A few gentle pointers for the National Communications Task Team

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It’s probably going to take at least a year for the reputation of Communications Minister Faith Muthambi to recover. If you are appointed as a minister, and your first act is to anoint Hlaudi Motsoeneng at the SABC, despite the Public Protector’s findings, you are clearly a political masochist. That’s fine. You’re not alone. But it does mean that many of your decisions are going to be clouded by that one act. So, when you decide to appoint a National Communications Task Team, it is going to be evaluated through the prism that is your Motsoeneng appointment. Especially when he is part of it, even if the prism turns out to be imperfect.

On Monday morning the DA’s Shadow Minister of Communications Gavin Davis issued a statement under the thoughtful and non-partisan heading: Muthambi Task Team Stacked with Zuma Acolytes. The subject of the statement was the appointment by Muthambi of a National Communications Task Team. The team is supposed to look at ways for government to communicate more effectively. Or, if you happen, like us, to be of a cynical disposition, to ensure that more people believe its “good story to tell”.

The main point of Davis’s statement was to point out that Hlaudi Motsoeneng was a part of this team. So, much to the glee of Davis, is Vusi Mona,he of SANRAL fame. Along with former national government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi. And then there is current ANC spokesperson Khusela Sangoni-Khawe, former Cope spokesperson, then ANC spin doctor, and finally Daily Maverick contributor Ongopotse JJ Tabane.

All in all, if you look at that list, you would immediately think this is a political hatchet job. It’s jobs for pals who already have jobs. And who think like the Minister and agree with her, and won’t rock the boat. One might think that the only recommendation that could come out of this group is for the SABC to simply up its quota of good news, and for government to spend its entire advertising budget on the incredibly well-watched ANN7.

But, dear reader, Mr Davis has done us a disservice. As always, it is a good idea to look at the entire list. It comprises fifty-one people. And many of them have very different outlooks on life to the five already mentioned.

Just last week Wits Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Tawana Kupe wrote a blistering critique of Motsoeneng’s appointment in theMail & Guardian. It’s hard to think of two people more different than Kupe and Motsoeneng. Motsoeneng is all confidence and the smoldering strength of a tight-head prop. Kupe has the twinkly toes of a centre, ready to dance out of the way with a smile and a joke.

Then there’s Wits lecturer Dr Glenda Daniels, who’s written a book on the relationship between the ANC and the media [no doubt the first of many – Ed]. And has not held back about the “hysteria” of the ANC in this regard. Former Supersport CEO Happy Ntshingila is there too. A more professional marketing and communications guy you won’t find. And when it comes to branding and advertising more generally, Thebe Ikalafeng is not known as a brand guru for nothing. John Dludlu is a former spokesperson for Transnet, former editor of The Sowetan, and of course, more recently, a former spokesperson for the “family of Zwelinzima Vavi”. Which hardly puts him on the Luthuli House Christmas card list.

In other words, what we have here looks like an attempt to really improve government’s communications effectiveness. Yes, many of the people on this team are already in government. But they are the people who will actually be deployed in running the operation once a strategy has been decided upon. So it makes complete sense that they are there. And don’t forget, Mona may not be popular, and has a particular backstory, but he is a bloody good spinner.

(Having said all of that, why Motsoeneng is there is still, well, foggy.)

So then, if we were on this task team, what would we recommend? Here's our set of unsolicited and unpaid advices:

For a start, asking fifty-one people to come up with a strategy on communications is like asking eighty people to agree on economic policy. And if the ANC’s National Executive Committee can’t do it in twenty years, don’t expect fast results yourself.

Secondly, get Cabinet off its rear end, and appoint a national government spokesperson. There should be only one candidate, Phumla Williams. She is honest, sharp, and able to defend government when she needs to. Sometimes a spokesperson has to know when to be aggressive, and when not to, when to fight, and when to concede. She does. And she’s been doing it now for almost two years in an acting role. Pick her. Do it now.

Third, go to the ministers who come across terribly on the broadcast media, and make them better. The media love interviewing ministers, the people who make decisions. Everyone wants to hear from the top person, not a spokesperson. So make sure they’re all able to do the different types of interviews they’ll be called on to do, the interrogatory five minutes with John Robbie, the half an hour on SAfm, and the full hour on Radio Metro. And broadcast is becoming only more important, as newspaper readerships drop.

Fourth, get better at spotting stories that reflect well on government, and use them. Last week, even this cynical, counter-revolutionary, capitalist supporting, anti-everything-state-run website published a story about the really important impact of social grants over time. It was the result of independent research, which was picked up by the Business Day. Why did government not use that? Get one media person, a real professional, to find a list of good stories, and then don’t send out press releases en masse. That’s ineffective and not very elegant. That person should select the right media outlet for that story. And develop contacts in the media. And don’t just send a journalist the information: phone them up, and offer the minister to comment, with full permission to ask “about other issues”. You’ll get much better press.

Fifth: when a decision is made in Cabinet or by government that is likely to prove controversial, that includes a forecast for, say, more Hlaudi weather for the SABC, have a media strategy to deal with it. Don’t just leave the minister to go to a press conference and hope for the best. Send her out with a list of reasons. Even the most indefensible decisions can be defended - sometimes all you have is smoke, but at least provide some smoke. The worst of the damage can be lessened. Look at Vusi Mona and e-tolls.

Sixth, make more use of off the record briefings. Let journalists know what is happening, and why. Give them advance warning. And when they get something wrong, don’t ever ask for a retraction or an apology. That just makes them want to fight (sometimes wrongly). Rather, explain it all, and you’ll see the tenor of the coverage change. Jimmy Manyi has done this well, intelligently, and very professionally in the past. It can be scary for a government communicator, but it works.

Seventh: Make sure each minister has a proper Twitter account. And then employ a young bright thing to actually send out tweets. The joy of Twitter for a minister is that it can be used to make an announcement, or to respond selectively to certain issues. And then further questions in the “mentions” column can just be ignored. So if the Sunday Times makes a claim against them, don’t wait until Monday to deal with it. Talk to the minister, and send out a brief response. And then ignore the questions. It will allow you to control the story. And that’s important.

And then there is the best overall advice we can give you:

Govern well.

Get this message home to the entire operation, all of government. If you don’t want to see it made public, don’t do it. Don’t spend our money badly. Don’t be corrupt. Don’t try to hide it when your colleagues are; that always makes it worse. Just do simply what people elected you to do, and life will be so much easier.

Really. It's easy. You'll see. Just try it.

Article by Stephen Grootes

Article Source: Daily Maverick