#PaidTwitter: Lies and deceit have short legs

If you are going to do anything clandestine, do not have a fallout with your co-conspirators.

This lesson was famously learnt by former US President Richard Nixon when someone snitched on him and his administration in what was to be known as the Watergate scandal.

For those of you who slept during the history class, let us recap. In 1972 Nixon’s administration was exposed after a discovery of multiple abuses of power by his administration.

Those activities included bugging the offices of political opponents and people of whom Nixon or his officials were suspicious.

Someone, later to be named “Deep Throat” spilled the beans with the media. Nixon was exposed. He faced impeachment and resigned in disgrace.

Today, 45-years later, the governing African National Congress is implicated in its own Watergate now infamously known as ‘PaidTwitter”.

The story goes that leading up to the August 2016 local government elections, a covert team of ANC communicators as well as independent influencers sympathetic to the party, initially known as the War Room, intended to “disempower DA and EFF campaigns” and set a pro-ANC agenda using a range of media, without revealing the ANC’s hand.

This included a seemingly independent news site and chat show, using ‘influencers’ on social media – #PaidTwitter – and planning to print fake opposition party posters.

Unfortunately for the ANC, if this story is true, the saga went the Watergate route, with someone spilling the beans. In this case, it was not a faceless Deep Throat, but someone who claims she was a significant player in the operation.

In the last 48 hours since the story broke, so much has happened from a communications point of view.

First, and typically, there were lies and denial. The ANC claimed no knowledge of this. Within hours, the party’s general manager Ignatius Jacobs, admitted getting into a contract with Sihle Bolani, our Deep Throat, who was aggrieved that she was not paid as “promised”.

One would have thought that once Jacobs admitted as much, the ANC would work on a different clean-up campaign. No! Instead in less than an hour after Jacobs made the admission, ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa was all over the media still denying any knowledge of the War Room and #PaidTwitter and repudiated Jacobs’s “admission” of debt to Bolani.

Jacobs was thrown under the bus, just like in 1972 when Nixon did the same to key members of his administration.

This matter is before the High Court. If there is no settlement out of court, we will get to know the juicy details. But if Jacobs’ admission and the leaked contract are anything to go buy, by any other name, the War Room and #PaidTwitter are no figment of the imagination.

For an organisation that has a glorious history of using propaganda to fight against the apartheid system, in recent times the ANC has acquitted itself rather poorly on the communication, public relations and media management front.

There has been one faux pas too many on this front. Too many mention.

But I would have thought there were obvious things to do in this case. If you are going to lie, at least lie in one voice. Most importantly, stick by your lie, whatever the circumstances.

You cannot, right at the beginning of your crisis, start by contradicting one another. This is a dead giveaway that someone is lying. But also, even if you agree on a lie, do not contradict documentary evidence.

As for throwing “junior” officials under the bus during times of trouble, that’s completely tasteless.

Of course this is South Africa, we don’t expect a Nixon-like resignation, but to sacrifice your own is taking it too far.

In my media training programmes I tell my clients never to lie, under any circumstances. Someone is going to one day tell on you, sometimes it is the lady serving tea on your office who just overheard.

But one thing you could try and do while you doing something that you should not be doing, keep everyone inside happy lest one of you goes Deep Throat on you.


[Follow me on twitter (not #paidtwitter) @ramsmabote]