Trilateral helps public leaders in West Africa improve crisis communications

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Authors:  

Dr Leanne Cochrane | Cluster Lead - Crisis & Security
Dr Sean Travers | Research Impact Officer

Date: 4 July 2024

In April, Trilateral’s Crisis & Security Cluster lead, Dr Leanne Cochrane, delivered crisis communications simulations to public leaders and civil society organisations (CSOs) in Liberia and Gambia. Working with Dr Victoria Hasson at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the simulations were structured around NDI’s forthcoming Guide to Crisis Communications, which was developed by Trilateral.

In the simulations, participants considered crisis communications via key democratic principles, such as transparency, inclusivity, accessibility and accountability. This encouraged the participants to take a holistic approach towards crisis communication using familiar terms.

What does a democratic approach to crisis communication look like?

Crisis communication is the “dissemination, collection and processing of information needed to address each stage of a crisis” (Coombs, 2010): before (preparedness and mitigation), during (response) and after (recovery and rebuilding).

While all democratic principles are relevant to each stage of the crisis, certain principles take on greater emphasis at particular stages. For example, inclusivity is especially important before a crisis. Public leaders should seek to understand the entirety of society, such as the different needs of their communities and marginalised people. This will better ensure accessible communication during times of crisis.

Broadly speaking, effective crisis communication informed by democratic principles should include the following actions:

  • Before a crisis: To prepare for a crisis, public leaders should develop their crisis communication plan. This plan should include relevant legal frameworks, set goals and outline good communication practices or key ‘dos and don’ts’. The plan should also define responsibilities and identify key stakeholders and target audiences, their messaging needs and mitigations for communication challenges. To prepare effectively, it is vital that public leaders engage citizens to understand their needs and establish relationships of trust with them. Once the plan is complete, crisis communications trainings and simulations should be carried out.
  • During a crisis: When responding to a crisis, public leaders should collect and assess the available information, activate the crisis communication plan, and continue to engage relevant internal and external stakeholders. Public leaders should also develop communication timelines, develop and test messaging with the groups of citizens with whom they have established relationships of trust, and disseminate clear, factual and empathetic messaging through communication channels such as traditional media and social media.
  • After a crisis: At the recovery and rebuilding stage, public leaders should continue to communicate with the public. They should analyse lessons learned via open consultation and feedback loops with citizens. There should be consequences when things go wrong, and any needed changes should be implemented.
Liberia simulation, participants prepare for group discussion, Royal Grand Hotel, Monrovia (19 April 2024)

Learnings from the simulations in Liberia and Gambia

The crisis communications simulations applied the democratic approach outlined in the Guide to two crisis prone environments. The simulations aimed to increase public leaders’ crisis communication knowledge and skills, and preparedness for future crises, while also validating the Guide in the Liberian and Gambian contexts.

Across two days in each country, 25-30 public leaders from Government, public bodies, international organisations and first responders gathered with CSO and media colleagues to consider, discuss and share what communication actions they would take before, during and after a crisis. These participants were presented with an overview of the Guide and democratic principles and were asked to apply these to crisis-prone contexts.

In Liberia, the simulations began with a hypothetical mine collapse and concluded with a storm surge in low-lying Monrovia. In Gambia, participants worked through a hypothetical coastal flooding near the capital Banjul and concluded with the demolition of illegal buildings. Each scenario contained emergent risks and escalating devastation, such as casualties, homelessness, disease outbreak, misinformation and civil unrest.

During these rich discussions, the following insights stood out:

  • The importance of communicating information via existing relationships of trust,including the vital role played by CSOs, community leaders and citizens themselves in close proximity to a crisis;
  • The need for concise yet comprehensive communication to avoid an information vacuum, where citizens are otherwise prone to ‘fill the gap’;
  • The importance of empathetic communications and avoiding triggering language, especially from political leaders;
  • The benefits of endorsements for legitimate communications to help tackle misinformation;
  • The benefits of educating the public on ‘why’ crises occur to empower individuals to adopt mitigations.

Key challenges included a lack of ongoing forums for bilateral discussions between civil society and public leaders during the preparedness phase, as well as the challenge of distinguishing crisis communications actions from crisis management more generally. The low-income environments of both Liberia and Gambia served to emphasise the higher impacts of crisis on already at-risk populations and the vital role of effective crisis communications in mitigating further harms.

The NDI and Trilateral will showcase the benefits of the democratic approach at an online launch event later this year, after which the Crisis Communication Guide will be freely available in English, French and Spanish online.

Trilateral has over 10 years’ experience in delivering Crisis Communication research and expertise for clients including the World Health Organization, The Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction, the Global Disaster Preparedness Centre, and the European Commission. For more information, contact researchservices@trilateralresearch.com or connect via LinkedIn.

Coombs, W. (2010). Crisis communication: A developing field. The Sage Handbook of Public Relations. 477-488.

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