For something so important in public life, far too many public figures pay little attention to how the general public perceives them. This is quite strange, given that one can learn how to speak clearly, confidently and to get their point across in a way that their audience understands and appreciates.
Yes, you don’t have to be born with the gift of the gab to, for example, explain why taps are running dry; hospitals have no drugs or what is being done about it.
You also don’t have to be a natural born speaker to avoid having your message being misunderstood for something sinister. One recent important example comes to mind.
In the wake of the tragedy in Marikana, national police commissioner, General Riah Phiyega, was quoted in the Sowetan newspaper as having said that members of the South African Police Service have nothing to apologise for, following the deaths of 34 striking miners at the hands of the police. She was speaking at the funeral of one of the two policemen who had earlier been brutally hacked to death by the striking miners.
How’s that for a PR disaster?
Surely the Police Chief did not mean to say that the 34 men deserved to die because some of them may have taken part in the killing of the two policemen – and eight other people- prior to police opening fire on the miners?
Now, where in that statement is Riah Phiyega the human being? Where is that kind, dedicated Christian woman who is so committed to the welfare of others that she initially chose a thankless career in social work? The answer is that she’s still there. She has not suddenly transformed into the heartless, vengeful person as soon as she donned the police general’s uniform.
Hers is the age-old problem that effects many public figures – not knowing what to say, when to say it, where to say it, how to say it, who to say it to – what we at Fleishman simply call messaging. What she said makes her a poor ambassador for the good work that the police do.
I’d bet that had General Phiyega invested a few hours in media training, she would not have come across as poorly as she did in the eyes of the South African public and the world.
At Fleishman-Hillard, we would have worked on the message she wants to convey first.
Yet, what she came across saying is that the miners got just what they deserved. I am sure it was not her intended message.
As if that was not bad enough, she was subsequently roundly condemned for her conduct during the Marikana Commission. The media had a field day portraying her as a callous ice queen, who kept joking and laughing with her friends instead of comforting the grieving families of the dead miners.
At least one editor and columnist found it audacious of her to have worn a floral dress to such a sombre occasion – again, something that basic media training could have addressed. Dress to suit the occasion, she would have been told. Hopefully, the good General has learnt from her mistakes and is hard at work rectifying them.