How the Pravin matter spun a propagandist into a Comical Ali

“There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!”

And with these words, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahar, Iraqi Information Minister during the 2003 Iraq invasion by the American and British troops earned himself the nickname Comical Ali.

I was reminded of Comical Ali earlier today when prosecutions boss Shaun Abrahams announced at a press briefing that he will be withdrawing fraud charges against Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and two former SARS officials.

No, it was not Shaun that reminded me of Comical Ali, although I am sure he also will earn a few unflattering monikers by the end of this week.

It was instead his spokesman, Luvuyo Mfaku who jogged my memory back to 2003.

Asked by the media only yesterday (Sunday) whether Abrahams would be dropping the charges against Gordhan today, Mfaku emphatically said “No”. He came short of calling the media ridiculous for even suggesting that.

In his defence, I can bet my last cent that Mfaku was told by his boss(es) to deny that the charges would be dropped. He could not have conceived this denial on his own.

To this extent, I understand the sympathy he has received from fellow spokespeople on social media.

Former government communicator Themba Sepotokele wrote: “I often say that spokespersons are brooms meant to sweep clean the mess created by those they speak for.”

This was in response to a post by another veteran spin doctor and now Gauteng education minister Panyaza Lesufi who posted on Facebook: “To the NPA spokesperson who was advised yesterday to deny that the charges will be withdrawn, hardee my brother. This is the painful side of our profession.”

I agree that Mfaku was thrown under the bus. But there ends my sympathy for the man. Even though he would be in trouble for confirming the pending withdrawal of charges, he had no reason to blatantly lie.

All Mfaku should have said to the media was: “Let us not pre-empt the National Director. Come to the media briefing tomorrow and hear what he has to say.” And then repeat the message.

Of course the media would have drawn their conclusions and assumed that failure to deny is by definition, an admission. Fair enough. He would still rest in knowing that he did not confirm or deny.

Communication is a science. It is not a function of gathering and passing on information. It is a craft of managing information and thereby managing perceptions.

Even in bad times, like the times facing the NPA right now, a good communicator should resist the temptation to lie.

Reputation and integrity are the only stock in trade communicators have. You dare not lose them even for one minute of respite.

I have found that many communicators often lie because they get emotionally involved in matters they are expected to handle. I wonder why.

The trick here is to be brave enough to tell your bosses to leave the messaging to you. It does not help to have a communicator who also depends on his or her boss(es) to dictate how they should communicate.


[Follow me on twitter @ramsbythehorns]