Residents queue in Newlands for drinking water from a spring on May 16 2017. File photo: THE TIMES/ESA ALEXANDER
Residents queue in Newlands for drinking water from a spring on May 16 2017. File photo: THE TIMES/ESA ALEXANDER

It could be argued that SA’s response to Cape Town’s water crisis has been somewhat reactive – it was only once water restrictions in the city reached level six that any discernible changes were made. While good communication strategies subsequently emerged, the crisis highlighted some valuable lessons about crisis management – most pertinently, the importance of managing communication and addressing a problem early.

One of the greatest challenges facing Cape Town through the water crisis has been to keep its tourism industry alive despite disturbing reports of the drought and the countdown to Day Zero – the day the taps, quite literally, would run dry.

Thebe Tourism Group marketing manager Judiet Barnes says sending the message that the city would remain open for business was less about changing marketing efforts than it was about changing the message. “We put more impetus on promoting responsible tourism and focused on how trips to the Mother City should not be cancelled, but rather be taken with caution and deference to the water crisis,” she explains.

For the Western Cape to shut up shop indefinitely was simply not an option, given that tourism contributes about 9% to the nation’s GDP, according to Statistics SA, with a significant amount of that coming from Cape Town. “This meant we had to take a proactive stance in ensuring that the tourism industry knew we were encouraging tourism, but that visitors needed to think like locals and save water,” Barnes says.

The big take-out:

It has been important to communicate the desirability of Cape Town as a tourist destination, despite the city’s current water crisis. The winning formula to achieve this – and to manage any crisis – is to direct the narrative, own the message and ensure people know what is expected of them.

Awareness was central to this: visitors had to be made aware of the efforts in place to save water and to see themselves as part of these water-saving initiatives, says Barnes. To this end, a multiplatform approach was taken to reach as many tourists as possible, particularly for the group’s consumer-facing products, such as Cape Point. Social media, traditional platforms and human-to-human interactions were used to drive the message home.

Once people know what is expected of them, they are generally happy to comply, says Barnes, adding that people can be extremely innovative when they need to be.

What’s important in such situations, she explains, is to ensure that negative messaging doesn’t get out of control. “As a long-haul destination for many source markets, our country cannot afford a reputation as undesirable due to a water shortage or any other crisis.” It’s important, she says, that you “direct the narrative and own the messaging” – regardless of the form a crisis takes.