As the people of South Africa watch in disbelief, the young firebrand's slash-and-burn tactics are starting to have a real effect on this country's stability and standing in the world. Perhaps now is the time to explain why exposing Malema's obvious wrongdoing had little effect on his personal popularity.
Julius Malema has become, unquestionably, one of most notorious political figures of our time. Newspapers, websites and TV stations display his face daily. The media and public alike are abuzz with his latest shenanigans. People are unabashed in expressing their views about Malema, calling him an idiot and a dangerous sociopath, while the media mocks and taunts him.
Within minutes of the now-infamous eviction of a BBC journalist last week, Twitter was awash with commentary and the The Daily Maverick video of the incident had more than 180,000 views.
What confounds many is the support that Malema continues to enjoy despite his obviously discrediting behaviour. What is the media’s role in perpetuating this support? Is Julius Malema’s reputation growing or declining?
Earlier this week, working with an online brand monitoring expert, we asked the question: What value does the brand “Julius Malema” have?
Brand value has become one of the most important measures for many companies. The measurement of the value of a brand is complex, but these days as the Internet is the primary carrier for brand mentions (particularly as it often clips and repeats mentions in other media). This means it’s now possible, by applying some standard metrics, to measure the value of anything we may call “a brand”.
We have used an industry-standard measure called AVE (Advertising Value Equivalent), which is typically used to assess the value of content in the media were it to be purchased as advertising space. So I could measure the value of this article I’m writing in terms of screen space it occupies or number of times it is viewed and equate that to the cost of buying that same space or number of views on The Daily Maverick in advertising space. Because I’m writing it I could argue that it gains the brand “Jarred Cinman” some value that I would otherwise have to purchase. That’s AVE.
Now, in the space of a recent 48 hours, BrandsEye, SA’s premier Online Reputation Management service, found that Julius Malema had achieved an AVE of R287,878 with around 450 mentions. This is the equivalent of running around 10 full-page advertisements in leading magazines. In social media terms, imagine the size of the team one could pay to seed content into Facebook or Tweet or blog for that kind of money.
And this is a two-day period we’re focusing on, on the back of the last in a long series of explosive Malema events. This is a number one could reasonably extrapolate into the millions a month, or the tens of millions a year. In other words, challenging the advertising budget of a large South Africa consumer brand.
Looking at the source of these mentions, however, reveals a few interesting facts.
Only 49% of these mentions are local. Even taking into account the recent BBC incident, which would have had an expected reaction in the UK, the volume of mentions from the US is surprising.
In terms of where the mentions come from, it’s little surprise that many of them come directly from consumers via social media. However 72 (16%) of them are from the media itself – again, an enormous volume of coverage over such a short time. As one would expect, the vast majority of the mentions express negative sentiments. Statements such as “If Julius Malema continues to stir hatred in SA he should be charged with crimes against the state !!!!” (in this case, from Twitter) will surprise no-one.
One may well question where the value lies in being torn apart by the press and the public. And, of course, if you were a traditional brand, you would indeed be terrified by the facts and figures presented here. The recent flurry around vehicle recalls garnered the likes of Toyota a lot of press coverage the company had little reason to celebrate.
But politics is a different animal. Here, there is arguably value in pure publicity, good or bad. And there is a simple reason for this: Supporters of a political figure like Julius Malema are attracted to all the negative qualities that others reject. His fiery temperament, his no-holds-barred statements about white people are not discrediting him among those tending to support him any more than André Visagie’s outburst on eTV will alienate his AWB followers.
What counts to supporters of political figures is the scale of their presence. When they are attacked for their principles or actions this has the effect of rallying support. This is an obvious fact, otherwise no extremist political figures could exist. And yet despite falling foul of mainstream media and the intelligentsia the world over, far right and left politicians keep on going, in some cases (Europe, for example) gaining ground.
Which raises an important question: Is Julius Malema conducting a brilliant PR campaign to grow his brand value for free using the mainstream and social media against itself?
Many may balk at the notion of Malema being in any way brilliant, and it’s hard to fathom whether any of the attention he has garnered has been intentional. But the fact remains that he has won it. If he holds a press conference, the media attends in large numbers. Any statement he makes becomes headline news. And his actions are tracked so closely he looks like a local Princess Diana in the heyday of the paparazzi storm.
The net effect is the creation of a massively important public figure with a voice equal to – if not exceeding – that of the President. He holds no elected office and exerts no direct control over the media outlets. He and his supporters are, one can assume, silent in the online space. And yet he has achieved the kind of coverage PR gurus could only dream of, even reaching well beyond our borders.
If you’re tempted to take issue with the contention that negative sentiment works in his favour consider these three points:
- Another political figure amassed a large amount of negative sentiment in similar media channels without denting his support base. He is now our President.
- Malema seems to act as a voice of a part of South Africa that is not only under-represented in the media, but is also huge and powerful. For these people – the youth, the poor, the marginalised – his presence in the media is seen as successfully thrusting their concerns into the limelight. If that gets a negative reaction they neither care nor are surprised – in fact, it just serves to underline their point.
- Brand awareness is brand awareness. Countless public figures from Monica Lewinsky to serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer may be associated with wrongdoing, but they would still be invited on to Larry King without a moment’s hesitation. That creates power, whether we like it or not.
So, how does it all bode for the future of South Africa? Not so well, unfortunately. Julius Malema’s personal brand became so strong on all the coverage he received that his brand power could soon transcend that of the ruling ANC’s.
By Jarred Cinman
Jarred Cinman is a regular blogger and digital industry expert.
This article was compiled using research collected using BrandsEye, a premier Online Reputation Management service. BrandsEye does not endorse any of the views or opinions expressed in this piece.
Photo: South Africa’s African National Congress Youth League President Julius Malema attends a rally for Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU PF party at Stodat Grounds in Harare April 3 2010. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo