Why managing crises could be real Achilles' heel for CS Linturi

Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mithika Linturi. [Bonbiface Okendo, Standard]

There are three cardinal rules of crisis communication that Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mithika Linturi and his ministry overlooked, are oblivious of, or simply don’t care about.

Linturi is not a new name to any Kenyan who is abreast with current affairs. Similarly, there are two things that the CS is not new to: public leadership and public relations nightmares.

The 54-year-old alumnus of Meru Technical College was a Member of Parliament for the Igembe South constituency between 2007 and 2017, elected on a Kanu ticket. In 2017, he would replace Kiraitu Murungi as the Senator of Meru County, elected on a Jubilee ticket, before joining President William Ruto’s Cabinet in 2022.

During his public life, Linturi has been at the centre of a few controversies that became public. To his own admission, as of October 2022, he had at least 35 court cases.

In 2021, the politician was accused of attempted rape. The DPP later dropped the case in October 2022 after the parties agreed to an out-of-court settlement.

Before this, the CS and his hitherto partner Maryanne Kaitany had treated the nation to three years of a court battle that characterised their fallout, with accusations and counter-accusations that drew in elders from both sides.

In January of 2022, the then Senator of Meru was arrested and taken to a Nakuru Police Station to record a statement following remarks he had made while in a rally in Eldoret, remarks that were said to be “hate speech”.

The most recent is this fake fertiliser scandal, which sits squarely in his docket. In its early days, the CS completely denied that any such thing was happening in his ministry, even saying all the allegations were political antics of Azimio politicians and calling investigative journalist John-Allan Namu of Africa Uncensored “a crook”.

One thing for sure is that the fake fertiliser scandal has proved to be more challenging.

The response in the fertiliser saga presents Linturi as a man who, for some reason, was in a hurry to close the file, had little to no information about the allegations, or simply did not care about what the people think and say about inefficiencies in his ministry, real or perceived.

In doing so, the CS paraded his unfaded grasp and application of lessons from the movies or series he watches. Like an A-student, the Agriculture boss deployed Prof. Annalise Keating’s counsel.

In the crime-cum-legal drama How To Get Away With Murder, the main character, Prof. Analise Keating (played by Viola Davis), takes her students through three steps to get away with murder: discredit the witness, introduce a new suspect, and bury the evidence.

Textbook style, Linturi began by discrediting John-Allan Namu and Africa Uncensored, who had aired the expose. He went on to point the finger at Opposition politicians as being behind the claims and seemingly tried to portray them as being against the government’s agenda of agricultural productivity through subsidised fertiliser. That was before shifting the blame and laying it right at the doorstep of the National Cereals and Produce Board. And his way of burying the evidence? He went to one or a few NCPB depots, where he could be seen walking around and pointing at bags of fertiliser as if telling reporters, “Here is the fertiliser; fish out the fake one we see”. 

Dear CS Linturi, in the event of a crisis, here is what communication experts have said you should remember. You always have three options: the first one is suicidal, the second one is plausible, and the third one is your masterstroke.

Option one: deny, deny, deny. Why do we say this is suicidal? Because to pull it off, you either need to have a lot of confidence backed by sufficient data or be Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin.

Option two: Silence. Depending on your industry and the issue at hand, silence might work for a few days, if not hours. This is for the helpless and hopeless – unless, of course, the issue is so private that public opinion and/or outrage, if any, does not matter.

Option three: Clarify. It works all the time but is dependent on the how and the who. How you provide the clarification and who is talking makes a whole lot of a difference. It is for this reason that many corporates simply issue a public statement setting the record straight, then back-channel to their key stakeholders with detailed explanations and appeasements.

Should the good minister choose to try option three next time he has a crisis, personal or occupational, here are three things he must remember:

Respond timely, yet not too soon. Do not be on the next news bulletin explaining yourself away. Because chances are that by this time, you have hardly gathered the facts. Yet, again, do not sit it out for days on end. Your communications team should help you strike a good balance here.

Clarify, but do not dismiss the accusations too early. In fact, my personal position is not to dismiss the allegations at all. Break them down and accompany each of them with a clear and concise clarification.

Centralise the command, control, and communication. Like any life-threatening disaster, communication in the face of a public relations crisis must be centralised. This ensures consistency and lessens chances of being misquoted or officials on the same side of the issue contradicting each other.

The best practice is that if any other official is approached on the same issue, they should all defer to the designated official. In the fertiliser case, I would have centralised all communication at the Permanent Secretary’s desk.

When all is said and done, the best place to start is for every public-facing entity, private or public, to have a simple but very clear crisis communication plan with a designated spokesperson, trained and prepared for a time of crisis.