Crisis Communication Is Not Just For Corporates: The Zimbabwe Gender Commission’s Missed Opportunity

NB: This article was written yesterday before the ZGC issued a fuller statement about the alleged dress code mooted to curb sexual harassment among tertiary students in Zimbabwean universities. You can read their full report here

A few years ago, I wrote an article bemoaning the public relations response of Econet, Zimbabwe’s largest telecommunications company, to a crisis on its hands. Over the long Easter holiday, subscribers had been expressing frustration and anger at the inexplicable disappearance of airtime credit from their accounts, taking to writing tweets and Facebook posts directed at Econet’s social media accounts.

For over 24 hours, no one responded to these concerns, making customers only more furious. Finally, on the Monday of the same holiday, Econet broke its silence with a brief apology to its customers. All manner of criticism and dissatisfaction followed this short message of acknowledgment of the mammoth error on the company’s part.

Since then, and this was 6 years ago, Econet has continued to grow and diversify its products and services. And while I don’t use most of these services, I will say that it appears that Econet has put some more work into ensuring that customer’s queries and issues are dealt with within a timely fashion.

The rise of Zimbabwean social media influencers

What this brings me to is the crisis of strategic communication that many non-profits and government departments are facing. With the dawn of the ‘new dispensation’ – a phrase used to refer to the changing of power from former President Robert Mugabe to current leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who boasts a following on Twitter of almost 450 000 and 465 000 followers on Facebook – quite a few government bodies and civil society organisations have set up social media accounts to have greater interface with their publics.

But what seems obvious in many instances is that these accounts have largely been set up for the optics, with little understanding of public relations and strategic communications.

Last week, the Zimbabwe Gender Commission courted great controversy when it was reported that in a public lecture series the Commission is taking to universities across the country, one of the ways they mooted curbing sexual harassment on campuses was to introduce a students’ dress code policy. As one of the Commission’s representatives, Delis Mazambane, is quoted as having said, “To make life easier for the lecturer the university needs to have a dress code policy, of course, the constitution talks about freedom of expression but institutions are allowed to cascade such provisions to their own needs.”

The Zimbabwe Gender Commission and last week’s controversy

The Zimbabwe Gender Commission is a body established in terms of Section 245 of Zimbabwe’s new Constitution which came into effect in 2013 and whose mandate includes to monitor issues concerning gender equality and to ensure gender equality as provided for in the Constitution, as well as to investigate possible violations of rights relating to gender equality.

And so for many, myself included, the tone of the Commission appeared to blame victims of harassment for the abuse they have suffered, while at the same time policing students’ ability to express themselves freely – through dress – without the fear of being harassed. It also appeared to exempt abusive lecturers from any wrongdoing, failing to hold them to account for contravening the terms of their employment.

Many openly shared their furore about the Commission’s message, with some also tagging the Commission’s social media accounts seeking further clarification. But as with Econet many years ago, it would take the commission almost 24 hours to respond to a volatile situation that required more immediate attention and redress.

The message they gave was short and not entirely clear on what had led to the statements being made.

The message read as followers;

“Zimbabwe Gender Commission has not called for a dress policy for tertiary institutions. The Commission does not police women’s choices and dismisses the excuse that sexual harassment or any violence against women is a result of dress choice. As an institution we believe in freedom of choice and women’s rights and sincerely regret any impression that may have been created otherwise.”

The message is all of 61 words. It does not clarify how, if the Commission has not called for a dress policy in tertiary institutions, one of its representatives offered a contradictory statement. In brief, it shows very little understanding of the tenets of crisis communication.

Crisis communication – an important component of public relations

Crisis communication refers to a component of a public relations and an organisation’s communication strategy, which deals with prompt and empathetic response to the organisation’s publics, thereby maintaining the positive reputation of the organisation.

Effective crisis communication includes;

  • Being consistent across all relevant media platforms, both traditional and social, in what the organisation and its spokespeople are saying; additionally, how messages are conveyed and who is saying them matters. A message holds a lot more weight coming from high-level management.
  •  Messages must also be delivered in a timely manner. The more that there is a lag in communication, the more likely the publics the organisation represents will distrust or disregard the message.

Implicit in crisis communication is planning for it. In other words, every organisation must have a crisis communication plan in place so that it is easier to know who needs to speak, what message(s) they must convey, and how soon after the crisis or damaging incident has occurred.

Unfortunately, the communications roles in many civil society organisations is terribly undermined and derisively seen as an excuse for employees to ‘waste time on social media’. Some years ago, at Her Zimbabwe, we began running sessions for women in the communications sector to improve their media and communication skills, especially where it came to digital media. Some of the trainees intimated that social media platforms were blocked on their office internet as managers saw these platforms as distractions from ‘real’ communications work; that is traditional media functions. Others stated that while they had access to these social media platforms, the organisations they represented did not want them to have personal accounts, let alone set up organisational social media accounts.

While these were missed opportunities for impact, in some ways it might be better for organisations to not be on social media at all, if they are not going to work towards developing a consistent strategy for their online presence.

But now, it seems to be in vogue to have a public social media profile. What is still very obviously lacking is an understanding of the role of social media as component of a holistic approach to organisational communication and organisational reputation. The truth is that both internal (within the organisation) and external (with the organisation’s publics) communication, and strategies towards making these harmonious, are the cornerstones of a responsive and professional approach to reputation management.

It’s time to realise that reputation management – through hiring or training proficient communication practitioners and implementing a comprehensive communication strategy – is not only for corporates or for-profit organisations. Everyone within a team or organisation must have basic knowledge around the entity’s public image and their role within communications as purveyors of this image.

Main image taken from www. zgc.co.zw

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