“When it comes to corporate PR, I’d say never pick a fight – period! It gains you little and you risk a lot. You can and often should dispute the claim or clarify the issues, but always do it by taking the high road.” – American PR practitioner Rob Bectel
I was both saddened and bewildered by the personal attacks by Helen Zille on City Press reporter Carien du Plessis and Mayor Patricia de Lille’s chief of staff, Paul Boughey on the Cape Argus municipal reporter Anel Lewis over her reporting on the proposed new logo for the Cape Town municipality.
Let me say immediately that I am heavily conflicted.
Du Plessis and Lewis were media colleagues in Cape Town.
I covered a lot of court cases, media briefings and general news stories with Du Plessis when she worked as a reporter in Cape Town and I always found her quiet and courteous. I never sensed that she was a crusader or that she had an agenda and I have never found her writing to be polemical.
I dealt with Lewis regularly when I worked in the media department at the Cape Town municipality after fleeing the news bias and human rights abuses occurring at the SABC’s Sea Point offices and not once, even remotely, did I get the feeling that she had an axe to grind, a political agenda or that her work was driven by animosity.
There was no need for Zille to descend to the level of personal attack on Du Plessis or for Paul Boughey, Patricia de Lille’s chief of staff, to follow her example and to similarly attack Lewis.
There is not a newspaper in the country that would not give either of them a right of reply letter or op-ed article the next day in which they could provide a cogent and detailed response to matters that concern them because editors realise that such debate keeps a matter of topical public interest on the boil, fuels further debate and sells more newspapers.
When all else fails the last but very effective resort is to the press ombudsman or the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and I believe, speaking from personal experience, that this is something journalists dread.
In 1998 Elna Boesak, a former colleague, reported me to the BCCSA. She alleged that in my coverage of her husband Alan’s trial I had, “through comprehensive, repetitive and one-sided coverage of untested allegations against Boesak, created and sustained a hostile and partially informed public climate in which a perception of guilt was encouraged”. (Media Ethics – an introduction to responsible journalism – Johan Retief (Oxford University Press, 2002) Pages 93-4.
That is, in essence, the charge that Boughey makes against Lewis, accusing her of seeking to “undermine” the Council though “irresponsible” and “appalling” reporting on the proposed new Cape Town logo.
The BCCSA rejected Ms Boesak’s claim because, as I pointed out, to me it was immaterial whether he was found guilty or innocent – it was just another story to be covered – and I could only report on what transpired in court on the day and what was transpiring at the time was the state case. I pointed out that when Boesak took the oath and testified in his defence then that was what I would report on and that would provide the balance that Mrs Boesak sought. (As it turned out, Boesak chose not to testify.)
However, as Retief points out in his book, my reporting on the amounts Boesak was alleged to have misappropriated was “sloppy” and that was a huge wake up call and forced me to confront a stark reality – I needed to up my game.
That said, I have been unable to discern anything in Lewis’ reporting on the new logo story which remotely justifies Boughey’s paranoia. The council chamber is her office; it’s what keeps a roof over her head and everything, not least her professional reputation, depends on persuading the various political factions there and the municipality’s officials that she is neutral and objective in her reporting – that she is, in the final analysis, a professional journalist. The more she is trusted as an honest broker the more likely the officials and the politicians who work there are likely to confide in her.
One of the most difficult tasks I had when I joined the COCT media department was persuading officials that there was nothing personal in the stories written by reporters. I assured them that the reporter simply did the story assigned them on the day and the next day would move on to the next assignment.
When I joined the Cape Town municipality I expected to find a corporate culture of late to arrive at work and early to leave.
I was overjoyed to find the opposite. It is full of committed, hard-working, talented people, people who were dedicated to service delivery and I felt privileged to work with them and to communicate their message to the 3.7 million people who live in Cape Town.
Helen Zille, then the mayor, had decreed that all media queries had to be filtered through the media department and reporters chafed against that but knew we would do our best to get them timeous responses that would be well and accurately drafted. The specialist municipal reporters simply spoke to senior managers – who would accept their calls – and then approach us if they needed clarity. That was the City of Cape Town’s media protocol at the time – speak to the experts and get the information. At the time, the COCT was widely regarded by local and international journalists as the most media-friendly (read “transparent” and “accountable”) metro in South Africa.
Did reporters get it wrong when I was there?
Occasionally – and one such case involved Anel who, at the time, worked for the Cape Times. Driving to work in June 2009 I was astonished to see the Cape Times poster, ‘City police worst in SA’.
Lewis had written story based on an analysis by academic Andrew Faull of the Metro Police in all the major cities.
Once I had read Faull’s full report I realised that she had, under deadline pressure, read only the section on the Cape Town Metro Police and that this had given her the mistaken impression that led to an incorrect conclusion and the dramatic headline.
I was tasked with drafting a response to the Cape Times but it proved ancillary to a letter from Faull, which the Cape Times published, in which he pointed out that his study in no way found or stated the that the Cape Town metro police were the worst in the country.
