An interview with Morgan Ochieng

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic on 14 July 2020, I had a virtual conversation with my friend and former classmate Morgan Ochieng, who is the Executive Director at Scion Creatives & Innovation Centre and Host of the Tambali Podcast. We talked about crisis communications, our role as communicators in such times and how organizations need to be better prepared to thrive amidst challenging times like what we were experiencing with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Here is an excerpt from that interview in which I share my thoughts about Managing Communications in Times of Crisis.

Morgan: There is no doubt; we are living in undefined times with the spread of the novel coronavirus across the world. The COVID-19 pandemic is just one of the crises we’ve experienced in recent times. A measure to control stigma and fear among people is managing how we communicate and share information. Based on your experience as a communication practitioner, what is the first action once your organization is hit by a crisis?

Nelson: Crisis for sure presents difficult challenges for any organization and to be able to navigate through the crisis requires a lot of preparedness. The first thing an organization needs to do when a crisis hits is to activate its crisis communications protocols. I say this because it’s expected that in strategic communications, one of the key areas of focus is an organization preparing itself to handle potential crises long before they occur. So what crisis communication protocols do, among other things, is to help the organization to respond quickly and effectively to an emerging crisis that may have a potential impact on it in one way or another. This helps the organization to communicate to all its stakeholders because in a crisis it’s not just the organization that’s affected, it’s the entire stakeholders working in that environment. The other thing that this does is mitigate against any potential risks that may come with the crisis.

The other key element is to as quickly as possible get your crisis response team into action so that they can determine what type and level of a crisis you are dealing with. Is it a low-risk, medium-risk, or high-risk crisis? And how do you respond to the crisis? And how do you constantly keep your different public informed about whatever actions you are taking? You also need to put in place a checklist that you go along with ticking off the actions that you are required to put in place to effectively respond to the crisis.

Morgan: How do you communicate with the public when you are hit by a crisis? Can you take us through some of the guidelines for crisis communication management?

Nelson: One of the most important things at such a time is to understand what your public’s concerns are because at that point everybody is thrown off balance. People had certain expectations about your organization or your operations, but then because of the crisis, you find that a lot of those things are thrown into disarray. So the important thing is to get back to your public and take time to understand what their concerns are about the crisis. Understand what challenges they are facing, and what ideas can they give you in terms of how you can engineer your crisis response strategy. Out of that consultation, you’ll able to develop some specific personas to help you understand what people want from your organization, what you need from them in return at that point, and how you can bridge that gap.

Once you’ve done that segmentation of your public and understood them, the next point will be to craft targeted messages that respond to their direct needs or the issues that they are facing. You’ll realize that in a crisis the most important thing is to be able to manage those expectations while at the same time, ensuring that your organization continues to operate at the optimum level possible.

Morgan: We’ve talked about managing the public’s expectations. Noting that communication and public relations are all about building a mutual relationship between the public and the organization, what shapes the opinion of your public in times of an organizational crisis?

Nelson: I’d say three things. Number one is that when a crisis occurs, everybody becomes concerned about themselves. For instance, let’s take the example of the COVID-19 pandemic that we’re in the middle of right now. One of the things that come out very clearly at such a time is people become concerned about their safety. Is my well-being taken care of? If I’m working, can I continue working and do I still expect to get my pay at the end of the month? How am I going to continue meeting my needs and the needs of those that depend on me? So there’s that concern at a personal level, which becomes very strong. As an organization, you need to appreciate those concerns.

The second is as an organization your biggest concern then shifts to how can you continue sustaining your operations. For instance, during the pandemic businesses have been advised not to focus on profits this year but rather on just staying afloat. That becomes a critical concern at an institutional level. This concern also shapes how the organization repositions itself towards its public and which, of course in return, elicits some public reactions.

The third thing is that when a crisis has occurred people will want to know what the organization, business, or community is doing about the issue. This pushes organizations to take a step towards demonstrating their public concern and contributions to social responsibility in that situation. This helps to create a relationship between your brand and the efforts to address the crisis. These three things, I think, really shape a lot of conversations around the organization’s contributions towards addressing a crisis.

Morgan: During a crisis, there are a lot of interests and opinions, and one of the places that these are mostly expressed is on social media. How do you respond to social media comments and opinions as an organization during a crisis?

Nelson: As a communicator social media is something you really cannot run away from. Especially during a crisis, it becomes even more important for us to be on top of our game in managing our conversations on those platforms because social media can easily become an avenue for spreading a lot of misinformation. Call them fake news or verified information. So as an organization, you need to quickly jump into that space and provide your stakeholders with the right information that they can trust. The advantage of engaging in social media conversations at a corporate level is that you take your messages through a process of verification so by the time you’re sending out something it has been reviewed by several people and there’s a lot of truth to it. So we must spend time managing our conversations on social media.

