the damages caused especially in dealing with an enemy as new and deadly as Covid-19, thus the strategic communication process by our leadership saved us from the effect of fake news by the overzealous fake news peddlers.

Furthermore, governments succeed or fail because of the way they communicate their vision, mission, and objectives with the wider citizenry, and in this digital age, it becomes increasingly obvious that governments ought to be proactive in the way they communicate and engage with citizens.

This, therefore, places strategic communications at the heart of the development and implementation of national strategies and objectives; and this must be the business not only of the highest levels of government but of all its constituent pillars including the armed forces, diplomacy, trade, and social services. As we have witnessed in Uganda, all sectors were actively involved in the communication processes in regard to the COVID-19 crisis which maintained cohesion of purpose and mission in the entire government unlike in the past where conflicting messages would be given by the different agencies in the same government that left the public confused and with many questions, with strategic communication this is avoided and cohesion is built.

Therefore,  a broader understanding of strategic communications would allow communications activity to function as one of the executive levers of national strategy, rather than being seen as a mere adjunct, and if properly understood and designed, strategic communication is not just about words, explaining intentions or actions, but should also be about achieving the required ends of national strategy, not least by exploiting the communicative power of the military and non-military deeds, this we have perfected as a country during the Covid-19 pandemic and should be maintained even during the post-Covid period.

Strategic communications also support another critical strategic commodity which is influence. Strategic influence is wholly dependent on effective coordination across and beyond the government in order to achieve common strategic goals. Given the centrality of influence on national strategy, a strategic communications framework must be intrinsic to strategic planning and all communication processes and implementation.

How else would you convince your citizens, that they MUST leave their luxurious lifestyles, abandon their jobs, schools, and business and be home by 6 pm for months without proper messaging that would influence desired actions?

During this pandemic, the centre of strategic communications activity depended on the nature and focus of a crisis or strategy, the audience(s) of concern, and the means available to influence or bring about change in the public’s attitudes.

High-level political ‘ownership’ was very vital, and we saw how the president laboured to explain the nature, and cause of the threat we were faced with as a nation, how we could avoid getting it, the famous “kwefuka, kwetsyamura, otampika and sneezing in and out etc…” was but meant to make sure that the least educated grandmother of mine in the villages of Mityana is able to understand how the virus is transmitted and also how to avoid getting it, this was later picked across government and into ministries, departments and to individual agency spokespersons as we witnessed every other day at Uganda Media Centre.

Strategic communication was visible from the outset in the activities of each government department and agency, in a number of ways. First, there was evidence of a high-level understanding of the broader effects that policies might have on the entire nation, this was ably explained by the Head of State too.

Second, there was sensitivity to the possibility of a variety of interpretations and implications of intended messages in different quarters of our population especially since we were nearing the electoral season, and we still have accusations from some political cycles who sadly maintain that COVID-19 is no threat to the nation and lockdown was after all not necessary and a ploy by the regime to stifle opponents! Third, there was an awareness of the influence required to achieve consensus and support for any given message from the population and other stakeholders.

And finally, there was recognition of the affected stakeholders and audiences, whose support would be necessary for the fulfillment of given strategic objectives and government actions thereafter.

It follows that strategic communications should be a two-way process, relaying the reactions and views of the various audiences involved; where the audience feedback informs the periodic adaptation and adjustment strategy, the president of Uganda put this further when he allowed feedback from form the citizens to be read in public and the on-spot responses given either by himself or line ministries.

This meant moving away from an approach to communications as we know it,  that focuses disproportionately on media relations, ‘sound-bites’, and ‘photo-opportunities’ at the expense of a stronger, but perhaps more desired strategic message. Strategic communication, therefore, helps us go beyond traditional media messaging to develop a targeted campaign of behavioral or social change informed by close knowledge of the audience as it was masterly done in Uganda during this pandemic.

Strategic communications is not merely a one-way process where the narrative flows from the core of government to be applied unquestioningly by agents and stakeholders, it is rather responsive and flexible so that there is simultaneously response and adaptation to facts on the ground, and to the reaction of target audiences and adversaries as we have already seen how it was done by the president in his broadcasts timely responding to issues as they were happening on the ground, be it operational or otherwise.

Additionally, strategic communication helps us to understand the what, why and where of communications, so that government communicators across the board be able to recognize the ‘who’: the audience to whom messages are addressed and also to recognize the diversity in audiences and their different motivations, interests and ideas. The usage of different personalities with different social appeals was a right move by the MOH to make sure that no cluster of our society is left out in COVID 19 messaging.

In conflict and crisis situations governments must be able to communicate quickly and accurately within an established structure, and strategic communication included within the process as early as possible within the conflict cycle to mitigate against confusion and false information outlets, since strategic communication can be used simultaneously as a tool of social deterrence and social inclusion, however, as an intrinsic part of national communication strategy, strategic communications must be clear and consistent.

The government established ad-hoc committees or coordinating bodies to oversee the communications strategies of government departments and agencies this is an element of strategic communication to maintain operational stability and ensure the centrality of communications to planning and action and a number of citizens prominent and otherwise were also given greater status to contribute to the overall COVID-19 message and these influenced their followers and admirers alike and made the messages as user friendly as possible and this was done as a way of recognizing the abilities of those outside government to communicate strategically through local engagement and outreach within and between communities and populations and this yielded much-desired results for the nation in regard to prevention of the spread of the virus among our people.

In conclusion, strategic communication helped the government to inform, influence and persuade its public to adhere to the SOPs as were given by MOH and WHO and also promoted coordination across government agencies to avoid information fratricide that led to the low community transmission and zero death so far yet other and known strong nations have thousands of infections and fatalities.

We should all remember that the enemy is still here with us, the fact that we haven’t had a relative diagnosed with Covid-19 or lost a relative to it, doesn’t mean that the country is free from it, we have been lucky so far and the government effort and our obedience to the SOPs and other guidelines have shielded us from the worst, it`s not time to relax and forget about the SOPs like some people have done, complacency can only escalate the problem yet we want the enemy to be as far as possible from our communities.

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We should salute our resilient national political leadership, MOH and our patriotic security forces for the work well done and getting it right with Covid-19 outbreak and shielding our communities from the worse that we keep reading about from other nations and also maintaining law and order as well as minimizing crime, our community leaders for being vigilant and the population for obeying the government guidelines and MOH SOPs without defiance.

For God and My Country.

ABOUT AUTHOR: Paddy D. Kayondo is an educationist and political analyst

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