What The ANC War Room Scandal Teaches Us About Good Public Relations

The War Room was doomed from the start. Disseminating fake messages is terrible PR as it erodes the public's trust in you from the get-go.

26/01/2017 04:56 SAST | Updated 26/01/2017 04:56 SAST
Rajesh Jantilal / AFP / Getty Images
A photo shows a flag of the African National Congress (ANC) with a portrait of President Jacob Zuma before it is flown over New Year's day revellers and holidaymakers on Durban Beach during New Year festivities in Durban on January 1, 2017.

Allegations of an alleged ANC war room that used various tactics – such as claims of printing fake EFF posters – have once again brought into question the role of public relations and PR companies in managing reputation and influencing perceptions.

In its simplest form, PR is maintaining on-going positive goodwill towards your core public. Tactical approaches differ, but the genesis is in ensuring that whatever you do or say, should stand up to reputational scrutiny and test. At the core of this activity is reputation management, which is key to attracting and maintaining a positive image. What is positive could be subjective, depending on which public you are targeting, or wish to influence. But what is not subjective is that whatever positive outcome you desire or want to achieve, should protect your brand from being sullied by negative comments or competitor attacks.

In the case of the war room, which presumably was aimed at influencing votes in favour of the ANC at the expense of opposition parties, the whole strategy was faulty from the start.

Faulty in the sense it appeared as if the brief was to win the war for souls and minds of voters at all costs, and using any means possible. Money, it appears, was no object. Therein lies the problem when you try to implement a PR campaign built on such a shaky foundational strategy.

One is tempted to ask, was a situation analysis conducted, was a pulse check made of the people's mood and perception of the ANC as a party and its leaders; and most importantly, was a review made of the messaging and PR strategy then? Had that been done, and honestly analysed, the team assigned on this project would have agreed on key messages that are not only factual and speak to the positives of what the party has achieved, but most importantly, address the perceptions of the publics they wanted to target and/or influence.

PR is about being close to your public, understanding them and shaping and managing opinions and perceptions through proven activities, reputable service and above all – honesty.

Those key messages would have spoken to issues such as service delivery, perceived corruption in government, unemployment, education and crime among others. These issues needed – and still need – honest and robust messaging that speaks to success and failures, and how those failures can be turned into success. The messaging would have focused less on poking holes into messaging from opposition parties, as that would be diversionary, but more into selling a credible political promise.

As it turned out, or as it is alleged, the messaging was premised on an unsavoury approach to smear the reputation of opponents. Unbelievable allegations that fake posters were allegedly printed and presumably distributed, and other negative messages designed to tarnish opponents are an affront to the noble discipline of PR and reputation management.

Disseminating fake messages is not PR. It is an affront to the people, akin to messaging criminality because you make people believe a narrative that is faulty and not factual. The damage to the ANC's image, if these allegations are true, will be PR fodder for its rivals at a time when it needs all the reputational goodwill it needs, especially after the mauling it got during the August municipal polls.

A root and branch review is needed by the party's communications team to restore reputational credibility and embark on a positive and factual charm offensive. You can't PR your way into political success based on a rogue narrative. When it boomerangs, like it appears to have in this case, its impact will be long lasting as it becomes part of your reputational history.

PR is about being close to your public, understanding them and shaping and managing opinions and perceptions through proven activities, reputable service and above all – honesty.