Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nelson Mandela Foundation - silent spokesperson for a Legend #Madiba

The official 'spokesperson' of Nelson Mandela (and his family) is not speaking to ordinary South Africans and citizens across the world via social media. And their choice in this moment is not reflecting well on the ability of one of the most prominent civil society agencies in Africa to understand and use new media. 

The Nelson Mandela Foundation is one of more than 200 000 registered public benefit organisations in South Africa. The Foundation is well-known world-wide and was established to drive the vision of Mr Mandela forward in a structured way - going beyond his person and lifetime. It implemented a Memory Programme in a few years ago with the intention to offer:
"an integrated information resource on the life and times of Nelson Mandela, giving members of the public, scholars and fellow memory institutions across the globe access to relevant information, primarily through the internet and mobile phones. The programme also prioritises advocacy work around access to information, dealing with the past, and related issues". 
Believe me, I have no doubt that the Foundation plays a wonderful role in providing information about Nelson Mandela and the values that he embodies. However, I think a critical opportunity is being missed by the public relations or communications' team at the Foundation to be part of the current (relevant) conversation - as opposed to providing content only. Or simply responding in a knee-jerk way on speculations on Madiba's health that currently spirals out of control due to the selective social media silence of the 'spokesperson' (the Foundation itself in the person of Sello Hatang - out of his depth, I think)

The undated little line on the website simply did not do enough for the public and media, when Mandela's coordinates on earth shifted to a South African hospital on Wednesday 26 January 2011:
 Granted, other active users in social networks picked up the little line: "We can confirm that Mr. Mandela is at Milpark Hospital undergoing routine tests. He is no danger and is in good spirits", and it spread across the digiverse. 

More importantly, speculation in the media due to lack of further information on Nelson Mandela's health, increased security and visits of close family is running like a wildfire: this is clear from the stream of tweets from across the world via Kurrently. So much so that the South African Presidency (with a presence in Twitter, unlike the Foundation) issued a press statement, with a tweet that blazed to the top and called for 'calm and restraint'.
Of course, we should be responsible with information. However, the point is being missed by our government and the Foundation alike.  If you do now own the story (especially in social networks), someone else well. If you do not provide the information, someone will fill in gaps in ways that you may not like. As an aside, some may try and create viral trends for own benefit at the worse of times. Not sure I like what News24 is doing at the moment with its call for viral sympathy, at this time via @MyNews24
"Here's the challenge, send us a photo of you with your message of support for @ and we'll put them up on News24 - (sic)" 
Fact is: Mr. Mandela is not a young man. At 92 he had a full and event-full life. He said once: "I hoped that life might offer me the opportunity to serve my people and make my own contribution to their freedom struggle," and in what I have learned about him, I know that life did offer him these opportunities. He will pass on one day (maybe today, tomorrow...soon..later) and he will rest in peace. And already, his life and legacy offers his Foundation the same opportunities, but the leaders will need to get their communications' specialists together and ask themselves how to share more and better via free social networks.
Indeed, we need to respect the dignity of people and their families. In the same way, we need to have respect for the rapid (and very different) new mechanisms of information dissemination and the socio-political impact! and influence! it could have if we remain quiet for too long. It is a responsibility that the Foundation should take much more seriously in my humble opinion. They will be called upon to respond with integrity - even more so if Mr. Mandela passes on one day. In February 1990, 50 000 odd people listened to Mandela in Cape Town when he spoke his first 140 characters from a balcony, today his Foundation could have had thousands if not millions hearing virally from the Foundation every few hours (at least). It will not harm, it will create a framework for conversation and quench the thirst for accurate facts in an emotionally charged moment for world already burdened with too much information.

At the end of 2009, we conducted training for 75 of the top organisations in South Africa - in social media and communications' strategies. We did not invite the Foundation, as we believed that they already had the capacity and resources. Desperately searching the website of the NMF for a Twitter profile or Face Book fan page, I realized it may have been a grave mistake to assume so much. We really do need the Foundation to be speaking up clearly in times of uncertainty - via the channels that South Africans use: public meetings, community newspapers, community radio, MXit, Face Book and Twitter - in this order. Or appoint a PR company? No offence intended.

The Foundation says: "During 2011 efforts will intensity to make his legacy available to the world..." A good start would be to talk to the world (and not only to a few select international reporters, celebrity friends and agencies) in ways that ordinary citizens currently embrace. Madiba's legacy and voice was one for the maginalised and the poor, for those without access to information - not for the elite and the powerful. This is not the time to be so hope to hear from you soon via a press release... it will help.

The greater test for our humanity and South African society will however come in the way that we (all media - traditional and social) and all reporters (professional and citizens) respect privacy and dignity of one of our most loved leaders. He deserves no less. Until a bit later, this is all I can do:


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