Mandy Wiener: Pride, praise and gratitude for Ramaphosa - but daily updates please

It would be a good idea for government to let us hear from the scientists and not the politicians. We need to hear from those experts - the epidemiologists and doctors that are advising the politicians, writes Mandy Wiener.

I wouldn't want to be a President of a country at a time like this.

The pressure is enormous and the implications of your decisions are life and death, literally, for millions of people.

In overly simplistic terms, either a large percentage of your population could contract Covid-19 or a large percentage will have their financial livelihoods decimated.

Or possibly both.

There are no easy wins here.  

I absolutely agree that President Cyril Ramaphosa needed time and space to ensure he was making the best informed decisions that were in the best interests of the citizens of this country.

It is why we have a democracy and we vote for leaders - so that they can lead us and make decisions on our behalf.

Otherwise we would have anarchy and it would be Lord of the Flies, Mad Max, Walking Dead and every other dystopian end of the world apocalyptic movie you’ve seen.  

It’s easy to sit back and criticise our leaders at times like these.

And in the past week there has been some criticism.

But last night, after the President addressed the nation announcing a 21 day lockdown from Thursday midnight, there was pride, praise and gratitude.  

Any crisis communications expert will tell you that there are three key principles that need to be abided by when a crisis hits. 

The first is Immediacy.

You need to get out fast and be seen to be communicating, even if you don’t have all the facts yet. In the absence of any kind of credible, reputable information, the media will fill the void with speculation and unreliable sources, such as those we have seen going viral on social media, will gain traction.  

The second is Leadership.

You must show that you are in control in an authoritative way and that you are listening to those who know more about this crisis than you do. You must calm the nation, inform them without creating panic, and show that we can trust you.  

The third is Empathy.

You have to show that you care about citizens, that you care about our health, about the capacity of hospitals, about entrepreneurs whose businesses are collapsing and about those who live below the breadline at a time like this. This can’t be political.  

From the outset, there has been loud applause and praise for President Ramaphosa on how he has managed this crisis.

He acted early, swiftly and with authority.

South Africa implemented travel bans, closed schools and applied social distancing when the numbers of confirmed cases were low, far more than other countries have done.

However, some argued that it was too little and it was too late. 

Ramaphosa’s address to the nation that first Sunday night (15 March) was a great example of crisis communicating. He was calm, collected, authoritative and clear.

His address was statesmanlike and he was transparent and honest about how serious the situation was. He was also inspiring and ended with a stirring call to action. He ticked the three boxes of immediacy, leadership and empathy.  

Again last night, the President showed us that we were led. He was presidential, reassuring and strong. Some have described it as a legacy making speech.

It was clear that he had a plan and it was a carefully crafted and considered one. Importantly, he also stirred a sense of patriotism in South Africans, a feeling of unity, that we can get through this thing together.  

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has been outstanding.

He has been front and centre in the fight, communicating transparently and regularly. He has been extremely visible and in control, giving an assurance and sense of leadership on the crisis.

Cabinet Ministers have also been holding regular press conferences to update on their areas of influence.  

However, there have been moments of imperfection which can be expected when dealing with such enormous pressure.  

Updates on numbers of positive cases have been sporadic, sometimes delivered through press conferences and other times in unpredictable statements.

There have been days without any numbers being released. In one instance, a statement dropped at 23:35 at night updating on numbers. Being erratic doesn’t always keep a country calm.  

There is also a call for more clarity on those numbers - how many are localised transmissions versus positives from having travelled abroad?

Accuracy and transparency calms a nation's nerves.

The Health Minister must consider a daily release, via the same platform, at the exact same time, every day if possible. Preferably with the same people present to give a sense of stability and reliability. This might seem too rigid and logistically difficult but it is essential to keep the public informed and calm.  

The President’s failure to speak on time last Sunday night and then not to speak at all this past Sunday while the nation was waiting to be addressed, was poor.

But the country was largely patient and it proved to be worth it.

Agreed, I would rather he took his time making the best possible, informed decisions and then tell us out about it. But when you tell the country you are going to speak to them, and then don’t, it makes you look out of control even if you aren’t.

It’s like promising your kids you are going to take them to Sun City tomorrow but you aren’t actually sure when you can.   

We also know by now that one of the greatest criticisms of Ramaphosa as President is his tendency to over consult and engage before making a decision.

When you are at war with a virus, time is the most valuable commodity you have. We elected him as President so that he can make the decision and make it quickly before it’s too late.

However after last night’s speech, some would argue that he needed that time to consult widely and lay the groundwork to ensure everything was in place for such a far reaching announcement.  

The delay on Sunday and Monday also allowed a vacuum to be filled by speculation which we saw happening when thousands of people chose to believe a viral voice note from a Joburg dad about an imminent shutdown, rather than official comms.  

In other countries like the US, the UK and Israel, leaders are holding daily press conferences with question and answer time for journalists. Sure Trump is in an election year and Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival while Johnson is frantically patching holes, but a news cycle does not go without their faces being shown on a live update.

Ramaphosa and his crisis council should be holding a press conference every day at the same time and should be taking questions from journalists.  

Until now, Mkhize has been the face of government’s fight and it really should be the head of state taking charge. Ramaphosa is naturally media shy, but it is surprising that he has been allowed to get away with not answering questions from journalists on live TV.  

There are also concerns that government is trying to centralise communication.

In a time of crisis, it is a good idea for everyone to be communicating the same key message so there is no confusion or mixed messaging. This is a good move.

But, this can also make people suspicious. It makes the public speculate that government is "only telling us what we need to know" and not the full truth.  

It would be a good idea for government to let us hear from the scientists and not the politicians. We need to hear from those experts - the epidemiologists and doctors that are advising the politicians.

The public wants the science and the facts.  

Grassroots communication is also going to become essential over the next couple of weeks.

My sense from speaking to people from various places, backgrounds and income levels is that while there has been good top level communications, there is not enough being done to inform and educate on the ground.

Just teaching hand washing is simply not going to be enough when the virus hits us with its full impact.  

Overall, I think the President and the Health Minister deserve heaps of praise for their leadership during this crisis. They have acted swiftly, strongly and with empathy.

But they need to ensure that they stay on point on their communication strategy.

If they don't, they will lose the trust of the public and speculation and panic will flourish.