Experts say government’s mixed coronavirus messages cause confusion

President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Feb 11, 2021


CAPE TOWN - Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in South Africa, government has received considerable backlash about its inconsistent messages.

According to some communications experts, government’s current communication strategy might cause a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding.

Brand strategist Solly Moeng said government did relatively well in the early stages but over time, its communication became more confusing, even bizarre, as the president announced one thing and his ministers another.

“A lot of water has already gone under the bridge, as far as levels of public trust are concerned. It has gone from low to almost, if not entirely, depleted. President Ramaphosa continues to be regarded by many South Africans as the least of the devils.

“Perhaps government should let him be the main face of government communication on Covid-19, provided that his ministers remain consistent in word and deed to what he says,” he said.

Dr Rofhiwa Mukhudwana of the Department of Communication Science at Unisa, who has a passion to improve the way that government departments communicate, said a pandemic of this magnitude was multi-dimensional and therefore informed information had to come from different specialist groupings. But at the same time, they had to be coordinated into an integrated communication hub.

“Government cannot and should not attempt to censor the noise, but to communicate above the noise with a stronger informed voice. There is no use of government communicators or administrators being the authorial figures in the war against Covid when they themselves are less informed or delivering contradictory and inconsistent messages.

“A key problem is an authoritative communication system that is predominately one way and limited from public inquiry.This kind of incompetency reduces faith in not only the government but also the vaccine – because how is society to trust that government has procured a safe vaccine for them?,” she said.

In moving forward, Moeng said government needed to communicate through more credible figures outside of the political sphere.

“Racially diversify the faces of government communication. There must also be more consistency in what government says. Ministers whose conduct contradicts government communication must be removed.”

Mukhudwana said the pandemic coincided with a time of fake news and noise created by social media

“Governments are now not only forced to respond with even more speed, but they are also having to communicate their responses to the nation and also inform and calm the nation.”

Meanwhile, media specialist and CEO of Ditshego Media, Tebogo Ditshego said “there has been effective communication about infections rates, regulations and non-pharmaceutical interventions.

“However, there is room for improvement in terms of better ways to get the public to wear masks, teaching companies how to use air purifiers and going on communication campaigns to educate the public about how they can protect their immune system in case they still get infected as well as effective education about the various vaccines.”