If there is any one thing that the government should have learnt from the dead-elephants’ saga of 2018, it is that in former president Ian Khama is a formidable foe with not just a highly sophisticated PR machinery but also a complex and sprawling web of international connections.
What happened in 2018 was that, in early September, Elephants Without Borders, a Botswana and United States-registered NGO, put out a controversial report about some 87 elephants having been killed by poachers since May of that year. The western media lapped up this report. Within a few hours, major international news outlets like CNN, BBC, Washington Post and The Guardian were running the story, setting off a tidal wave of outrage from westerners. Probably having seen the story on BBC, British Prime Minister, Theresa May, released a statement via her official Twitter account. She was very diplomatic in her choice of words but one could tell that she genuinely believed that a large-scale massacre of elephants had indeed taken place in Botswana.
In September 2018, Khama had been out of office for six months. The timing and timeframe alluded to in the EWB expose made the not-too-subtle point that his successor, President Mokgweetsi Masisi, was doing a bad job of protecting Botswana’s wildlife. EWB’s director, Dr. Mike Chase, and Khama happen to be trustees of Tlhokomela Wildlife Trust, a wildlife NGO.
When the government did finally “inform members of the public and other key stakeholders that these statistics are false and misleading”, it was more than 12 hours later. One would have expected western media to meet a standard that it set itself by giving this rebuttal as much publicity as it did the EWB but that didn’t happen. The government’s rebuttal was published by very few media outlets, most of them African. Not a single one of the websites of major international outlets that had been over-eager to run EWB’s report accorded the government the right of reply – which responsible journalism requires. As far as the massive audience that these outlets reaches – which feat the Botswana government cannot match – the EWB report was true because the government had not rebutted it.
There was a very simple reason why the latter happened – the government had failed to observe the golden rule of crisis PR. The ideal crisis response time is the first hour after a crisis occurs. That is particularly necessary in the epoch of the fast-paced news cycle. Such promptness enables a party to regain control of the situation by setting the record straight and eliminating speculation that may damage its reputation. What the government did instead was take that hour and stretch it to more than half a day, thus heightening the possibility of long-term reputational damage that will definitely cost hundreds of millions of pula to repair. On the basis of what EWB alleged, some westerners threatened to boycott Botswana’s tourism, which would definitely force the government to launch an expensive PR offensive on a global scale.
Some five years later, Khama’s personal battle with Masisi has reached fever pitch. Khama’s strategy includes creating PR crises and the government’s response has not changed from what it was back in 2018.
Earlier this month, Botswana’s Minister of Justice, Ronald Shamukuni, made a presentation at the United Nations Human Rights Council on what the country is doing to safeguard the human rights in the country. Thereafter, and in line with standard UN process, member states were invited to react to Shamukuni’s presentation. Representatives from around the world took turns congratulating Botswana on the progress it has made in safeguarding human rights and making recommendations with regard to some issues where they feel the country is lagging behind. This is a mechanical and unremarkable process that has happened since the UNHRC was established and never attracts media attention – until now.
Following the UN session, Khama’s PR machinery roared into action, pulling out the “problematic” parts (the recommendations) and splicing them together in a press statement to convey an impression that there is a human rights crisis in Botswana. Believing the press statement to be the official UN report, journalists across the globe put out all sorts of stories that portrayed Botswana in extremely bad light. That was on May 4, 2023 and only last week Tuesday (May 9) did the government respond. At this point, the horrors of Botswana’s human rights situation, as expressed in the press statement and not the UN report, had steeped in international public reporting and seeped into public consciousness.
Khama’s PR machinery could very easily have alerted the media houses that it sent the press statement to the fact that they had the story wrong but elected to luxuriate in what will be a short-lived victory that could bode ill for its future. From now on, journalists will be very wary of anything that this machine cranks out and rigorous fact-checking will certainly not favour Khama.
The odd thing about not observing the golden rule of crisis PR is that the government has a whole platoon of PR specialists. The tragic thing is that not being meritocratic in its constitution and orientation, the bureaucratic super-structure within government wouldn’t be inclined to use expertise that could help counter Khama’s PR machinery.
The civil service is littered with self-important bureaucrats who want to micro-manage every aspect of the civil service, in the process turning important assignments into vanity projects. This necessarily means that each time that he faces off with the government, Khama will be putting point after point on the score board while a press statement at the Government Enclave has to wait for the approval of a bureaucrat who is still in a meeting and knows nothing about crisis PR. Worse, the input of that bureaucrat could be as banal as inserting the “while-it-is-not-our-policy-to-respond-to-every-allegation-in the-media” line.
Khama’s PR victories are undermining the ability of Brand Botswana to sell Botswana to the world. Until the government cranks ups its own PR machinery to match Khama’s, Botswana’s international image will suffer incremental damage that will take years to repair.