JEREMY SAMPSON AND RAYMOND PARSONS: Omicron: a lesson in crisis communications
Everyone knew Covid variants were likely, so did SA fail to plan enough for how we communicated this message to the world?
It is acknowledged that SA’s medical research is world class and that in quickly identifying Omicron’s presence, it has again proved its worth. We are rightly upset that SA is being penalised for being the first country to report this new variant.
Indeed, unseen virtue on this occasion has not brought visible rewards. As someone recently quipped, "punishing SA for the variant is like punishing the burglar alarm for the burglary". It is deplorable that overseas "partners" behaved in such a precipitate way, particularly given their earlier global commitments to co-operation.
President Cyril Ramaphosa is among many who have criticised the travel bans imposed on SA and its neighbours by about 30 countries, and called for their early lifting, given the heavy economic toll they take. Now Britain has announced it is removing SA and other countries from its red list.
Yet we’re left with a nagging question. Have our communication skills been equal to our scientific endeavours? To what extent did SA bring bans on itself through faulty communication of a significant health development with obviously widespread consequences? Was the road to hell again paved with good intentions?
Surely the need for transparency, on which SA prides itself here, does not exclude the importance of being strategic in bringing Omicron to the world’s attention? With hindsight, maybe the news could have been better conveyed at a better-planned media conference, particularly as there were plenty of unknowns about the variant.
SA can indeed be proud of its medical scientists. But did the scientists’ desire to claim "bragging rights" trump good judgment, depriving the announcement of its broader context? Did we shout fire in a crowded theatre, when the news should have been shared in an orderly manner?
In retrospect, the handling of Omicron suggests a widespread indifference to the art of communicating scientific developments. There’s no dispute it was right to tell the world that we’d found this variant. We know the trouble China got into for not telling the world earlier about its first discovery of Covid in 2019.
The question, however, is whether a smarter way of communicating the science may have prevented the knee-jerk travel bans.
The priority is to ensure that the new threat can be tackled through heightened vaccinations
The emergence of variants was predictable — so, where was the scenario planning, the crisis management, the Plan B? Instead, it seems as if the bad news was just turfed into the global arena, without thought of the reaction.
There are several lessons. First, it highlights the need for a well-co-ordinated communication strategy; second, the need for a country to speak with "one voice"; third, it flags the need to cultivate good relations with all stakeholders, particularly the international media; fourth, to control the narrative as much as possible; and fifth, to remain on the "front foot" to limit the damage. Ultimately, this is what skilful communication is all about.
If we accept that SA has been unfairly discriminated against, it highlights the need for SA to maintain cordial relations with global players. Failing to protect our reputation makes us an easy target.
Right now, that’s water under the bridge. The challenge facing SA today is how to manage the "clear and present danger" of Omicron.
The priority for the whole of SA – not just the government – is to ensure that as far as possible the new threat can be tackled through heightened vaccinations, rather than through lockdowns.
Covid isn’t going away. Annual flu shots are adjusted each year to cover mutations. In the same way, updated Covid booster shots are likely to become the norm.
Yet whatever future decisions are taken regarding virus containment, the management of new variants and the introduction of palliative measures for the economy need to be underpinned by effective communication.
The unfolding Covid narrative must be sensibly managed to get the best of all possible, albeit difficult, worlds.
Parsons is a professor at the North-West University Business School and Sampson is CEO of Brand Finance Africa
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