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The voice of power – the spokespeople behind high profile figures

Published: 27 February 2012

PR is fun until the proverbial brown stuff hits the fan. Every person working in the communication industry has had to deal with a crisis situation at some stage of their careers. But if you add politics to the mix, it becomes a whole different ballgame. This week, Christine Greyvenstein looks at the spokespeople behind high-profile figures.

By Christine Greyvenstein

Politics is something that has fascinated, inspired and even scared the living daylights out of me. Whatever your thoughts on politics, you can’t deny that in South Africa, there is never a dull moment with our politicians. But with all of the pizzazz comes the occasional blunder. And you know what they say; behind every politician is a great spokesperson. Okay I made that up, but it’s not far from the truth. I caught up with police minister Nathi Mthethwa’s right-hand man, Zweli Mnisi, to talk all things PR.

Mnisi is one of those government contacts that knows how to put a smile on a journalist’s face - always prepared to answer questions, investigate reports and most importantly, answer his phone. But what’s it like on his side of the fence? Mnisi says each day is different and you have to deal with both the positive and the negative. “What I have learned to master is that media liaison is … about one setting the agenda, creating stories and telling them truthfully without any spinning mentality. The challenge at times is that while the majority of journalists are objective, you still get some who, no matter how positive a story is, will always focus on a negative aspect.”

Bad publicity is inevitable, but it’s all about damage control and Mnisi believes that the first step is always to take charge of the situation. “Part of the strategy would entail clearly understanding the nature of the bad publicity, and in cases where it may be a technical subject, I have been able to get a subject matter expert to be the lead spokesperson. My job would be to ensure I provide the necessary dos and don’ts to that person.” Although having proper measures in place and receiving constant guidance from the minister, he says you cannot ‘kill’ a story but only minimise its impact. “I strive to remain as objective and truthful as possible because trying to lie is something that can really affect your reputation as a spokesperson, in the process damage one’s relationship with the public, media and impact on the ministry’s brand.”

With the bad comes just as much good and unfortunately that isn’t what gets the most publicity. Mnisi shares his positive experiences of being the police minister’s spokesperson. “Working within [the police] ministry as a collective has been a challenge and, in most cases, been fun. You know, when we delivered on a safe 2010 FIFA World Cup, which was the biggest project ever for my CV, I was humbled when we walked around the country and people were saying: ‘well done, police.’ With COP17 and many other projects, I was responsible for the communication strategy of the ministry, in terms of allaying the fears of millions around the world on the issue of crime, that to me was a humbling experience.”

A burning question in the back of everyone’s minds must be ‘what’s it like working with Mthethwa?’ He is the minister of the men in blue responsible for the safety of our country’s citizens, after all! Mnisi says it’s simple – they have a great and professional working relationship based on mutual respect. “My strategy is simple: the minister of police is Nathi Mthethwa and not Zweli Mnisi. His voice and face need to be heard more. My job is to identify opportunities, advise him on how to address those and ensure that he continues to lead through communication. And yes, from time to time I will be this face, but it must be limitedly. I do not, personally, believe that a spokesperson must be in the limelight all the time. [Mthethwa]’s insights and humility to be corrected is what is most humbling.”

Although he believes that his profession is not taken for granted, there are still negative perceptions. “You have certain people in society who tend to generalise when it comes to government communicators. Like any other profession, including the media circle, you get excellent communicators and bad ones. What I tend to do is not to focus on the negativity but [instead to] strive to ensure that I continuously excel. I seek feedback on my writing, speeches and interviews from a broad point of view, whether from my wife, colleagues, friends or family – this feedback helps me to do even better.” And the most important aspect when you are a spokesperson is always being informed. “I read daily, broadly and do not just limit myself to policing issues,” ends Mnisi.

Do you think being in charge of PR for a high-profile figure or politician is something that just anyone with communication skills can take on? Do you think that government communicators are doing a good job? Keep an eye out for my next piece on spokespeople. In the meantime, leave your comments on our blog.

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