Monday, 2 September 2013


On 7th August 2013, Kenyans woke up to a rude shock; fire had razed down the entire Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) international arrival section. The incident was so serious that all flights from the airport were grounded as the president came to the scene to assure the nation and the world at large that the government is in control of the situation. As the Economists will rightly point out, the country lost millions of shillings as result of flight cancellations not to mention the property lost in the inferno.
The incident had a far reaching implications not only loss of revenue and property worth millions turned to ashes but also the image of JKIA, Kenya Airport Authority (KAA) and Kenya as a whole was dented. From a Public Relations perspective, the response to the fire, handling of the situation and the events before the tragedy eroded the reputation.
When the fire broke out, the Fire Department took a long time to respond to the emergency leaving better part of international arrival section to be consumed by the raging fire. This painted a picture of unpreparedness when it comes to emergency situations or disasters. With the slow response witnessed in combating the inferno, one may justify why there are no direct flights from USA to Kenya though it’s largely due to arrogance of people from ‘the land of opportunities’. It showed the world how unprepared Kenya is when it comes to responding to disaster/emergencies.
Image ratings also reduced all through the communications of the situation. In any fire incident, there is the tendency by the officers-in-charge to make claims regarding the possible cause of the fire. During a crisis, most of the Public Relations Officers are under lots of pressure to give ‘something’ to the prying and thirsty Journalists who insist in getting some information to report. On the other hand, some of the PRO’s are blown away with the thought of being covered by the by the media so they make up things.
The incident was rife with lots of speculations, from conspiracy theories to electrical faults. Unlike during response to the fire, here the Public Relations Manager was in a position to control the situation and could therefore minimize damage-reputational. The CEO-JKIA, Director General-KAA, and Cabinet Secretary for Transport all addressed the press. They gave different accounts of the event but they all of them somehow thought that the fire was perhaps caused by an electrical fault yet the fire was still blazing and the investigations were yet to commence. The updates regarding the event were also not regular.
Then there was the issue of events before the fire tragedy. In case you are not familiar with those particular events, here is what happened: A couple of days before the fire razed down the place, the Kenya Airport Authority (KAA) evicted investors operating in the Duty Free Shops. They lost some of their goods while others were destroyed during the ferocious exercise. The same action was replicated in Mombasa’s International Airport. The shops were apparently leased to a Nairobi Businessman, Kamlesh Pattni who almost shed tears during an interview regarding the issue on a leading national TV station. Nevertheless, of interest, is how the Public Relations Manager handled the issue-before, during, and after the eviction of the business people operating the shops.  His/her actions during the whole saga was costly especially relations with investors.
As a Public Relations Practitioner, what are some of the lessons from the JKIA Fire Tragedy? Lesson one: As a Public Relations Officer, you should have a well orchestrated plan that will be able to sail you out of the murky waters. The PRO should work in tandem with other staff from various departments in the organization and discuss the crisis plan for any scenario that may befall the organization. In the JKIA tragedy, the Public Relations Manager ought to have explained to the Safety Manager the implications of sloppy and unprofessional disaster response. It is prudent to note that in order to project the good image of the organization, it takes the effort of all staff not only the PRO.
Lesson two: During most crisis situations, there is usually lots of speculation. As a PR expert, you should not speculate or give room for speculation. Report the facts as they are on the ground, no manipulation of information. When you hide information, Journalists usually have a way of finding out and trust me; you won’t like it when they do. It will be probably your worst PR nightmare. If you don’t know, tell them you will get back to them when you get the information. In the case of JKIA, the officials made unsubstantiated claims that the fire was supposedly caused by an electrical fault. This was a wrong precedence since the investigations were still going on. What if it was caused by something else? Terror attack or Arson maybe? The Journalist who pressurized you for the information will be like “but sir, you told us earlier that the fire was caused by an electrical fault?” There is usually pressure during crisis but the PRO should stay firm and don’t give out any information without verification.
Lesson three: In crisis, it is also advisable for all communications to be handled by one official for purposes of consistency that will as well avert possible PR blunders. In the case of JKIA, we had three people issuing official statements of the same incident. This can be confusing since chances are high that they will issue different statements. All the information should be converged at one point and communicated by one person depending on the chain of command or responsibility. The updates should be regular to avoid speculations.
Lesson four: As a Public Relations expert, you should not let a situation get out of hand and become a PR nightmare. The vicious eviction at the JKIA could have been avoided if the PRM advised the management against their cruel handling of the investors. As a PR expert you should be able to analyze all the actions and activities that the organization intends to pursue in order to ascertain the implications on the reputation. The JKIA Fire Tragedy is a good case study of crisis communication. On the whole, a crisis can be both an opportunity for an organization to project itself positively given the media coverage and at the same time, be a liability leading to shrinking of the reputation of the organization.
Authors Note:
The above piece is the premier professional article discussing issues in Communication Management & Public Relations in my compilation entitled “The PR Caster Kenya”. Keep it here for more for insightful pieces coming through from now henceforth.
©Steve Osombah