COVID19: Regaining Citizen’s Trust through Strategic Communications
by Kevwe Oghide
Citizens distrust in Nigerian government spans two decades and continues to hit a downward slope. At a time, some of the measures of trust or distrust in government were corruption, inequality and poor economic performance. Today, trust is also measured based on lack of transparency, exclusion of citizens from governance and poor communication.
Trust matters for many reasons, not only because a disconnect between promises and lived experiences can result in a vicious circle, government’s initiatives cannot function without the support of citizens.
Today, the world is shaken by the effect of the coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19), which first broke out in China late December and has spread to over 200 counties with over 2,729,274 confirmed cases, and 191,614 deaths, according to the John Hopkins University COVID19 dashboard. A crisis that was initially termed an epidemic in China has now become a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
As the world grapples with the accelerating spread of the pandemic, WHO predicts that Africa may yet be the worst hit by this disease. It urges the region to “wake up to the increasing threat and prepare for a worst-case scenario. In Nigeria, the number of confirmed cases rose by 340% in a week and currently stands at 981 confirmed cases as at the time of writing this article.
In a country where people are discontent with the economy and governance structure, predictions like this increase citizens’ concern for the inability of the current failing health structure in the nation to sufficiently combat a pandemic of this kind. Frankly, Nigeria’s already ailing health system coupled with poor data and statistical capacity, will likely be overwhelmed with the lethality of COVID-19. Multiple factors can weaken the effectiveness of Government responses to a pandemic of this kind — the vulnerability of Nigeria’s healthcare system; low human capital; the use of outdated equipment, the lack of standard facilities and weak supply chains.
At the heart of building trust is the process of communications. The Nigerian government currently battles poor communication of decisions; poor aggregation of donations and interventions received, which is fuelling fake news and other issues. If implemented properly, strategic communications play a significant role in increasing the government’s credibility among citizens even at this crucial time.
Reading through posts on Facebook and Twitter, one can literally feel the apprehension of Nigerians as they call out public institutions and the Nigerian government to adequately communicate updates and decisions that are being taken to address the health crisis and measures that are implemented to provide relief and palliatives for the vulnerable groups. A decline in trust at this time can lead to possible chaos and lawlessness, as reported in some parts of the country.
Although effective communication (using all available channels) does not automatically rectify years of mistrust or excuse poor service delivery, it however, provides an opportunity for the government to apply the principles of transparency, accountability and inclusive governance.
Understandably, the Nigerian government is under extreme pressure with the strain of COVID19 and the impact on people, the economy and the society in general. With the growing difficulty to manage public expectations, interactions with citizens can help the government identify concerns, allay fears and assure people of its approach to fight COVID-19.
A wide population of Nigerians who are largely offline (and are less informed) are increasingly skeptical of the government. So, in the face of this growing mistrust among the citizenry, what can government institutions do? Creating a more truth-based, fact-driven, unprejudiced media to curtail fake-news is key, tackling misconceptions and breaking down social media echo chambers; engaging Communications and PR Specialists at this time to strategise means of reaching grassroots people and sensitize them in local dialects on their role in staying safe and following government directives are also plausible.
Government institutions must also look inward to what it controls — its programs, its people, and its processes. That is where strategic communications can play a narrow, but impactful role in building credibility. Enhancing transparency may mean changing the structure and composition of the communications function; providing expanded information and establishing more interactive engagement to reach ‘online and offline’ people and share the institution’s broad strategy to tackling the pandemic. Also, inviting Civil Society Groups to monitor implementation of funds and interventions can increase credibility. #FollowTheMoney, a social accountability initiative is at the forefront, urging the government to be more responsive to citizens’ request for it to aggregate COVID19 data, and consistently publish information to curtail fake news.
Open the Government’s 2018 research shows that majority of citizens want to see more authenticity and transparency in public institutions. Today, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), the Federal Ministry of Finance, the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, the Federal Ministry of Health and other government departments and agencies have enormous choices than ever before to reach their target audience, gain traction in their efforts to drive positive change, enhance public awareness and improve public perception of their institutions.
It may not be a total cure; communicating effectively offers a glimmer of hope against the flood of public mistrust. Specifically, web, database, and mobile technologies can allow government to be more transparent, to better engage with stakeholders, and to drive greater awareness of mission impact. In conjunction, transparency and accountability fuelled by strategic communications have the possibility of opening the Nigerian government up to greater public understanding and appreciation.