PR masterclass lessons from our new president

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This article first appeared in Marklives.

Our new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has shown that he’s a master of a good PR stunt and, although this alone won’t solve our county’s myriad issues, it has given him the goodwill and support to allow him some breathing space.

Change is as good as a holiday, as many a wise person has said, and the recent changes in our political landscape have certainly created s sense of heady excitement, not too unlike that felt in our festive summer months. Of course, we’re all jaded enough to not head down a well-trodden path of celebration yet; we know that the empty rhetoric means nothing if solid political policy doesn’t follow.

It comes at a time when some of our opposition parties are caught up in in-fighting and struggling to find their way and purpose. In an environment where their main foe (and reason for existing, some may say) is no longer there, it’s even more important for them to have a solidified vision and a coherent message. Perhaps they would do well in looking to our new president to pick up some handy hints on how they can sharpen up their PR plan:

1. Make a couple of grand gestures to show you are control

Being in control is as much as about what you show, as about that which you actually do. On the morning that our former president, Jacob Zuma, resigned, the properties of his friends and no.-1 arch-enemies, the Guptas, were raided in a dramatic dawn bust. Streets were cordoned off and interviews were conducted in public, surrounded by very impressive-looking police teams.

As many cynics mumbled, there probably wasn’t a huge amount of actual forensic evidence gained from this; I’m sure that many a hard-drive was wiped clean and many a stack of paper shredded long in advance. But it wasn’t really about that. It was about making a grand gesture to show who was now in control and showing that dramatic changes were underfoot.

2. Disarm your enemies with charm

There are two kinds of politicians: those who get things happening by trying to get everyone on their side (see former US president, Barack Obama, and Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau) and those who trample over objections, making people do their will by pure force alone (see Donald Trump).

The past few years have seen nothing if not a massive battle of wills every time our political parties come face-to-face, and we’d become used to parliamentary meetings and SONA debates that were as dramatic and confrontational as a WWF wrestling finale. But there is only so much that pure aggression, stubbornness and force of will can achieve, and it seems our new president knows the power in disarming the enemies with charm. It puts objectors on the backfoot and positions them as obstructers to the peace — and often, as in the case with Julius Malema, leaves them in a position where they need to find a new enemy to object to and a new purpose for being.

3. Stop for a selfie

There’s not much more of a measure these days which shows popularity such as being asked to be in a selfie: it shows that a person is not only famous but also liked enough for someone else to want to be seen in a photo with them.

For politicians — often described as being aloof and out of touch with the common person, and in recent years, purposely being surrounded by huge security teams — a small gesture like this goes a massive way in telling a new story. Being seen “in among the people”, dressed casually and without a barriers of security people keeping the public an arm’s length away, is a strong message that the new president wants to be seen as a man of the people, approachable, and open to hearing the thoughts and wishes of South Africans.

4. Align yourself with a (folk) hero

A good speechwriter knows that a tug on the heartstrings can always be a winner — and so the quote from the recently departed Hugh Masekela in Ramaphosa’s SONA speech was a masterstroke. It not only showed that the president is someone who is in tune with popular culture but it also aligned him with a man whose place in commenting on and fighting against the inhumanities of our past had a warmth and credibility.

Even more amusing, however, was former finance minister Malusi Gigaba’s apparent attempt to do the same, by quoting Kendrick Lamar at the end of his budget speech. It didn’t quite have the same outcome, though, as it showed a lack of sensitivity and seriousness in a time when measures were being announced that will have a profound impact on the people of South Africa.

5. Create a hashtag

Of course, no good PR campaign would be without a hashtag, and soon after the president quoted Bra Hugh in his SONA address, the hashtag #SendMe began doing the rounds on social media. It was an inspired choice of quote — it demonstrated a commitment to changing things, and getting his hands dirty, but it also invited the general public to get involved and be a part of this change.

So, a strong start to a PR campaign, which seems to have done what it set out to do: a general public who is, in large, open to working with a new leader and positive about his leadership; opposition parties who are, largely, cooperative; and a generally positive environment and stable economy, despite some tough measures being announced in the budget.

Yes, we’re still in the honeymoon phase of this “New Dawn” — we will need to see what substance lies underneath the positive spin. But having a president who understands the value of appearances and perception, and who wants to get people on side, can’t be a bad start.

Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.