Friday, November 5, 2010

Thumbs up for the Government Chief Communicator

By Themba Sepotokele

Give it to Themba Maseko. The Government Chief Spokesperson has an unenviable job of keeping the lid tight on government information until the right time, while on the other hand providing accurate and timely information to the media. He is the first person journalists will call to comment on issues of national interest, to confirm or deny what journalists were told by their sources and to comment on issues pertaining to government communication.

In the past few weeks, the Chief Communicator has had to respond to reports about the possible and pending government reshuffle. Having learnt some tough, challenging and career-threatening lessons of not coining a message, Maseko then took the bull by the horn and unleashed the following carefully-crafted, well-worded and concise media statement:

“Government has noted the ongoing speculation about a cabinet reshuffle, including names that are proposed by the media for appointment or removal.

“We want to emphasise that any changes to the composition of the Executive is the prerogative of the President of the Republic of South Africa. Only the president knows where or when there will be a reshuffle, and what form it will take.”

A worthy spokesperson and spin-doctor, Maseko joined the fray after realising that his back was against the wall when the media continued reporting on the possible cabinet reshuffle and when names of ministers likely to face the chop were branded.

One thing for sure, Maseko knew that journalists had the facts right about the looming reshuffle, but had to take control and be in charge of setting the media agenda and not the media setting government agenda.

He was aware that highly-placed inside or confidential sources, referred to as “faceless sources,” were at play, feeding the media with information. Those who believe journalists converge at their famous and favourite watering-holes to plot stories should know that journalists get information from faceless sources within or close to the subject matter.

Maseko had to employ his strategy rather than address the issue at face value. He and his team had to develop a communication strategy to address the issue.

As and when called or cornered, Maseko would stick to the message that only the President of the Republic has the prerogative to make such an announcement. However, at one media briefing he sounded a bit irritated by the question of the possible reshuffle. He harshly said:

“Let's just put that matter to bed immediately. The purpose of the meeting yesterday was to discuss the economic growth-path and nothing else. The issue of a cabinet reshuffle is not a matter that is discussed by cabinet.

“It is the prerogative of the president to decide when or when not to change his cabinet.

“We will not waste your time by entertaining any question pertaining to the cabinet reshuffle as it was not on the agenda,” Maseko said.

Though not music to journalists’ ears, he didn't veer from the core message.

Therefore, when journalists were called to an urgent media briefing on Sunday with no clear brief about the subject matter, eyebrows were raised. I had to channel-hop from SuperSport to the E-news channel to SABC to radio for more than two hours to get the full picture. During media crossovers, both radio and television reporters said they were waiting for the exact words from President Jacob Zuma, as to whether there was a cabinet reshuffle or not.

Imagine had Maseko responded during media briefings by saying:

“There's no such a thing. You members of the media like creating stories or fabricating stories. Go tell your sources, in fact those faceless sources that are hell-bent in destabilizing government that there's no such a thing. There is no cabinet reshuffle on the cards. It is just the figment of your imagination.

“I now understand why the governing party is talking about the media tribunal, especially for print media as we want to stop such reckless and malicious reporting.”

I cannot imagine what would have happened to his credibility and reputation. Journalists would have mauled him like a pack of hyenas. After Zuma announced the new changes, Maseko's credibility remained intact. Indeed, he has learnt a lesson or two from the late Parks Mankahlana and Bheki Khumalo. Some of the lessons are: coin a message, and stick to it. He never fell into the trap of confirming or denying, thus his credibility was not dented.

Maseko had done his job. Coined the message, stuck to it, and ensured that the media, especially political correspondents and reporters had a buy-in until the President had spoken. Even when forced to confirm or deny, he remained unfazed.

When interviewed on Morning Live a day after the announcement of the new ministers, Maseko stuck to the message about the President's prerogative.

His predecessor at the Government Communication Information System (GCIS) Joel Netsitendze was a worthy, strategic communicator of note. Maseko has earned his stripes and has learnt from the best. Thumbs up!

Themba Sepotokele is a former journalist and now a Gauteng-based communicator and a media trainer attached to the Sol Plaatje Institute for Media Leadership at Rhodes University. He writes in his personal capacity.


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