Why Kagwe’s COVID-19 briefings are not working

Tuesday, May 12th, 2020 18:05 |
Health CS Mutahi Kagwe. Photo/PD/John Ochieng

By Tim Tororey

It was quite shocking to read the report from the Ministry of Health (MoH) to the Parliamentary Health Committee that they had allocated Sh70 million for Covid-19 communications, and not a penny had been spent!

This explains why the communications have been wanting. Disseminating information to the public is a key plank in fighting this pandemic. Depending on the media to do it is very unwise as they will frame the story the way they want and usually not to your advantage.

It looks like this has been the case and the result has been a highly skeptical public. One of the cardinal rules in crisis communications is “he who frames first, wins.”

Unfortunately, the communication strategy employed by MoH so far has left the framing open to their enemies and Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe is paying the price.

The simple truth is that the public places more trust and credibility on a doctor and that’s why it is important to have one leading the communications.

Politicians like Kagwe suffer a significant discount on these two critical virtues. If Kagwe wonders why Kenyans are not seeing his good deeds, he should know he blew it in crisis communications.

He is reporting lagging statistics and ignoring leading statistics which are more positive. A mix of these two indicators is a more effective message. He should ask himself; did I display empathy, honesty and openness?

Did I demonstrate competence and expertise? And did I design effective messaging and stick with it? I bet he will be hard-pressed to put a tick on these three measurements.

The CS should now hire an experienced crisis communications team and start a new story and frame it his way. Press conferences are not enough. Invest in paid media, you have the money.

Now that I have cursed the darkness let me light a candle. My advice to the CS is that he should frame the response as a health fight and not the negative law-and-order picture it has taken.

Perhaps Kagwe should pull back and let Health Director General Dr Patrick Amoth be the face of the coronavirus response. The goal is for Kenyans at the end of the day to say “Daktari amesema.”

That kind of credibility is golden and it is what is lacking in the ministry crisis communications. Kagwe and his deputies should still attend the briefings but only to give non-medical directives.

A good place for the CS to start is by directing his communications team to borrow from the US Centre for Disease Control, which has a field epidemiology manual.

They should flip to chapter 12 which gives a very good template on how to communicate during an outbreak or a public health investigation. The manual at the onset has a topic on risk perception and communications and points out how critical people’s perception of risk is.

The public’s assessment is made depending on how likely the actual hazard is and how severe the harm might be.

Their conclusions are often different from how experts are portraying it. And we have seen the Kenyan public behave contrary to Public Health advice from day one.

The CS and his MoH team should revamp their communications strategy to focus on building empathy, openness and honesty, dedication and commitment and competence and expertise.

Most importantly stop putting a spin on the message. It’s not working! — The writer is a journalist and communications consultant

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