Be open on Madiba – PR gurus

2011-01-27 13:39

Authorities should be completely open with the media on Nelson Mandela’s hospitalisation and provide regular updates, public relations experts said today.

“They are opening themselves up to rampant speculation by not keeping the press informed,” said Evelyn Holtzhausen, chief executive of Cape Town-based HWB Communications.

“The first rule of public relations is to keep the press informed.”

He was speaking as scores of journalists continued to camp outside Johannesburg’s Milpark Hospital, where Mandela was admitted yesterday for what the Nelson Mandela Foundation said – in a two-sentence statement – were “routine tests”.

Since then there has been a string of visitors to the former president, and a brief statement from the African National Congress giving no further information of substance.

Holtzhausen said that from a PR perspective, Mandela was an internationally-renowned statesman, and there was an obligation on his minders to keep the people of South Africa and the rest of the world aware of what was happening to him.

The media ought to respect his need for privacy, but at the same time he was a very public figure.

“They should be issuing bulletins regularly,” he said.

Holtzhausen, himself a former journalist, said that from what he had seen, the media had certainly been respectful, and had not indulged in speculation.

He said he spoke yesterday to the editor of a large-circulation South African newspaper, who had said they were aware of the need to handle the issue very sensitively.

“There is responsibility on the side of the media, but it’s also up to the gatekeepers of Mr Mandela to show recognition of the critical role the media play,” Holtzhausen said.

Muriel Hau-Yoon, owner of Cape Town-based PR company Afrikom, said Mandela was the public property of all South Africans, and probably one of the best-loved leaders ever.

“It would be better for the spokespersons to be honest and open and tell the public exactly what’s happening,” she said.

“By not providing regular feeds they fuel speculation. It’s Communications 101: it’s a basic communications principle. Any spokesperson worth their salt would come out with regular statements.”

Both Hau-Yoon and Holtzhausen said the number of high-profile visitors and family members who have been to see Mandela in hospital gave rise to the suspicion that his stay involved more than just “routine tests”.

“It’s always wiser, more prudent, to give the honest truth,” Hau-Yoon said.

“Whatever it is... I think they owe it to the South African public to be open and honest.

I think any communications practitioner would agree on this.”

Another Cape Town PR guru, who asked not to be named for professional reasons, said her advice to Mandela’s minders would be: “Regular updates, so the media aren’t clamouring for comment.

Be as transparent as possible. Stick to the facts.”

The minders should have had detailed plans in place to deal with a situation like this.

“What you want to do is to limit speculation as much as you can.

But the reality is you’re going to have a media frenzy. It’s Madiba,” she said.?

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