When the spin doctor becomes the story

Government spokesperson Lumka Oliphant has thrown the country into a whirlwind with her social media post littered with profanities. If you haven’t seen the post, Google it.

The long and short of her post was to defend her boss Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, who had been accused of being drunk by The Citizen newspaper.

Lumka just wanted to say Dlamini does not drink alcohol. Except she used more words, ever so slightly.

Although she took it to the highest (or is it lowest?) level, Lumka’s rant is not unique. There has been many cases where government “spin doctors” have been found to show anger towards the media.

I have some sympathy for Lumka and those before her (and certainly many more who will come after) who at some point were overcome by anger and frustration. We are all human after all.

But in this case, anger and frustration are self-inflicted. We choose how we react to what happens to us, and that is more important than what happens to us.

In fact in Lumka’s case, her anger and frustration were even more misplaced because the “lies” were about her boss, not Lumka. I accept that the boss may have given her orders to deal with this “once and for all”.

And therein lies the problem. Lumka chose to own the insult or “lies” published about her boss. That was not necessary. That was wrong.

Before you accuse me of pontificating from the luxury of my armchair, I will have you know that I have been in Lumka’s position a million times before. In fact, until recently, I spoke on behalf of government minister too.

In my short spell with the said minister, she faced a barrage of media attacks, some of them pure lies.

In one instance, the minister was wrongfully attacked by the Cape Town Press Club, which also led to cartoons being published in Cape Town media about her.

She was livid. She wanted to take them on. I told her not to go the gutter (etshatshalazeni as Lumka puts it). Instead I challenged the press club. I wrote an opinion piece not only outing their lies, but also exposing their duplicity.

For that I was personally attacked by some members of this club, some of whom were not even journalists. But that is a moot point. I think I prevailed in the end. I exposed them for who they were without uttering one profanity.

There are two tricks communicators need in times like these. First, because of their proximity to their bosses and their supposed understanding of how the media work, must be the first people to advise their bosses in times of adversity.

If I were Minister Dlamini and did not take any alcohol as Lumka claims, I would be very frustrated, hurt and livid at the constant accusation that I was drunk. That is human.

The job of a spokesperson is to say to the boss: let me handle this.

Secondly, tough as it may be, a good spokesperson separates themselves from their boss. However much we are close to our principals, we cannot own their problems (and their fortunes).

Ours is a job of communicating the work they do. To the extent that occasionally they will be personally attacked, rightly or wrongly, we should still make a distinction between personal and professional attacks.

Where they are personally attacked, spokespeople should assume the role of a mediator between the principal and the aggressor. They should seek a meeting to correct the lies and if needs be, ask for a right of reply.

In instances of continued slander even after cordial approaches to the media to correct their “lies”, then there is the ombudsman or the courts.

I have had many a coffee, wine and whisky, with journalists that said some of the unkindest things about my former principals. We did not often agree. But we agreed to disagree with dignity.

Communication is not a task. It is a skill.

[Follow me on twitter @ramsbythehorns]