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West Wing tips for Zuma’s spin doctors

One of the most irksome tasks that many governments around the world loath and execute badly is how to deal with crisis communications in the face of scandal involving high-ranking politicians such as a head of state. Armchair critics of how government functions in these critical times fail to grasp the fact that no PR 101 manual can be blatantly applied in the face of political intrigue, personal embarrassment and the fine line between what may be seen as professional advice and a career-limiting utterance by a nosy aide trying to establish the facts of the matter in question. So we offer advice knowing we are not close to the furnace.

The Sonono-Zuma Babygate saga has provided several lessons about what not to do in handling high-level crisis communications. What is crucial to understand is that the manner in which scandal is handled has far more consequences than merely bad press. This is the stuff that impeachments are made of. A cursory look at the fall of powerful political figures in history will reveal, without fail, that the fall is often preceded by poor handling of the truth as it comes out.

Top spin doctors around the world know it in their sleep that that you have to assume that the adage “a lie will go around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on” is true. So when you prepare to spin the indefensible, it’s better not to cover up with lies and half-truths. That should be the cardinal rule number one. The second is like it: be first with the news instead of it being “discovered”. This is the stuff of media scoops and exposés that very few politicians or companies can ever recover from.

So the following are quick tips for President Jacob Zuma’s spin doctors at both Luthuli House and the Union Buildings as they prepare for the next inevitable scandal in some or other part of that administration. I usually charge handsomely for this sort of thing, but this is done free in the interest of nation-building and in case Zuma does not heed the correct opposition calls for him to step down.

  • First of all when a big story breaks, do not go to ground or encourage the principal to hide for three days hoping the story will go away. Excuses such as the ones proffered about being abroad simply won’t do. By now technology is so advanced that it makes no difference where you are in the world especially if you are head of state. You need a rapid response mechanism to dose the fire out of a bad story as soon as possible. This is to avoid it developing unnecessary legs into other publications who will explore new angles to it especially as a result of receiving no timely information from you as a primary source. One of the most destructive emerging tendencies in South African public relations is the practice of politicians thinking there are substitutes to telling the truth such as “describing context” “killing the story” through influence on editors or now lately pre-emptive publishing of the story when a media inquiry is forwarded to you as communicator — an attempt to take the sting out of a bad story. In my experience, the only way to take a sting out of story is to drown it in fact. Any of these substitutes for the truth will only lose you much-needed friends in the public and in the media.
  • Never believe that your principal is invincible by virtue of the position they hold in society. The media has brought down the most powerful people in the world. So stone walling responses like “this is personal matter” maybe belong in the Western Cape — pardon me, I meant in another planet. “Nothing to do with you” is something that you can say as soon as you are not paid by taxpayers to live the high life. Jackson Mthembu therefore gets a very fat zero for his handling of the saga when it broke. The usual ANC complacency was all over his clumsy handling of the matter. When the public barrage of annoyance got to him he buckled under pressure and confessed that he in fact had not even spoken to Sonono or the president. To go and defend someone you have not even spoken to — this is the sort of blind loyalty that is not required to be an effective public-relations officer. If you want to be a respected communicator you need to trade in facts not fudge.
  • When you are hit with this kind of scandal it’s always best to have one spokesperson on the issue, a second spokesperson can be introduced for an around-the-clock crisis like the crash of an airliner, otherwise one spokesperson will do just fine. When Zizi Kodwa, Vincent Magwenya and the ANC-flag-waving Jackson “it’s none of your business” Mthembu are all expected to cook, this spoils the broth of the proper management of messaging. It does not matter that the messages are agreed — a crisis situation has to be conducted with military precision and it’s a ship that requires one captain lest it sinks. In our context it is also important that the party and state blur — even in communication and perception terms — be avoided. How does the Union Building issue a statement and then place as a media contact a Luthuli House spokesperson. This was utter chaos that represented pedestrian public relations at its lowest ebb.
  • Finally no amount of spin can get anyone out of a pickle. Unequivocal admission usually does the trick and disarms opponents. The half-hearted apology trick must rank as one of the most damaging things that can happen in a scandal-prone crisis communication scenario. The use of excuses from “it’s a private matter” to “it’s culture” demonstrated that there was no strategising. A charitable explanation could be that we are experiencing the result of having too many advisers. But then again none of the advice implemented on that fateful week demonstrated rudimentary understanding of how public-perception management works. The worst advice given that week was turning of the tables to start cocking the gun at the messenger — the media were accused of violating the rights of the latest Zuma junior among other straws being clutched about.
  • A head-in-the-sand approach, the bravado of “riding out the storm” does not work. In the case of Zuma, his neglect of all the issues that culminated into him walking into the chamber weak, resulted in giggles and chuckles even from some of his own friends as he squandered the opportunity to reflect the collective talent of his government. Something that has not happened at any other State of The Nation address in living memory even though there would have been plenty to giggle about. My humble counsel is this: deal with the elephant in the room and marvel at the public sympathy and respect. Fool the public and suffer the consequences. I hope that these quick pointers — to be upfront with the facts, to be less arrogant to streamline the message and the messengers and to be honest will help prepare the Zuma spin doctors to be ready for the next Sonono and her unique woes.