It started with a tweet, a perfectly timed tweet (or two or three) on Valentine’s Day 2014.Exactly 366 days since he last tweeted (13 February 2013), Oscar Pistorius posted these tweets to his 300 000 followers:
A few words from my heart on oscarpistorius.com
@oscarpistorius: A few words from my heart on, oscarpistorius.com
A few words from my heart, on oscarpistorius.com.
(Strangely, when I looked again, there were only two. He’s deleted the middle one: it is, after all, unnecessary to mention oneself in a tweet.)
What does Oscar’s heart (allegedly) say?
When you click through to the link, his personal website, the following appears on the home page:
“14 February 2014
No words can adequately capture my feelings about the devastating accident that has caused such heartache for everyone who truly loved – and continues to love Reeva.
The pain and sadness – especially for Reeva’s parents, family and friends consumes me with sorrow.
The loss of Reeva and the complete trauma of that day, I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
What my heart says
When I read this press release message, I immediately tweeted:
Wonder how many lawyers & reputation managers wrote #OscarPistorius V day statement, and how long it took. V carefully worded.
As a wordsmith and plain language promoter, I appreciate that it is brief and that each word had to justify its inclusion. I imagine words such as ‘tragic’, ‘regret’, ‘express’ and ‘heartache’ being dragged away kicking and screaming to sulk in the corner. And I can imagine how badly the word ‘I’ took to being hidden away at the end. (“But it’s a statement from your heart; how can you express your own feelings without me” I imagine it crying.)
The 64 words that were included, 53 if you exclude the necessaries ‘and’, ‘the’ and ‘that’, are very unlikely to have come from Oscar’s heart, or indeed his hand. As a lawyer, I appreciate the disclaimer right up front. By claiming that words are inadequate to express his feelings, he sets up a defence against those who would criticise his words as not displaying enough caring or remorse. And note how it is the ‘devastating accident’, and not his own actions, that has caused all the pain. This cleverly frames the events of that day as having a separate existence from the one who set them in motion.
The first two sentences refer to everyone else’s love for Reeva and pain at her death. Some may say this shows that he puts their feelings before his own, chivalrous in the circumstances. Not me. I read between these lines the complete absence of Oscar’s own pain and sadness. The only feelings he confesses to having, are those “about the devastating accident”. Call me a cynic, but those are probably closer to guilt and resentment than love and pain.
[The pedant in me can’t help but noticing the omission of the second dash in both the first and the second sentence. Nothing turns on it, but that didn’t stop it from shooting me squarely between the eyes.]
But, to put out the fires people like me commonly cause, he (or rather, his spokeswoman, Anneliese Burgess) adds a third sentence. In an unusual construction, this sentence puts the object of the preposition ‘with’ at the beginning of the sentence, rather than after “carry with me”.
While serving the presumed intention of giving the objects (“loss of Reeva”, “complete trauma of that day”) prominence, the way the sentence is crafted minimises the position of the only “I” in the statement.
This is a pity because, if someone talks to me from their heart, I expect a volley of ‘I’s.
What the experts say
Worried that I was becoming too analytical, I consulted two of my favourite experts.
My legal brain is always keen to share his views, but I’ve never yet taken him up on this offer in my columns. My husband, Rael Gootkin, a director and senior litigation attorney at Werksmans, reminded me of the saying in legal circles, “Judges read newspapers”.
“People facing criminal prosecution (and their legal teams) often feel the need to issue public statements. They want the world to hear their side of the story in the hope that public support will help their case,” he told me. “But what they forget and their counsel should know is that whatever you say or write in a public forum can come back to haunt you.”
He explains that accused can be cross-examined on public utterances and statements. “The first thing a good prosecutor will ask is why he didn’t declare his love for Reeva in the statement.” I see where he is going. If Oscar went to the trouble of publishing his statement on Valentine’s Day, it would have been the perfect time to describe to the world how much he misses her and how deeply he loved her. But he didn’t.
Rael advises careful lawyers to tell their clients in these circumstances to keep quiet. (Well, those aren’t exactly the words he used, as those who know him will detect, but they convey his message.)
Armed with the strategic legal reasons why Oscar’s statement was ill-advised, I sought the insight of a reputation management expert. I have recently ‘met’ Kaveer Beharee, owner manager at Ubiquity Communications, a stakeholder management and communications consultancy. When we began interacting on Twitter, I visited his company website and was struck by the elegant simplicity of their by-line: “The right message all the time”. So I asked him whether Oscar’s statement was “the right message”.
Kaveer feels the “statement, designed to be contrite, was released to exploit the media exposure to the maximum. This is a polished PR campaign designed with a very clear and precise message and objective.”
We didn’t discuss the statement but his next comment echoed my own thoughts. “An interesting omission from the beginning of the statement is that Oscar neglected to express his loss of Reeva. He chose rather to focus on his feelings of sorrow for the tragedy. At the end of the statement, he then indicates that he carries the loss of Reeva. But it’s not a priority. And he expresses no remorse whatsoever. “
Oscar has been silent on social media since the day before he shot Reeva Steenkamp. He’s waited a whole year to ‘speak’ in public about the events of the early hours of 14 February 2013. When he does, he chooses to tweet the link to his statement with the words “A few words from my heart”.
But an analysis of the statement leads to the inescapable truth that there is, in fact, no heart at all in Oscar’s cherry-picked words, just the obligatory observations of someone who feels he has to say something.
But, given that it is going to be read by the judge deciding the case, and dissected by the prosecutor, just how wise was it for Oscar to release a statement? And, given that his spokeswoman or his lawyers or both decided he should do so, just how wise was it for Oscar to release this statement?