Politics

The fine art of telling ‘national importance’ from damp squib

By Stephen Grootes 12 February 2012

Good communication is priceless. When something is communicated badly, there is a cost to be borne. On Friday our currency bore that cost. It dropped 2% simply because of one announcement, that turned out to be about a shiny new design for our currency. A good idea communicated badly is as good as dead. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Politics is all about communication: Barack Obama had a better spin machine than, well, anyone. George W. Bush had a clearer, simpler message than Al Gore.

On Friday afternoon, government, through the Reserve Bank, put out a statement. It was just two sentences: “The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa, the Ministry of Finance and the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) will make an announcement of national importance. The President, Mr Jacob Zuma, the Minister of Finance, Mr Pravin Gordhan and the Governor of the SARB, Ms Gill Marcus will be in attendance.” It turned out to be about bank notes. For the person putting out the statement, it was probably a very innocent thing to say. Putting Nelson Mandela’s face on our currency is of “national importance”. Unfortunately that person didn’t think of what the names “Jacob Zuma”, “Pravin Gordhan” and “Gill Marcus” mean together in the fevered minds of journalists. And it wasn’t just journalists. It was market analysts, the people that make money move.

Later that afternoon, Bloomberg carried a story quoting such analysts as explaining why the rand had lost value. Simply put, most cynical observers presume a big announcement is coming when the markets are closed. Thus it must be something huge. The first thought was that Marcus was leaving. It sounded natural: she’s appointed by the president, and receives her mandate from the finance minister. The second thought was perhaps that Reserve Bank’s mandate was being changed. This is just before the budget (which is the only time when such suggestions can be made official). It was only much later that the Mandela banknotes idea gained some currency.

Unfortunately, this is not the first such mistake. In 2011 a press release was put out by the presidency, calling journalists to a major announcement, again including Zuma, Gordhan and Marcus. It was late on a Friday afternoon, normally a time when South Africa has fallen into an alcoholic repose. Requests for more information from officials was met with a simple: “I can’t tell you, but it’s really important, you must come”. It ended up being the announcement of a new deputy-governor for the bank. Important. But not that important.

This all points to a simple problem. The people who run the government’s communications machinery have no idea what happens in newsrooms – their culture, their hierarchies, what turns them on, what turns them off. There’s just no understanding that when you claim there’s going to be an announcement of “national importance”, everyone immediately wants to know that it is. That leads to speculation. And if you’re not careful, people start to believe it. Which is exactly what happened on Friday. Information was tossed out. It seemed to be vitally important. No explanation was given. The rand lost value.

It’s not the only thing that’s dropped – so has the levels of trust in government. That sounds odd. Many newsrooms would have sent very senior staff (despite it being the weekend) on Saturday if they had believed that Marcus was going. They didn’t, because of the previous incident involving the bank’s new deputy-governor. One day that’s going to bite everyone in the bum. The presidency is going to say there’s a matter of national importance and the room will have a party vibe when actually it will be something that matters.

Of course there’s no greater illustration of government’s communication problems than last year’s disaster about Mandela’s stay in hospital. That again was created by putting out several innocent looking facts, without comprehending how they would be seen by someone who didn’t know the full story. If you are in the inner circle and know an announcement is about the colour of our money, or that a former president really is fine, you cannot easily understand how it feels to not know that. Add the incentive that people’s careers in the journalist world are built on this stuff, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Throw Twitter into the mix, and apocalypse is imminent.

Which is why we need some professionals at the helm. It’s easy to blame Jimmy Manyi for this sort of thing, as he’s the head of the Government Communication and Information Service. He’s also the Cabinet spokesman, the face of government if you like. But it’s not only his fault. He should carry the can as the boss, but the problem goes much deeper than that.

It’s really a political problem. The gulf between our two classes, political and chattering, is too broad. In the UK, in the House of Commons, hacks and politicians drink together, openly. Here, it’s not really like that. Journalists are being moved further and further away from day to day contact with politicians at Parliament. There are also very few politicians here who used to be journalists (Siphiwe Nyanda is one of them, amazingly).

We also have a situation where politics and other events determine who manages media relations for government. That’s not unique, but in our case, the people seen to manage PR have particular back-stories. Manyi was appointed on the back of the “There are too many Coloureds in the Western Cape” fracas, with a history of being abrasive during his time at the Black Management Forum. He’s kept his nose clean since his appointment, he’s stayed out of the news and generally been polite and informative (when he’s able) when dealing with the press, but his history hasn’t left him.

Vusi Mona, his deputy at GCIS, actually edited City Press, before being defenestrated rather publicly at the Hefer Commission (the short version: he ran a story claiming Bulelani Ngucka was a spy. He wasn’t).

It’s perhaps fair to say that many journalists will see people with these backstories as politicians first, and operators foremost, before being officials. In other words, when they tell you something, you try to work out what their agenda is. It’s sometimes unfair, but it’s our reality. As a result their word carries little real weight. This might not matter during the day-to-day running of things. But it really does count when there’s an urgent pressing issue, of say “national importance”.

Can you imagine a situation in which there will be a very real reaction to a statement, and that reaction will depend on whether it’s believed or not? Someone like Brian Dames at Eskom carries weight when he says the lights won’t go out. Manyi might be accused of pushing Zuma’s agenda were he to say exactly the same thing. As a result, us, being humans, and the markets, being driven by human sentiment, will react differently. Dames statement might be met by calm. Manyi, perhaps not so.

On some levels my comments may seem unfair: Manyi didn’t necessarily ask for this job, and it’s hard to turn Cabinet  down. And he could end up leaving office as the man who was able to make some parts of GCIS more professional. But it’s a reality that, in the world we live in, how your comments are judged now is also an adjudication of your past history.

Which is why it’s really the politicians that must take the blame. So many times we’ve been told there is no truth to rumours, only for them to turn out to have been true all along. Smuts Ngonyama’s “there are no divisions in the ANC” was perhaps the biggest. Zuma, through his lawyer, claimed to have never had intercourse with the complainant before his rape trial, only to confirm later that he had actually had a shower afterwards. Jackie Selebi was simply friends “finish and klaar” with Glenn Agliotti, Thabo Mbeki could say “trust me”… we could go on.

There is always going to be a gap between the rulers and the ruled – that we expect and accept. But gaps can be covered through good communication. It’s not that hard. And we, and our Mandela-coloured rands, deserve better. DM




Photo: South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma holds up a banknote bearing the face of former president Nelson Mandela in Pretoria February 11, 2012. Zuma on Saturday announced the launch of new notes bearing the image of Mandela to coincide with the 22nd anniversary of Mandela’s release from prison. REUTERS/Stringer.

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