Why African leaders need to learn better communication skills

Leaders like Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza, captured here playing football while his country is engulfed in turmoil, need to keep their eye on the ball and communicate effectively during times of crisis. Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

From time to time, African leaders make gaffes in what they say and do. Whether they are deliberate or not, these slip-ups unwittingly contribute to the negative and stereotypical perceptions that Africa tends to garner from internal and external detractors.

Negative press resulting from blunders of this kind is not peculiar to African leaders and managers, but if the negative perception of Africa as a continent of mediocrity, gloom and doom is to be reversed, African leaders must learn to communicate more effectively. This includes giving greater thought to how they act in public.

Outgoing Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan learned this the hard way when he was photographed dancing at a wedding two days after Boko Haram massacred 2 000 people in Baga. His Burundian counterpart Pierre Nkurunziza was lambasted last week for playing football with his friends while his country burned.

Managing negative perceptions

The process of managing negative perceptions should begin with leaders who firmly understand how to ensure that their message is not lost or ignored because of poor or ineffective communication skills. Rather than jailing journalists or making it difficult for media organisations to work, African leaders should see media outlets as vital allies.

Many Western leaders have learned this lesson. They use a variety of methods, including public relations, information campaigns, soft power and “public diplomacy”. This influences how they are seen at home and also ensures that Western narratives remain dominant in the global media landscape.

The most difficult time for leaders to deal with news media is during crisis situations. Although non-crisis times can be equally challenging, it is normally when an unexpected event occurs that the leader’s ability to communicate and deal with reporters is put to the greatest test.

In general, effective communication requires paying attention to the needs of the source, message, channel and receiver. The focus here is on the role of the leader as a communication source in a crisis situation.

The key to ensuring that a leader emerges with his or her reputation intact after interacting with media during a crisis is the quality of their verbal and non-verbal communication. The successful crisis communicator is transparent, increasingly accessible, trustworthy and reliable and has the practical ability to convey information effectively.

Rules for effective communication

Here’s what every effective crisis communicator needs in his or her armoury.

Transparency: Openness and accountability are the watchwords here. Full disclosure of information should be the norm. Leaders should be open and tell the full story to keep reporters from seeking other sources. They should get the facts and answer questions, but avoid hiding or appearing to hide anything. If they do not have all the facts, they should simply tell reporters that they don’t have all the details yet, but will look into the matter more deeply and get back to them later.

Trust and credibility: There is a preponderance of reports of corruption on the continent, so the issues of trust and reliability are ones African leaders often confront. Credibility is established through a consistency of long-term honest and open dealings with media.

Allies: African leaders often see the media as adversaries. This does not have to be the case. Truth be told, good relations between the media and all other actors are vital for obtaining the cooperation needed to find a solutions in a situation.

Accessibility: Some people believe that if you avoid the media for long enough, they will go away. Nothing is further from the truth. In fact, the key to a successful relationship with journalists is being increasingly accessible. The media will interpret an event for many different audiences, so they will always need an immediate response.

The ability to tell a story well: The leader should engage their audience by being passionate and truthful. They should not ever scold a reporter for asking hard questions, nor tell journalists not to talk about specific issues. If they are thrown an unexpected question, they don’t have to answer right away. They should take the time to collect their thought before answering. Silent pauses are fine - they show that a person is thinking, considering and is careful and precise. But “ummms” should avoided at all costs.

Leaders who follow these guidelines will find their encounters with journalists in private and public situations non-threatening. Their interactions will yield mutual benefits for the leaders who have agendas to promote and the media, who must keep ordinary citizens informed.