Tanya Waterworth isn’t a consumer journalist. As the chief reporter for the Independent on Saturday, she covers hard news and breaking stories about crime. Two years ago, Waterworth reported on the tragic murder of a father from Shallcross in Durban who was gunned down in his driveway while trying to protect his family.
Nathan Ganas, 42, was killed in a hail of bullets during a botched hijacking, and his 10-year-old daughter Carmen was also injured when bullets ripped through the front of their house.
Because of Waterworth’s coverage of the initial shooting, she became aware of Nathan’s widow Denise’s ongoing battle with life insurer Momentum to receive a pay-out on her late husband’s policy.
Momentum had told her that the claim had been declined because of non-disclosure by Nathan. He had apparently been diagnosed with raised blood sugar levels, which may have occurred before he completed his application for the policy in 2014.
Momentum had also asked Denise to repay R50 000, which was an instant cash benefit from the policy, and which the family had used to pay for Nathan’s funeral.
The problem was that Denise denied that her husband had been on chronic diabetes medication before he applied for the policy.
After Momentum’s rejection, Denise approached the Ombudsman for Long Term Insurance, who found in the insurer’s favour, saying they had carried out a comprehensive investigation, including appointing an independent re-insurer to examine the case.
Legally, Momentum’s argument that it would not pay out the claim was sound. This was in line with the Ombud's ruling.
But what about morally and ethically? How would people respond on an emotional level?
Waterworth spent three weeks exchanging emails with Momentum and the Ombudsman as she investigated the story. She sent detailed questions and in reply, Momentum sent her detailed responses.
Throughout the process, the insurer was consistent and firmly believed that they were in the right. Behind the scenes, they were beginning to dance a little but hoped that the story would go away.
On Saturday morning, the story of Ganas vs. Momentum was on the front page of the Independent on Saturday and the Saturday Star. The headline on the Independent read ‘Widow’s New War’, a play on the initial article about the shooting titled ‘Shallcross ‘war zone’’.
Momentum took a hard line in the article, but their response was more than fairly presented.
"In this instance, if he (Nathan) had shared the relevant information when it was required, the underwriting decision would have been not to issue the cover and no claim would have existed," said Momentum.
On social media, the first signs of public outrage began to show. The hashtag #Momentum began to trend and gather momentum of its own. Later it was joined by the hashtag #momentummustfall.
Two tweets in particular were significant in driving this.
Broadcaster and journalist Redi Thlabi picked up the story and ran with it.
Former public protector Thuli Madonsela also weighed in and captured the nub of the issue and the public sentiment.
Waterworth believes it was this tweet from Madonsela that was the first critical turning point.
"Thuli Madonsela tweeted on Saturday night and her tweet really cut to the heart of what people were feeling. Then there was ongoing pressure.
"Traditional media really came to the fore and also got onto the story and pushed the story and people still rely on traditional media and trust it," says the reporter.
This image above illustrates the breakdown of the mentions and replies using the hashtag #Momentum. It shows the mammoth task Momentum's PR had to deal with when compared to other commentators and media houses.
The images below show the spike in references to #Momentum since the story broke on Saturday until the decision to pay out was released on Tuesday evening.
The story was beginning to spin into a PR crisis. What Momentum’s internal comms team probably hoped would go away, started to gain traction. It wasn’t a unique story – others like it have been written in the media before – but this one was different. It just wasn’t disappearing in a hurry.
Invariably what happens in this type of crisis situation is that behind closed doors, everyone gets around a table. The PR experts, the lawyers, the policy experts and the executives.
The communications people push empathy and accountability to appease the public. The legal eagles and the execs push the firm line, so there’s no litigation and the door isn’t opened for massive claims and a precedent being set. That is likely what happened in this scenario.
Then on Monday morning, the crisis ramped up as a decision was taken to roll out Momentum CEO Johan le Roux and MMI CEO Hillie Meyer to do interviews. In a time of crisis, the advice is always to send out the big bosses in order to show that the matter is being taken seriously. Availability, leadership and empathy. Those are the three big ‘must haves’ for a corporate in a time of crisis.
However, in this instance, they got some of it right but not all of it. The CEOs were over exposed.
The interviews on Radio 702 were disastrous. Bongani Bingwa took Le Roux apart and Eusebius Mckaiser finished off Meyer. The key point they were sticking to was that Momentum would not pay out because it would compromise the integrity of the industry. They were never going to win with that approach, that displayed no empathy or compassion. They were following the rules, but in this case, perhaps the rules were wrong. They had misread the pulse of the nation.
In addition to the 702 interviews, MMI’s executive for communication and branding Dan Moyane (the same Dan Moyane who presents the news) was also in constant contact with Redi Thlabi, and set up a telecon between her and Le Roux. Thlabi was not impressed by the way Momentum handled the entire situation.
"I think it was bad! Here’s the thing. This happens in politics and it happens in the private sector. They miss the human connection and they don’t have a finger on the pulse.
"If Momentum had just paused and reflected on what the nation was saying, they could have bought time by saying, 'We realise people are angry, let us get our ducks in a row, let’s just find out and then get back to you'," says Thlabi.
"They were very arrogant. I would praise them on accessibility. They never went away, they were accessible, but they underestimated the anger and the wrath. The way he died was bloody and brutal and they kept saying ‘Every death is tragic’.
"Not everyone gets shot in a hail of bullets in their driveway. You can’t do a comparison at a time like this. They were technical. They did not have empathy. They should have toned down on the technicalities. We are heart and soul as people."
The story was dominating the news agenda. It wasn’t the reaction that Tanya Waterworth, the author of the original story, had necessarily predicted. Something had clicked in the public psyche.
"I think it kind of touched everyone in terms of the horror of the crime that she had gone through. Everyone has an insurance of some kind. Everyone was thinking will my insurance pay out? It touched a core. It touched a nerve in people," says Waterworth. "I think it was the horror of the crime. I covered that initial story. People are tired of crime and empathised with the situation she found herself in."
Momentum had to do something. And they did. On Tuesday evening they issued a statement explaining the solution they had come up with. For all intents and purposes, it appeared as though they had buckled under immense public pressure. It was a workable compromise in their view. The solution was a policy that would pay an amount equal to the death benefit (limited to a maximum of R3m) in the case of violent crime, regardless of previous medical history.
The solution largely appeased the masses as it was celebrated on social media, but others were more skeptical. It seemed as though an actuary had crunched the numbers and worked out a clever solution that wouldn’t cost the company too much money and would only impact a narrow section of clients while satisfying the public and letting the steam out of the pressure cooker for now.
It appeared as though Momentum had backtracked, and in doing so, hoped it would change the narrative. They were largely successful, and already the news cycle has moved on to Pravin Gordhan and State Capture, but the full cost and extent of the damage of this media crisis is difficult to quantify. The cost of the damage to the brand has been immense but the implications of the final decision could also be enormous.
What this crisis has demonstrated is how important it is for corporates to always read the pulse of the public and to confront outrage with empathy. What it also illustrated is the strength of common purpose and the power of traditional media when coupled with social media and what can happen when one story captures the country and gathers momentum.
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