Opinionista Osiame Molefe 8 December 2011

The ANC has only itself to blame for bad press

It makes sense that the ANC is analysing its media presence, though drilling down to individual journalists is worrisome. But contrary to what Gwede Mantashe thinks, it would not be propaganda for the ANC to work on its public image. The phrase he used, “overemphasise PR”, would imply that the party is currently putting some level of emphasis on its public relations, but it’s honestly hard to see where.

It comes as no surprise that what the ANC has been finding in its media analysis thus far has mostly fallen into the negative category. How could it not? Cagey, reactive and defensive best describe its dealings with the press on big, contentions issues. 

Adding to that, it’s also patently obvious that the Democratic Alliance has decided on a deliberate, frankly brilliant strategy of using the systems available to it to expose the ANC’s failings. First among these are the parliamentary questions and replies, which this year exposed the public works contradictions on the renovations of the presidential residences, ANC MPs hotel and car rental indulgences, President Jacob Zuma’s R6.3 million New York trip and the potential R1.6 billion acquisition of presidential jets. Then come the Chapter Nine institutions, particularly the Public Protector. This year alone, the party has, by my conservative estimate, written to the Public Protector on more than half a dozen different occasions. Finally the courts come in as a last resort, as was the case with the Menzi Simelane appointment, and as might be with Willem Heath’s appointment.   

The government and the ANC have shown zero anticipation to the reports resulting from these stories, as Mantashe acknowledged. Without absolving them of fair reporting, journos can only write what is there. So the bad press the ANC receives is not the result of a hostile media. It’s the result of the party’s PR strategy – if caught with its pants down and scrambling for cover can be considered a strategy. But there are some lessons here.

The ANC, as government and the organisation, has had an awful 2011 in the public domain and the media, which to some are the same thing. The list is long and I won’t even attempt to capture it all here.

There was the Public Protector report into the SAPS building leases. Released in two parts, one in February and the other in July, the report along with the other Public Protector report into former cooperative governance minister Sicelo Shiceka, forced Zuma into a Cabinet reshuffle.

At the time of the reports’ release, Zuma was deadly silent. He said, much too late and only at the media’s prompting, that he was “applying his mind” to the SAPS building lease reports. On Shiceka, he responded to media reports using the innocent until proven guilty maxim. And when he finally acted, his spokesman Mac Maharaj was surprised that the papers were not falling over themselves to congratulate the president on being decisive.

Zuma missed an opportunity here, and it’s not applying hindsight on my part. Rightly or wrongly, the ANC has become near synonymous with corruption and incompetence. It would have done no harm to Zuma’s relations with his Cabinet and party had he bristled at allegations of corruption and incompetence in his Cabinet. Even if planning to quietly apply his mind, he ought to have used the opportunity presented by the Public Protector reports to say, with neither fear nor equivocation, that neither he nor the ANC tolerates corruption and maladministration, as Helen Zille often does. The response ought to have been swift and it should have come from him, addressed directly to the public. Instead, Mantashe was the one to speak out on this issue and his message was directed to the party, not the public.

So lesson one: Never miss an opportunity to speak unequivocally on issues significant to the public, and do so proactively.

The Dalai Lama visa saga, too, was another PR failure that could have been neutralised if not made into a win. Instead, the story went global with Archbishop Desmond Tutu wielding the “worse than apartheid” stick to spank the ANC. Two problems here. The government was not being honest on how it was dealing with the visa. And it only ever addressed the issue when prompted, despite knowing of the keen public interest in the application.

It would have been a hard case to make to say, as home affairs director-general Mkuseli Apleni has now been forced to do, that the country’s (invisible print: and the ANC’s) economic interests could be affected by a visit by the Dalai Lama, because it would then sound like the country’s sold its sovereignty and morality. But in truth, these kinds of tough foreign policy decisions are commonplace the world over and sovereignty is never quite absolute. The point that the government ought to have emphasised, while admitting that it too was conflicted on the matter, is that the Dalai Lama visit would have likely not done much for the promotion of human rights in Tibet, but could have adversely affected this country’s economic prosperity. It should have also been ballsy and made the decision instead of trying to play on technicalities.

Cosatu saw this and condemned “the forked tongue communication and lack of openness throughout the entire saga”.     

Lesson two, then: If it’s contentious and of keen public interest, be forthright in your communication.

Finally, Zuma’s popularity used to lie in his being a man of the people. The ANC, too, clings to its pro-poor credentials. So what does it mean that neither the president nor the party’s national leadership have said anything on the four children who died of dehydration and hunger due to the failings of an ANC provincial administration? To those who once supported Zuma over a distant, autocratic Thabo Mbeki, it can only be perceived as his having lost touch with the issues that affect them most. We know how that ended for his predecessor.

Thus lesson three: Play your strengths.

Sure there are larger, more structural issues with the party that spin can’t fix. And spin won’t do anything about the party’s internal factionalism and “mischief,” as Mantashe calls it. But as averse to spin as he claims the party to be, even he must recognise that in politics, perception is everything and to be something, you must manage it. DM


 

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