Contemporary media has quite literally taken over control of the political communication space leaving politicians and political organisations scrambling for recognition or attention in a rapidly moving and changing narrative. In this digital age, it is no longer the preserve of politicians and political organisations to control or dictate what is newsworthy but that of the social media. Political organisations find themselves having to rent communication space from the social media to engage the electorate and directly compete with citizens who are telling their own story in their own words in minutes, if not seconds.
We can argue that social media does not only dictate what is newsworthy but also the volume and how it is presented. In today’s digitalised world the mainstream media’s weaknesses are being exposed; mainstream media is rapidly being squeezed out and starved of its historical influence as more and more people shift to the short, sharp and timely messaging and messages and videos, and politicians often find themselves playing catch up.
For the pro-Mthwakazi movement, controlling how the public perceives our organisations, leaders and politics is core to the short and long-term survival of the agenda. We cannot underestimate the importance of a sustainable image and reputation; positive reputation plays a fundamental role in politics, perhaps more important than the content of the message conveyed. As argued by Rein, et al. (1987) politics is a sector in which “image building and transformation truly dominate”.
Lessons need to be learned from previous mistakes for us to safely transition to contemporary Mthwakazi politics. Work on image management must be an intentional on-going assignment, not an accident. To understand the magnitude of our responsibilities, we must appreciate that our image is not how we think of ourselves but what the Mthwakazi public thinks of us. It is not our intentions that will shape public opinion but the impact of revolutionary actions on the political environment and on ordinary men and women.
Communication technology in the modern era places unprecedented challenges to image managers in the political sphere. Social media has taken over from mainstream media and transformed the way information is released and absorbed thus impacted on how politics is done. Its ability to break news in real-time brings about a host of opportunities along with uncertainties and challenges in how political organisations react to take control and manage their image.
For a moment let us forget what at times has seemed to be crazy, out of control tweets from the US president (Mr Donald Trump), one lesson to draw from his use of the electronic media space is that omnipresence on social media is essential irrespective of the quality of the content of one’s contributions. Pro-Mthwakazi movements must move with the times, use the digital media to good effect. We need to be alert to the real-time events within and outside of our political sphere; be on hand to swiftly find the right medium and expertise that help shape and protect our work within the ideological framework that defines our politics to our desired effect.
Let us protect today and secure tomorrow. It must be our priority to transform how our political movements communicate; let us communicate with a purpose not just loose language characterised by ill-informed content, anger or excitement. Think carefully about how you want to be seen or understood and choose your words and images accordingly.
Every word and every image used in our different platforms must be thought of carefully thus, accounted for; it must have a target whether that is inspiring the public, arousing emotions or raising expectation, etc. Communication as a discipline must be well-managed and our communication departments need to be professional. We expect the department to be assigned to role of doing most of the talking and individual members avoid speaking for movements unless expressly cleared to do so.
To benefit from electronic media, we need to be able to identify and take advantage of those aspects of it that make it effective. Scholars argue that in electronic media viewers remember the impression which politicians leave with their performance longer than the exact words they use during their performances (Grabe and Bucy, 2009: 53 cited in Sharlamanov and Jovanoski, 2014).
With the above in mind, it would be important for pro-Mthwakazi movements to focus on the quality of images they use in building an overall image of the movement.
Graphic illustration of information is easier to deliver, more persuasive, and easier to retain for longer. Recently, we saw its effect following the misspelling of a local police station’s name in one of Bulawayo’s suburbs.
Objective media and journalists do not exist in the mainstream media, we have to bypass the largely state controlled mainstream media, and reach out to the public via alternative media. Effective use of visuals through pictures and live-streaming videos on such platforms as Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Tik Tok, etc. would be of great benefit. This could be by way of comments on current events, rebutting opponent’s allegations, attacking government actions, bursting state narrative while building our own, etc.
Reputational crisis must never be allowed to be the reason the pro-Mthwakazi agenda is held back. Political organisations must appreciate their bottom line depends on their success; from the type of leadership they install to positions, to communicating their political brand and culture, to making a positive and lasting impression on the electorate. In short their bottom line depends on image.