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Now that the President is back

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Crises happen in our individual lives, lives of organisations as well as nations. These happenings are usually sudden and have a potential to threaten the wellbeing of its victims. But some crises are avoidable and those that cannot be avoided can, at least, be prepared for.

The Institute of Crisis Management (ICM) defines a crisis as a “significant business disruption, which stimulates extensive news media coverage”. Going by this definition and all factors considered, the unexplained and extended absence of President Peter Mutharika squarely fits in the mould of a crisis.

Whether the government or State House wants to admit it or not, any political or development communications expert will say that the President’s absence and his arrival back in the country is a crisis. The only sad thing is that this crisis is the making of government and State House communication teams, themselves.

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Where did they stumble?

It is clear from the way the President conducted himself at the Kamuzu International Airport (Kia) that he was unwell. It was also evident, judging by how inactive the President’s right arm was and what looked like a cannula at the back of the President’s right hand, that the President was under medical care.

The custodians of information in government as well as those at the State House might have known, well before hand, that the President would proceed to seek medical attention during or after the United Nations General Assembly (Unga). But they decided against communicating to Malawians. A simple message that the President would proceed for his annual leave would have done the trick. Yes, some quarters would have still tossed a few theories but that would have given Mutharika some reprieve to have time to recuperate, outside the country, without the pressure of a hurried return.

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We all know that the art of lying demands that another lie should be mooted to justify or fortify a preceding untruth. This is where the government propaganda machinery failed. The embarrassing part is that the diplomatic community, whose capitals control the best medical facilities as well as the intelligence systems in the world might have been aware of what was going on with our President. Surely, the diplomats might have enjoyed the circus that we subjected ourselves to, as Malawians.

Unfortunately, after starting the fire, the State House and government, machinery could not manage the crisis. Communications experts know that crisis or issue management crystallises into what is called the 3Ps of crisis management. These include: Prevention, Preparation and Provision. For the avoidance of any ambiguity, it is important that we unpack the 3Ps.

Every robust organisation must not be under an illusion that it is immune to crisis. Even the Holy See, the White House or the Kremlin have had their share of crisis. Back home we have seen crises at the State House. What mattered was how different administrations handled different crisis or issue situations.

The first “P” which is prevention calls for anticipation of what may go wrong. This is in line with the classic crisis management-adopting a “better safe than sorry” policy. This is the best approach because the thinking is to avert, rather than deal with disaster by looking for issues that might arise over a set period.

Other scholars call this approach– an issue audit. This is a two-pronged approach to issues: crisis management (more unlikely issues) and issues management (likely cases). Had the government propaganda machinery been astute, the President’s absence and his return would have qualified as an issue management rather than a crisis management scenario.

This takes us to the next “P” which is preparation for crisis. This is where Public Relations (PR) comes in as a management function. Any institution, which is serious with its image, must have a permanent crisis management team.

The problem with our mentality in Malawi is that, while we agree that information is power, we hire chartered accountants to manage our funds but leave PR management into the hands of receptionists just because they are our nieces and nephews. The result is what we are seeing at the Hill Top.

When a whole Government Spokesperson publicly declares that “State House has not given me that information” or “the State House has told me …” just know that the political Armageddon has arrived. Also when a state broadcaster proclaims the impending return of a Head of State as “breaking news”, one knows that even the propagandists did not believe that our dear leader would return!

This takes us to the last “P” which is provision. Communication among team members is crucial to ensure consistent information flow to the public.

This is how the Vatican handled the sudden resignation of Pope Benedict, the White House managed revelations about the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky affair or indeed how our own Alaudin Osman handled the Bakili and Anne Muluzi separation.

Having fumbled on the basic 3Ps principle, one would expect the propagandists to seek refuge in the 3Cs framework.

Effective crisis management must leave audiences with the impression that you are: Compassionate, competent and confident.

This is how former New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani, lured Americans to his side during the September 11, 2001 attacks of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center. Giuliani used his attitude, his non-verbal cues, which gave his audiences comfort. If he had delivered the same messages in a stereotypical governmental manner, the amount of fear and anxiety felt by his audience would have been dramatically higher.

But Minister Ndau and his fellow propagandists resorted to threatening Malawians with arrests while calling them “Satanists” for legitimately seeking information concerning their servant. The Democratic Progressive Party Regional Governor for the South, Charles Mchacha, even muddled the waters further by claiming exclusive ownership of Mutharika as “our father” and not a servant for the rest of us.

Going forward

At the time of writing this piece, the President was scheduled to meet the press. It was hoped that he would seize on the opportunity to explain the mist surrounding his “disappearance”. But if he failed to do that, there is need to go back to the drawing board and redesign the whole propaganda framework. Government must stop harassing Malawians for exercising their constitutional right. The fish must be told not to smell too much, instead of blaming the cat for taking the lid off the basket. This is more crucial, especially now that the President is back!

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