The 5 PR lessons to learn from the JKIA tragedy

On the morning of 7th august 2013, news of the JKIA fire gutted down from the smoking outlet screens of the newsrooms. Everyone that got the news was shocked to learn of the smoldering fire that was licking the international arrivals unit -of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport-like a hungry kitten with a saucer of milk. From a mile away you could almost see showers of sparks like a fountain that were escorted with plumes of black grey smoke.


The mood at the scene was that of panic and despair. Despair especially to the fire fighters who felt they had lost the chance of slaying the humongous goliath fire with their horse pipe water slings. Being the month of August didn’t do much to quell the speculative pregnant minds of many a Kenyan’s. Some had quickly formed their kamakunji cocoons speculating about what could have caused the fire. Some concluded that it was a terrorist attack while other felt it was an August jinx altogether.

Well these speculations were impossible to verify at the time. What was clear was the fact that this was a tragedy-a crisis if you may. The fire had hit Kenya harder. Surely it was an unforeseen bump on Kenya’s economy to say the least. Indeed some damage control was crucial to help JKIA get up on its feet.

Following are key communication crisis take outs to learn from the whole ordeal.

React quickly to a crisis situation

Rather than wait for things to unfold, the president himself-and this is commendable- arrived at the scene in the early mid morning hour. He made sure that he is leading from the front and not taking chances. He was also flanked by other relevant government officials and other key personnel of the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA). It crucial for the country to see such a figure at the scene of such a crisis since it communicates control. In addition to this it shows that the matter is being handled.

“All our lives we measure ourselves based on our height, but during a crisis we should measure ourselves in-depth.” ― Celso CukierkornSecrets of Jewish Wealth Revealed!

Telling it as it is before someone else does it on your behalf

It is appropriate that when you burn your fingers, you speak out so that other people don’t start pointing their burning fingers towards you. After touring the whole area and assessing the damage, president Uhuru went ahead to make a press statement about the whole saga. In his statement he admitted that indeed the fire had destroyed a major part of the airport; and everything was been done to get to the root of it. This leaves out room for speculation because there is one central source telling it.

Have good media relations skills

The cabinet secretary for transport Mr. Michael Kamau lead the briefings in the hours that followed-replacing the president. He explained to the media every detail on what activities were been carried out to quell the situation. What stood out is that he focused on communicating to the internal and external publics-quite a balancing act. He spoke calmly and appropriately further demonstrating that the government was on top of things. Additionally, Mr. Kamau pointed out that resilient nature of Kenya’s and this situation would serve as an example of how strong we are. This frame of mind communicated positivity to the outside world.

Centralize the communication and communicate as much as possible

For continued briefings the communications team was made even stronger by the introduction of government spokesman-Mr. Manaoh Esipisu. He complemented Mr. Kamau in ensuring that there were speaking one voice and that the communication was centralized. The publics were kept updated from time to time with credible information that served to expunge any doubts of how the situation was being handled. Both their responses were connected timely and effective. They also served to be the reassuring voices of calm for everyone.

Have a positive last word

The Chinese expression for crisis wei ji always rings true during a crisis.  It’s a combination of two words: danger and opportunity. While weathering a crisis one can choose to look at it as a loss while for some they may look at it as an opportunity. The JKIA fire tragedy took a spin when the president gave his final press statement at the scene when he said that the government is planning to make JKIA Africa’s hub. His statement came exactly two weeks when normal operations had resumed at the airport. This left stakeholders-and Kenyans at large- with a favorable impression and renewed confidence towards JKIA.


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