On how we respond to opinions in that space – top on the list will be to align whatever messaging you push on social media with your broader communication strategy. For instance, if part of your crisis communication plan involves creating public awareness of the crisis itself, then you will need to align your social media messages to that objective so that you’re using social media as a tool to create awareness to your public on the crisis. Number two would be to invest in social media listening tools. Some of them can be expensive but we also have many free tools that we can use to enhance how we better track our engagements on social media. What these tools do is they help you pick out the heartbeat of the conversation and assist you to tailor your messages to address what is coming out as the key issues from your social media conversations. The other thing is to dedicate human resources towards that activity because the amount of engagement at this time will go up. So you need somebody to be able to pick up those conversations promptly and provide adequate and timely responses to them so that you also do not seem to be unresponsive, which can again work against your brand.

Lastly, it’s about the values that you attach to your communications, be it on or off social media, especially in times of crisis. You need to be very truthful and honest when communicating on those platforms because that’s the only way you’re able to build trust amongst your public. Social media moves very fast, trends change now and then. A social media post right now will travel faster than you would possibly do with a phone call, so you really need to be true to yourself and others or you’ll soon be caught out.

Morgan: What is your assessment of the Government of Kenya’s COVID-19 public communication response plan so far?

Nelson: I think among the many challenges that governments are facing right now is communicating with the public or with the citizens on how this situation is developing. On one hand, it’s a duty they must do and on the other hand, it’s a big challenge because there’s a lot of what I would call a balancing act that needs to be employed. This is because on one end they can divulge some information that ends up creating a lot of fear and anxiety about the entire situation such that the citizens begin to panic and everything goes out of control. And they don’t want to do that. But on the other hand, they have to keep the citizens informed. So balancing is a challenge.

However, so far, I’d say with the example of the Kenyan situation, that in my adult life, to be honest, I’ve not seen, a moment where our government has been very consistent in communicating with the public as it has been during this period. On that front, I think they are doing well by consistently keeping the public informed about, how the situation is developing and what measures they’re putting in place to contain the situation. It helps to build public opinion that the government is really on top of things. Whether or not they are is another discussion altogether because we see cases are still rising. On the other hand, such open communication helps to stir public debate about the crisis itself which is important for the wider awareness of people about how to protect themselves and those around them, and even how to better replan or realign their lifestyles. So, I think they’re doing a good job, although you can, you can still sense a lot of gaps in how the information is churned out – some of them drawing a lot of criticism from the public, which is expected.

Morgan: To the young leaders who are looking to venture into organizational or political leadership or working in public management, business and entrepreneurship, what are your final thoughts about the management of communication in times of crisis and how is it important to manage it well?

Nelson: One positive thing that we learn out of a crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, is that it has brought about a greater realization of the strategic role and value of communications in crisis management. That’s very good for the industry in the sense that people can better understand that communication is not just about telling people what’s happening, but it’s about uniting people around causes or issues. That has come out very clearly. And at an organizational level, I think the leadership is also realizing the importance of communications in shaping the wider organizational management practices or public crisis response strategies.

So you really can no longer say that communication is a side activity in management – it needs to be integrated into the wider crisis response strategies for there to be effectiveness in how it’s delivered. Communication has also become a driving force behind productivity, boosting morale, promoting engagement among stakeholders, enhancing customer service and management of the health and safety of people.

Generally, in terms of the response itself, one thing that any crisis response needs is to prioritize the safety and well-being of people. You can never trade the safety and well-being of people for anything, not even for profits. A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece on valuing people and strategic communication in crisis leadership. One of the things I pushed for in this article was leadership that puts people at the centre of crisis response. The second thing is the need to pay attention to the frequency and consistency of communications during a crisis because when you leave an information gap it will be filled with fake news and misinformation. The third thing is that for organizations that had never thought about investing in crisis communication planning this is the time to do it and train their people about it.

Lastly, crises bring with them a lot of challenges, but out of them, whether as an individual or as an organization, we can identify opportunities for us to improve or change how we do things. It’s a time for challenging a lot of processes and systems in our institutions. I can only hope that we take the lessons from such crises to improve our communications, both internally and also externally, with our stakeholders in a way that better brings out the role that communications need to play in the sustainability of our organizations and the effectiveness of public engagements.

Interview conducted by Morgan Ochieng on 14th July 2020 at 2:00 pm (EAT)

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