OPINION: What Team CR17 needs to do to get ahead of its PR nightmare

Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo by Gallo Images/Netwerk24/Jaco Marais)
Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo by Gallo Images/Netwerk24/Jaco Marais)

Those who already have problems with Cyril Ramaphosa are rubbing their hands in glee at what they see as reinforcement that he is a captured president captured by those who funded his campaign, writes Chris Vick.

"Once a donkey has taken a dump, you can't put the sh*t back inside it."

These are the words Moegsien Williams often used when he was editor of The Star to describe the often-incoherent scrambling you'd see when people were caught in embarrassing situations.

It's a phrase that has come to mind repeatedly over the past few weeks as the public has been exposed to the growing stink around funding for Cyril Ramaphosa's campaign to be ANC president.

The public response to the "revelations" has been divided, as have the perspectives presented by the media. Factions at play, proxy battles, everywhere you look.

Those who already have problems with Ramaphosa are rubbing their hands in glee at what they see as reinforcement that he is a captured president – captured by those who funded his campaign (with care being taken to ensure that the "white monopoly capital" funders get the most attention), and indebted to those who were on his campaign's payroll. And they have pushed that story as aggressively as they pushed the "WMC" narrative during the Bell Pottinger era a couple of years ago.

Those who believe in Ramaphosa state – rightly, in my view – that there was nothing wrong with the fundraising campaign, that everyone contesting leadership positions does it, and that there are "smoke and mirrors" at play.

But it's one thing to be right. And it's another to be able to convince people you're right.

Opinions without full knowledge

In my view, the Presidency seems to be losing the PR battle as those with access to 188 pages of bank statements consistently define the public narrative. The response from the CR17 campaign does not have the volume, the bandwidth or the impact to convince some of the people who need convincing. It feels too reactive, even flat-footed at times.

I say this having worked in government for seven years and knowing that there is often contestation between those in charge of public conversations and those in charge of other areas of political, legal and administrative work. And that our own opinion as citizens, outside the tent, is shaped by what we see and hear from the outside – without full knowledge of what's going on inside.

But from where I sit now, it's beginning to feel like a PR disaster, or at the very least the biggest PR challenge the Ramaphosa presidency has faced. And the political management of this issue is starting to speak to the broader character of President Ramaphosa's political management style.

As a result, the positive dividend created when Ramaphosa was elected president is shrinking and public trust is being eroded. It gives ammunition to those who would like to see Ramaphosa removed as ANC president, as well as to opponents of the ANC.

What seems to be missing, from a PR and political management point of view, is a clear set of refreshed messages, communicated consistently – by which I mean on as many platforms as possible, as often as possible and as loudly as possible – and a new assertive and proactive PR campaign by the CR17 team to take the public into their confidence, redefine the narrative, and bring doubting Ramaphosa supporters back on board.

There are, of course, court cases underway and the constraints of legal processes. But the approach should be: We are showing you as much as we can, as often as we can, and are taking you into our confidence.

As the public is drip-fed information, often by people with an agenda of their own, the first response this week should be a bells-and-whistles media briefing at which the CR17 team (without the president present) takes control of the headlines again by facing the nation and:

  • Presenting as much information as possible, in as transparent a form as possible (the sh*t is already out of the donkey, for example, in terms of who provided funding and who received it, so it's not as if any secrets are being revealed or anyone is being embarrassed).
  • Providing as much context as possible on how the Nasrec funding processes happened – why it was necessary, why particular funders were approached, what the funding was used for.
  • Reminding society of the environment in which Nasrec took place – the political deal-making, and what was at stake politically.
  • Getting the funders to speak out at the media conference about why they believed they were doing the right thing, to legitimize the CR17 project even further.
  • Providing guarantees that there was nothing untoward. If the funding and disbursements were audited, say so. If there were checks and balances around how money flowed in and out, say so. Show us a governance framework that will reassure people who are in doubt.
  • Reminding us, again and again, that this is a distraction, orchestrated and coordinated by people who did the same thing themselves in the run-up to Nasrec, and did much, much worse things when they were in the ANC leadership.

It's a packaging job: in some cases, it will be a rehash of what's been said before. But it's necessary to remind us, over and over, of what is at play here, and that those involved are prepared to take the nation into their confidence. It must be convincing. And it must anticipate the next wave of attacks in this increasingly dirty war – because this is an ongoing battle, with long legs.

Granted, some of the tactical issues and messages suggested above have been provided to the media and the public in interviews and opinion pieces over the past weeks, piecemeal. But the CR17 team needs a big-bang event, a headline-setter, to turn this story around. It needs the optics of a high-powered media conference, with strongly delivered messages, followed by an intensive roadshow of interviews and engagements on radio, TV and digital platforms.

Alongside this, CR17 needs a strong social media campaign that pushes back against those trying to make a meal out of this issue. It should revive the CR17 machinery, have it fighting on all fronts, and show a responsiveness to public concern. It needs to mobilise public political support, such as we've seen from ANC structures in KZN and the Eastern Cape in the past week, but on a much larger scale.

All this is necessary, if you support Ramaphosa, to take the orchestrated public pressure off a president who has much bigger fish to fry, and who has been sucked down a rabbit hole by people who should have been fairly easy to sidestep – particularly if there was a preventive or pre-emptive strategy from the beginning.

You can't over-communicate on an issue this big, which threatens to bring down a sitting president – either from inside or outside the party. That means using every platform, every opportunity, to take the message out there, legitimise the fund-raising project, delegitimise the mischief-makers, and aggressively take control of the story.

This would help the CR17 team to shape the narrative, provide the clarity that is necessary, explain why they did what they did, and more than anything convince a doubting public that what has come out of the Nasrec donkey does not stink half as much as some would have us think.

- Chris Vick is a communications consultant.

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