Westgate Mall shows Kenya's crisis comms at work

Few news stories have been beamed around the world as comprehensively as Kenya's tragic terror situation at the Westgate Mall.

Front pages: Kenya mall siege
Front pages: Kenya mall siege

As a public relations practitioner, and a former decade-long resident of Nairobi, I took a particular interest in the situation.

Despite the horror of the incident, it was striking to see just how well the Kenyan government handled the crisis communications side of things.

Importantly when the global media turn their attention on you, Kenya managed to keep the throngs of journalists under remarkable control during the mall siege.

It was surprising that not a single journalist made it into the mall to "tweet live" or capture an exclusive interview with a fleeing hostage. Perhaps someone did but the fact I don’t know about it means that basically, Kenya did a pretty good containment job.

It was also revealing to watch Sky News’ semi-rapidly deployed presenter, Colin Brazier, highlight how the Kenyan government had "organised" some Somali residents of Nairobi to come to the crime scene and distribute refreshments to the aid workers and emergency officials.

And, of course, there were the regular updates on the situation from various senior ministers and officials, who responded quickly to the crisis in the attempt to reassure and inform the public.

Whether all these things were by design or accident, I am not sure. Nonetheless, the point is, Kenya has proven itself to be a pretty slick crisis communications operator. Most wouldn’t have predicted that.

I suspect the recent, hotly contested presidential election helped refine the government’s PR skills, especially online. But, at the heart of the PR effort around this situation was the integration of communications into the Kenyan government’s overall management of a crisis situation.

The two operated together in a seamless fashion, rather than in silos. When that happens, a government or corporation stands the best chance of staying in control of a very difficult situation.

It is likely Kenya will be negatively impacted by what was a truly awful act of terrorism. I suspect potential new tourists to Kenya, from all over the world, are now contemplating whether or not they should scrap the safari idea they had a few months ago and head to Miami again instead.

Having said that, it’s also likely Kenya won’t be as badly affected as some people might think. For many, clearly this is going to be a negative talking point about the country for years to come. But, given the robustness of the crisis communications effort, Kenya has done a huge amount to limit the damage.

That is the whole point of crisis communications, after all. Perhaps more corporates should take note of Kenya’s example.

Sam Turvey is associate partner at Bell Pottinger

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