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Written by: Erin Hill

In times of crisis, strategic communications are an effective tool that governments can use to influence public behaviour. Between March 2017 and March 2018, the City of Cape Town (CoCT) catalysed public behaviour change via a communications campaign. During this time Cape Town and the Western Cape were in the grips of a water crisis. The three years preceding this were marked by below average rainfall causing a drought in the region. The CoCT, as the managing authority responsible for providing water to residents, looked to demand- and supply-side interventions to avoid the looming and catastrophic materialisation of “Day Zero” –– when the dams would drop below 13,5%, taps would be shut off, and minimal rations of water would have to be collected from designated points guarded by the military. Much like the approach to the Millennium drought campaign in Australia, the CoCT’s communications were diverse, providing inter alia relevant information, behavioural advice, and data on the status of available water.

The CoCT’s framing of the water crisis was analysed as part of the author’s master’s dissertation. The data comprised public communications that were aimed at private households and individual resident consumers. The project undertook a frames analysis, identifying characteristics, patterns, trends, and shifts to better understand the CoCT’s framing of the water crisis. Six frames were identified amongst the CoCT’s water crisis communications which mobilised behaviour shifts and supported consumption reductions. The six frames were: i) the City success story, ii) Obscurity and ambiguity, iii) Consumption is key, iv) The situation is controllable, v) Together we can beat the drought, and vi) Us versus them. Frames could co-exist amongst data items and the use of each frame shifted temporally through the crisis.

The study found that the CoCT’s campaign was more reactive than strategic. Importantly, the Cape Town public received a mix of messages during the water crisis, sometimes involving ambiguity and contradictions between different communications. Notably, despite ambiguity and contradictions, the CoCT’s communications campaign played a key role in reducing water consumption. In March 2018, it was announced that “Day Zero” was officially deferred to 2019 or beyond. Cape Town had persevered through the water crisis, and water consumption was reduced by 43% compared with pre-drought consumption levels, largely influenced by the CoCT’s behaviour change communication efforts. One of the key findings of the study was that an effective campaign did not require homogenous framing. A range of frames catering to variegated audiences and varied behaviour changes can be effective during a crisis, so long as the core underpinning message is consistent. Examples of a consistent message include, that Day Zero is on the horizon, and that behavioural shifts are required. It was also found that trustworthiness and reassurance seem to play an important part in an authority’s portrayal of their own role and their relations with the public.

The study highlighted the link between an authority’s communications, public knowledge, and behaviour. Crises are unique, complex and dynamic, and each will require its own differentiated approach. While communications campaigns are less effective for sustained behavioural shifts, communications targeting drastic behaviour change can be highly effective during an acute crisis.

Research brief: 

Framing a crisis: the City of Cape Town’s communications during the 2017-2018 water crisis

Full thesis: 

Hill, E. 2020. ‘A flood of communications in a drought: A frame analysis of the City of Cape Town’s communications during the 2017-2018 water crisis.’ MPhil thesis, University of Cape Town, Cape Town.

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