Social media negativity on coronavirus crisis is bad for Uganda

Tuesday March 24 2020

 

By Raymond Mugisha

Crisis management is one of the most stretching elements of risk management. This is because among other reasons, it often involves handling scenarios previously unseen. Even within ordinary business domain, where the crisis is for example at an organisation level, the level of fire-fighting involved can get overwhelming.

Crisis management is normally an escalation process. The activities involved in the process are set to mature in intensity and focus, as the crisis matures or evolves. Because of huge opportunity cost decisions involved, it is neither practical nor logical to apply the top most actions of the crisis management plan, in advance of warranting factors, regardless of public expectations.

As I have noticed in recent times, when Uganda began battling the Covid-19 crisis, it is much easier to handle crisis in private enterprise such as businesses, than public crises. To begin with, unless a private entity crisis has an adverse effect on the general public, it will mainly be handled within organisational policy guidelines. Within such policy, the closest and most informed stakeholders to the crisis who will mainly be the organisation’s employees will never be at liberty to speak whatever they want, to whomever they wish. Consequences of random speech by employees about a business crisis are often clear and not small. You will therefore often find that when a crisis is in progress, staff are not permitted to speak to media or make any statements in social media or verbally, even when they may be sure of what they are saying. All communication including responding to mainstream and social media are managed authoritatively.

In a public crisis though, as the past weeks have shown, key stakeholders who are the citizens feel they have a right to speak as they wish, without due consideration to the consequences of their speech on others or on the country’s crisis status. In the spirit of freedom of speech, they are possibly entitled to say whatever they wish regardless of the impact of their words on the already strained state of affairs during crisis. In many ways, this unregulated talk increases the burden of performance on the technical teams involved in handling the crisis. This is because communication is a fundamental pillar of crisis management. It drives important perceptions against which many stakeholders who have the ability to influence the outcome of the crisis management process will be acting. It also impacts reactions of the general public and has potential to set into motion a lot of panic and breakdown of the coordinated risk response plan intended by those at the front line. Technical personnel may therefore have to continually undo the negativities of uncalculated communication flowing from some public participants in order to refocus the population and solidify the masses into one team operating the same agenda around the crisis.

With the ability of literally everyone with access to social media platforms, to reach out to the rest, the above challenge is intense. Coupled with the politics that quickly gets woven into the public crisis management process, the problem becomes even more complex. It is even possible to divert the attention of technical personnel into political debates at a time when their attention is required at the technical front, in its fullness. Compared to crisis scenarios in private enterprise therefore, handling public crises is prone to excessively high levels of distraction and diversionary noise but delivered with such frequency and precision that to ignore it all is nearly impossible while to attend to it all is to get completely off track. The balance needed to deliver results is thus delicate. While this may apply to private enterprise crises as well, the involved levels are not comparable.

In our current fight against Covid-19 as Uganda, the social media negativities which some label as positive criticism have been many. Their promoters throw them in the eyes of an already anxious public even when communication lines to the Ministry of Health are open and available to the public. Bombarding the public with distressing information, even if true, from random stakeholders will increase anxiety, cause more fatigue within the public and create room for irrational public behaviour and thus higher chances of contracting or spreading the virus. Instances of false alarms, amplification of some identified challenges around the crisis management process and other random communications from public participants, are thus extremely inappropriate.

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There are people that will notice concerns that are value adding to this fight, but those concerns are useful when channeled to appropriate technical personnel in a manner that minimises panic in the public domain.

In our bid therefore, as public stakeholders, to get information and spread it for the good of others, let us always ask ourselves whether what we are sharing will be for the common good of everyone including the technical personnel, or not. And then make the right choice.

Raymond is a Chartered Risk Analyst and risk management consultant
rmugisha@afriaccent.com

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