Media Online: The art of Spin

Managing reputations or crises in the media is a tricky business. Just ask Jimmy Manyi. He’s broken the cardinal rule of crisis communications and high-level media liaison by becoming the story himself. Now it doesn’t matter whether he spews pearls of wisdom or his usual nonsense. It’s all about him, writes Glenda Nevill in a story first published in The Media.

As one media consultant – who specialises in reputation management on a global scale – told The Media, “When dealing with a crisis, one becomes ‘knitted’ into the fabric of that client and almost never do you become the ‘face’ of the crisis or, heavens forbid, get the glory for it,” she says, not wanting to be named to safeguard her clients.

It’s a strategy that Chris Vick of Codeblack has fine-tuned. As Tokyo Sexwale’s media man for many years, in government and in the corporate world, Vick knows only too well how layered managing a crisis within government can be. “There are some unique challenges, particularly the fact that the crisis is usually triggered or initiated by a ‘rival’ – either a political rival, a disgruntled public servant, or a party rival,” he said. “It is rarely, if ever, as cut and dried as it may appear on the surface.”

Vick added that the stakeholders with an interest in the issue are also quite different. “Businesses have to keep their customers and shareholders happy; those are two fairly easily segmented audiences. But Government has to worry about voters, party supporters, opposition parties, Parliament, Cabinet, international investors, local business, labour, the unemployed, the homeless, the voiceless – the list is almost endless.”

No matter how different the crises, there are certain rules for the way in which media consultants should manage the story.

“Of course you always need to tailor your response to the context but the same general rules apply. The first rule is ‘Don’t lie, you will get caught’,” said McCann’s Ranjeni Munusamy. “I’m a graduate of the school of hard knocks and have come through several harrowing crises – including losing my job twice, both times making big news. I’ve learnt to take it on the chin, pick myself up when I get knocked down, and accept that the news cycle can be your best friend and worst enemy at the same time.”

Having worked within the government space, with Zuma first and then as Blade Nzimande’s spokesperson, Munusamy is well qualified to comment. “Very often, the client’s first instinct is to opt for legal action to counter negative publicity, believing that an announcement of intention to sue translates into a statement of innocence. A good media consultant should be able to advise the client to respond to the issues in the public domain first and deal with their dented egos later.”

“A good media consultant is someone who understands the differences between the actual business problem and the communications problem. It is someone who knows the media; knows the client and understands the core of the problem that needs solving. A good media consultant is calm and honest, and is able to formulate a rapid response backed by a communications plan that will help resolve the issues or crisis,” said Craig Rodney and Glen Bvuma of Cerebra Communicatons.

A good media consultant should NOT say ‘no comment’, nor should they lie, blame others, threaten to sue or panic. The Joost sex tape scandal is a case in point, said Rodney. “He denied it was him, enlisted respected members of the church and sporting worlds to publicly defend him. He basically accused everyone that thought it was of being a liar. Turns out he was the liar and he dented the reputations of those who defended him while destroying his own reputation.”

Munusamy said that Nelson Mandela’s health scare earlier this year is an example of a badly managed crisis and of a brilliantly managed crisis too. “The response of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and former GCIS head Themba Maseko was a class act. The decision to have the press conference at the hospital with the Surgeon-General Veejay Ramlakan explaining to a highly anxious nation exactly what was wrong with their icon, immediately settled the hysteria. Motlanthe’s reassuring and apologetic tone and Ramlakan’s frankness and lucidity lent credibility to what they were saying. In the face of enormous panic, no one disbelieved them. That was quite a feat.”

The ability to stay objective is critical, said Sentient Communications managing director, Sarah Rice. “It’s easy to be sucked into the drama but without remaining slightly outside of the high emotions, it’s impossible to provide good communications advice.”

Rice added that the most important rule is to be “open, clear and not to change your story. Don’t be afraid to take a bit of time to get your facts together and then keep the narrative flowing. Second important rule: make sure your spokespeople are ready and available. Nature, and the media, abhors a vacuum and they will fill it with speculation if there is no access to information. Your spokespeople are critical to keeping the information on track.”

It is not uncommon for government spokespeople to go to ground during a crisis. “In my view, the role of a spokesperson should be to promote and protect their principal: that means usually being the bulletproof vest of their minister, taking the punches to protect the principal,” said Vick.

Kingmaker’s Rams Mabote, who is currently the spokesperson for agriculture minister, Tina Joemat-Peterson, said “Often government spokespeople think that the best solution to every crisis is spin. Not true. Sometimes simple facts can undo a crisis. A good spokesperson is key. Once you have the facts, you need someone to articulate them succinctly and convincingly.”

The problems come in when clients “deny, delay or do not respond or reply”, says Mabote. “Sometimes, and dare I say often, the truth is quickest solution to a crisis. Take the current mess about the police headquarters, Roux Shabangu, Bheki Cele and Public Works. First the parties concerned deny, delay or do not respond and when they finally decided to respond, they lied. It went from a small crisis to serious disaster.”

A plan of action can help mitigate the effects of a disaster, said Evelyn Holtzhausen of HWB Communications. “Do a dry run. Use the incident command system, (ICS) which puts a single person, that you trust, in charge to manage the public profile of the company. Give that person all the resources they need. Tell staff what you are doing. Tell them to not to talk to strangers, then stand back…and don’t interfere with the process,” he said.

He said the toughest crisis he’s handled was the murder of Mrs Marike de Klerk by a security guard in the complex where she lived. He represented the security company. “I was given carte blanche to act on their behalf and given full access to any information I needed. I did not have to wait for CEO approval of comments. I was able to call journalists and give them information, before they called me. I gave hourly, daily then weekly updates. So I led the story, the tail did not wag the dog.”

Of course, the incredible power of social media has made reputation management that much more complex. Tamaryn Smith, managing director of Chillibush PR, said there has been a “huge increase in awareness of corporate sector crises because of the ease of online access to news and conversations”.

“Whistleblowers and others can easily share confidential and often damaging information, and news reporting can rapidly escalate and blow situations out of proportion. Customers also have a very public forum to complain.

“Social media does allow companies to become part of the conversation, but this must be done skillfully and only when appropriate. It is often better to track and deal with complaints directly with the client, rather than being defensive or getting into a possible debate in a public forum, said Smith. “The science of online reputation management is to have your tools and online community manager in place so that you can swiftly move through the spectrum of ‘monitor – engage – respond – leverage – drive’ in accordance with the situation.”

Cut 2 Black’s Faizel Cook said it is key that senior people in any organisation – government or corporate – go through media training. “It’s unrealistic to expect any person to perform well in the glare of television lights if they have never been exposed to it. It doesn’t hurt having a spin doctor on your books-much in the same way as having a top-notch lawyer to call on can’t hurt – especially when you’re in real trouble,” he said.

Cook singled out Hawks spokesperson Mcintosh Polela as an example of a really good communicator. “He’s always available, sticks with the facts, and when he’s not sure, he says so. This is incredibly important in times of crisis when you may not have all the information at your fingertips.”

As Sentient’s Rice says: “In terms of planning for a crisis, it’s impossible. Life never turns out the way we planned no matter how many pages of scenarios we have listed in our crisis manual. The only way to plan for a crisis is to plan on how to communicate, with clear responsibilities and processes.”