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Crisis Communication lessons from ‘Black Saturday’

Zimbabwean businesses found themselves faced with the daunting task of dealing with a national crisis following Saturday’s announcement of a fuel price increase amidst deteriorating business and working conditions.

Public relations with Thando Nkomo

The price of fuel more than doubled, triggering countrywide protests. On Sunday evening, calls were made by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) for a three-day workers’ stayaway. By Monday morning many employers and employees had found themselves caught between reporting to work and staying at home.

The question of reporting to work in such circumstances leaves many employees especially uncomfortable. For fear of losing employment, many employees risk life and property in order to travel to their places of work. Businesses also open their doors in fear of losing business.

However, because of the unpredictability of the situation, sometimes employees and business owners risk losing property or their lives! It’s a situation which can be averted by adequate crisis response and crisis communication strategies.

While it may be difficult for a business to issue a statement to its external stakeholders indicating that they may be closed for business because of a national crisis such as the one triggered by “Black Saturday” , businesses ought to communicate more definitively with their internal publics.

A critical component of ensuring such decisive communication is scanning the environment, a critical function of public relations. This should inform internal communication. In other words, through adequate environment scanning, the public relations function of an organisation becomes aware of critical issues that could affect internal publics such as employees and to immediately act to communicate information that will assist employees make the correct decisions.

Following the announcement by the ZCTU, many employers probably found themselves clueless on what to say to their employees and whether to expect them to report to work or not. Employees also found themselves caught between their loyalty to their employers and to trade unions.

On the first day, for loyal employees, it was business as usual as they reported for duty risking life and limb in the process. Others failed to report to work due to unavailability of transport, and sporadic acts of violence in various parts of the country. However, as the situation deteriorated, employees were forced to close shop and head back home as businesses shut down.

This leads to the question: Was it necessary for employees to report for duty in such a tense environment? And how should employers have communicated with employees in order for them to make the right decision about reporting to work?

This is where the importance for businesses to have crisis communication plans becomes essential. These plans detail how the business will respond in the event of unplanned-for situations that could threaten business operations.

In the case of Black Saturday, public relations practitioners (PRPs) should have gone into crisis communication mode immediately following the announcement of the fuel price increase. At that moment, it became obvious that employees would be worried about reporting to work on Monday given the likely increase in transport costs.

By sunset on Sunday, calls for a nationwide stayaway were already circulating on social media and it became obvious that the situation on Monday would be volatile. It was necessary at this point for PRPs to communicate organisations’ position on whether employees should or should not report to work.

This should have been done after the weighing the options while making the safety of employees a priority. Such communication would have given workers a fairly realistic view of the situation on the ground and guarantees of safety in the event they were required to report for duty.

In more complex organisations such as schools that needed to deal with students and teachers, it meant having the foresight to communicate with parents before they brought their children to school. This placed a lot of them in harm’s way for lack of accurate information about the situation on the ground.

For all this to happen, it means an organisation needs to have a fairly efficient internal communications system in place to engage with employees beyond working hours without necessarily intruding on their privacy.

Evidently, very few organisations in Zimbabwe responded to “Black Saturday” in a manner that would protect the welfare of their employees, pointing to a critical need for appraising their internal and crisis communication systems.

Thandolwenkosi Nkomo is a public relations researcher, strategist and trainer who lectures in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at the National University of Science and Technology. He is currently pursuing doctoral studies with the University of South Africa. He is also a member of the Zimbabwe Institute of Public Relations’ council and the director of a PR research, strategy and training consultancy. He can be contacted via e-mail: thandolwenkosi.nkomo@nust.ac.zw or thando@maracommsglobal.co.zw.

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