Ah, the travails, trials and tribulations of a political communicator. A very difficult and thankless job, one that looks attractive from a distance.
At 11am on 28 January when the country was debating the good, the bad and the funny of the extramarital sexual relations between the Democratic Alliance and the new kid on the block, Agang SA, in some corner sat a political communicator with egg on his face.
I am sure Thabo Leshilo, the (now former) communications director of Agang, dreaded that day. And social media did not spare him the shame and infamy that came with his indiscretions over the weekend.
DISCLAIMER: Thabo is a personal friend, a man I have deep personal and professional respect for, and for a good measure, a loyal and disciplined Orlando Pirates disciple.
But my friend did not cover himself in glory.
When news broke at the weekend that the DA could present as its presidential candidate Agang leader Dr Mamphela Ramphele for the upcoming elections, not only did Leshilo deny this, he rubbished the story.
Leshilo dismissed the claims of Ramphele’s joining the DA as “ridiculous and mischief-making”, insisting that she would lead Agang into the elections.
Of course, on a technicality, Leshilo can claim that Ramphele had not joined the DA but that it was a political arrangement specifically made for elections. I don’t know about you, but I would not buy that.
From where I sit, Leshilo lied, finish and klaar.
But let me start by giving him benefit of the doubt. It is possible Leshilo’s own boss(es) lied to him and did not take him into her confidence. I know this personally. Politicians can be devious and sometimes they lie to those very close to them.
It is also possible when he asked his boss(es) about the veracity of the rumours making rounds in the media, they used the words “ridiculous and mischief-making” and he just repeated them lock, stock and two smoking barrels.
If that is the case, this is very dishonourable of his leader/s and they should be ashamed of themselves. I hope they pay him enough to take such shame and infamy.
But it is also very possible that so shocked was he by the revelations, and thinking that there was no way his party and leader(s) could take this unthinkable step, he termed it “ridiculous and mischief-making”.
It is also possible that it was none of these possibilities, but that he was caught off-guard both because he was not fully informed about this matter and also because he was not prepared for a leak and he mouthed off the first thing that came to mind: “ridiculous and mischief-making”.
Whatever the case, Leshilo is not having the last laugh.
Let us deal with each of these possibilities and see what recourse Leshilo had as a political communicator.
1. In the event his boss(es) lied to him and did not take him into confidence
I was once asked this question by PowerFM’s Azania Mosaka and my response was simple: for me to be an effective communicator – let alone a political spin doctor – I need to have an almost equal relationship with my boss. I need for my boss to be able to look me in the eye and tell me uncomfortable truths. And then leave it to me to manage.
Political communicators manage the truth. They do not lie. And trust me, there is a huge difference. The truth is not universal and therefore, I can always present other facts that may make your truth less credible than mine.
As a communicator, all you have going for you is your reputation. And telling a lie is an active negation of that reputation. If your boss is a politician, lying may be their only currency. Not yours.
2. In the event he was so disagreeable with the latest move
A communicator does very well when they are not also activists. Although it is plausible to share the same beliefs with your principal, you are first a professional before you are an advocate. Your job is to advise. If you are lucky enough to have influence, cool, but do not confuse advice for influence.
If Leshilo was so shocked and disgusted by Ramphele’s move, he should have kept that to himself. All he had to do was to communicate his master’s position and maybe later, consider disassociating himself from the organisation if it no longer represented his views.
3. In the event he was unprepared and was caught by surprise
This happens to the best of us. The trick is that in such situation you do not deny or confirm (without using the two words of course). You need to waffle an answer that says nothing in a 1000 words while buying yourself time to come back with a coherent answer.
Something as simple as this would have bought Leshilo a get out of jail free card: “I cannot tell you what is coming, but I can confirm something significant is brewing.”
Or, “The matter is at a sensitive stage right now and I really cannot tell you more.”
Or “Call me on Monday evening and I will have something more concrete to tell you.”
It is better to be non-committal than to lie. Let people draw their own conclusions if need be, but don’t lie. DO NOT LIE, because if you do, it is tantamount to “ridiculous and mischief-making”.
It is unfortunate for one of the best journalists and editors of my time to find himself in such a position. But I can only hope he has learnt his lesson.
Note: Thabo Leshilo’s contract with Agang was terminated at the end of January 2014.
Rams Mabote is a journalist, spin doctor, connector, author and MC. He owns the consultancy, The Kingmaker. Follow him on Twitter @ramsmabote.
IMAGE: Media briefing / Agang SA website