And that was the end of the matter. Our cordial professional relationship with Lewis proceeded as before. Never in a million years would it have occurred to Robert McDonald, who did an outstanding job as spokesman for Helen Zille when she was mayor, to attack Lewis as Boughey has recently done. He did not accuse her of “irresponsible reporting”, “appalling journalism” and seeking to “undermine” the municipality and he simply left it to the media department to respond – which we did with the appropriate professional decorum.
We responded with the same decorum to two journalists who we considered were reporting in a non-objective manner: Anna Majavu a reporter with the Sowetan and Peter Luhanga who worked for a news agency, West Cape News, which provided stories for the Cape Argus.
Our discourse with 99.9% of the journalists who were in constant contact with us in their reporting on municipal matters was cordial and professional and, in comparison, the hostility which Majavu manifested in her reporting on the DA-run Cape Town municipality and in her discourse with us, was aberrational.
In an uncanny prelude to the current furore, as Zille might justifiably point out, the news gathering fraternity went berserk when the DA simply removed her name from the mailing list for their press releases. NB: the DA did not ban her from attending party news conferences or refuse to take her calls – she simply no longer received emails from them. Ironically, Majavu was later to concede, in an interview with this website, that she had done exactly the same thing – but there was no outraged condemnation of her from those who so vehemently criticised the DA at the time …
Gareth van Onselen set out the rationale for the DA’s action in a brilliant analysis on Politicsweb and it bears re-reading.
Luhanga had just started his career as a journalist and was clearly keen to make his mark but he often, in his eagerness to hit the headlines, saw municipal smoke where there was no fire. We patiently refuted his often incorrect assertions and brought our concerns to the attention of his principals who responded by more closely vetting his copy.
Having worked in private sector PR (Group Editors Natal), in public sector PR with the COCT and as a reporter on newspapers, radio and TV, my analysis of the furore of Lewis’ breaking of the new COCT logo story is that, firstly, a fundamental mistake was made in the way in which the new logo was announced and that secondly – and this is more troubling – the way in which DA politicians have seized control of the municipal media department serves the interests of no one.
The first mistake, in my subjective and possibly incorrect opinion, was when Mayor De Lille briefed her top 500 officials about the new logo, two weeks before she was due to raise the matter in Council. Most people like to gossip – me included. Few people can keep a secret – me included. I’ll wager at least 50% of those were at the logo briefing photographed it on their smartphones and let their friends know. I am surprised that it took almost a week to reach the attention of Lewis. Would it not have been better, tactically speaking, to first break the news at a council meeting where municipal reporters were present and could ask questions and then to brief managers in more detail thereafter?
When I worked at the media department (2007- 2009), Mayor Zille and her successor, Dan Plato, left us alone – they handled the political side and we kept the citizens informed and dealt with their queries. The communication director, Pieter Cronjé, and a brilliant media strategist and media manager, Kylie Hatton, spoke routinely to the media and with authority and gravitas on a variety of municipal matters and so did the bureaucrats – but only on their area of expertise. And we had one cardinal rule – we did not issue press releases that were political in content or intent. The rationale was simple. We were public servants responsible for public information and we represented and worked for the ratepayers who paid our salaries and all the citizens of Cape Town whatever their ethnicity, religion or political beliefs. It was imperative, therefore, that our work was politically neutral, particularly when it came to service delivery.
That changed, I believe, when De Lille and Boughey took over. The first step was to forbid all the executive directors and directors (the true subject experts in a complex and diverse organisation) from speaking to the media. Only Mayoral Committee members, all politicians, could speak. Zille, who had previously agreed that there was indeed a distinction between public information and political communication now, as Premier rather than mayor, asserted, “All communication is political communication”.
In phase two the De Lille government gained control of the media department by pushing out communication director, Cronjé, a principled communicator who believed absolutely in separating politics from municipal service delivery. He was, presumably, seen as a gatekeeper by the politicians and their advisors. Boughey then assumed effective control. When media manager Kylie Hatton left, Priya Reddy, the deputy mayor’s political spokesperson, was appointed media manager.
The third step – and I believe that even the most cursory analysis of recent press releases by the COCT media department will show that – was to force the media department to issue politically-loaded media releases. DA politicians are now measured on their media profile.
In any city the size of Cape Town it is imperative that there is a symbiotic relationship between, politicians, municipal officials and the media. In Cape Town we have dozens of media outlets – broadsheets and tabloids, dailies and weeklies, mainstream newspapers and community newspapers, radio stations and television stations. Each and every one is important in communicating with citizens and no good purpose is served, political or administrative, when reporters are denounced with the seething contempt which Zille and Boughey have recently manifested. In no way am I suggesting that reporters should not be called to account for incorrect articles – all I am saying is that, in doing so, the discourse should be civil and dignified and should not descend into personal invective.
Above all, in strategic terms, the timing of Boughey’s attack is bewildering. The whole of Cape Town is aware that Iqbal Survé now calls the shots at Newspaper House and that the pressure on the journalists there to take an anti-DA, New Age–type approach will be less than subliminal. Why then, at this critical juncture, does Boughey go out of his way to alienate Newspaper House staff by an ad hominem attack on one of their colleagues?
IMAGE: Helen Zille and the media / DA Flickr stream
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