Mandela Memorial Mishap: A Reminder of PR Best Practices

Posted by Oren Smith

Mandela Memorial Mishap: A Reminder of PR Best Practices
Fake it ‘til you make it? Certainly not this time. As the world came together on Dec. 10th, 2013 to commemorate the passing of civil rights icon Nelson Mandela, the ceremony was sadly marred for some when the orators’ sign language interpreter faked his way through the service.

Thamsanqa Jantjie, the interpreter for the deaf (who later claimed to be experiencing a schizophrenic episode on stage), brought on a storm of criticism when he demonstrated inadequate English-language and translation skills throughout the memorial. Not to mention, his performance was especially subpar for an internationally broadcast event, complete with an impressive set of world leaders and politicians!

But the major problem was that he was faking sign language altogether! Viewers were confused. Non-hearing communities around the world were deeply offended. Deaf leaders and activists were tweeting and posting about their frustrations as the ceremony took place. No matter how you look at it, this very public mistake spelled disaster.

Unfortunately, the background research that would have prevented Jantjie’s fraudulent skill set and company from slipping through the cracks was never conducted by the South African government. Obviously this is an extreme case, but nevertheless, some lessons can be gleaned from this incident and applied to the world of B2B PR.

  • Do things first class. No one in business has ever said “she was too respectful” or “he had way too much class.” It’s not necessarily about walking on eggshells – just know your audience and ensure your actions represent your best intentions. Paying attention to detail pays off. Particularly in the B2B world, your business practice has a direct effect on other organizations. So keep it classy.
  • Don’t fake anything you’re doing. Sometimes it seems easy to just make up a result or a quote. But if you want to maintain any integrity and credibility, you need to uphold your ethical standards. If you make a mistake, find a way to gracefully own up to it. It’s much more effective to openly admit to an error and provide a solution than to have a third party blow up your spot. Honesty is always the best policy.
  • Vet the people you employ. Even if you partner up with someone for a single occasion, your collaborator is still a reflection of your business. Think ahead about all possible problems, let alone issues with personnel, so you can avoid them. And if you’re managing a high-profile event with all major participants present, be sure to administer a trial run. In B2B PR, it never hurts to double check. Do your research!

Save yourself any embarrassment by making sure your standards are appropriately met and you’re keeping in mind your PR best practices. Sometimes, there are no second chances. This grand-scale mishap at Nelson Mandela’s memorial surely serves as a reminder to all of us PR professionals that in our line of work, precision, honesty, and respect always count!
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Dec 13, 2013

Wendy Marx

Wendy Marx is the founder and president of Marx Communications, a boutique inbound marketing and public relations agency. An award-winning B2B public relations pro, she has helped many small- & medium-sized firms (SMBs) become well-known industry brands and transform their businesses, going from Anonymity to Industry Icon™.

Her business articles have appeared in The New York Times, InformationWeek, Inc., Advertising Age, & Fast Company, among other outlets. 

View all posts by Wendy Marx