A lesson in bad PR

Jessie Duarte has given me a useful classroom tool. If I ever want to demonstrate everything an organisational spokesperson should not do, I will use her “Open letter to Dion Basson”.

Duarte wrote the letter to Basson about his new biography of President Jacob Zuma. She calls him childish for not making available an early copy of his book and for making her fork out money for it. Irrelevant and silly, Jessie.

She goes on to say that the book is nothing but a compilation of articles and court records, a “cut and paste job”. She criticises it for naming children without permission, insulting various members of the ANC leadership and getting a fact wrong in the intro.

All this is well and good. But be careful of pointing out mistakes, Jessie. You got the price of the book wrong. These things happen.

And be careful of criticising writing style, Jessie, when you yourself show a contempt for punctuation.

But it is the personal, vindictive and angry tone of the missive that is concerning. “It is interesting writing style (sic) where the notion of balance is completely absent. Ah but then you are a new author and there is this matter of poetic licence. Not everything you say has to be perfect or perfectly correct.”

It is a strange thing to put down someone’s writing style when you yourself say it is “not a good read” because “it is nuanced opinions that have been regurgitated a number of times (sic)”. In my world, nuance in opinion is a good thing.

But it is one line that gives away Duarte’s attitude: “It seems you were hoping this diatribe would influence the delegates at the Mangaung conference.” Well, there’s a shocker: a journalist who is trying to influence opinion. No wonder we need a media tribunal!

Ask yourself this, Jessie: did this intervention as an ANC spokesperson win the organization any friends, especially among its critics? Did it improve your relationship with writers and journalists? Did it show an open attitude to public engagement, an invitation to debate these issues in the ANC’s declared spirit of accountability and transparency? Did it achieve your aim of burnishing the ANC’s public image? I expect there were those who, with party political motives and an eye on Mangaung, cheered you on. But did this help your cause as a media representative? Does the ANC look better for it?

(Full disclosure: The Jon Ball who Duarte describes as affable despite having failed to give her a free book, published my latest book, Diepsloot).

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