News Analysis: Keeping the spotlight on Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe's opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, recently called in Fleishman-Hillard to ensure the world's media stay focused on the election crisis that still grips the southern African nation.

As we flew into Johannesburg several weeks ago, the election results had been counted in Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF had lost control of the parliament. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had counted up the votes outside the polling stations and worked out that its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, had won the presidential election by more than the 50 per cent required.

Unfortunately, as we know, politics according to President Mugabe is not as simple as that. Several weeks later, it was announced that Tsvangirai had 'fallen just short' of the 50 per cent mark and that a run-off was required.

We found Tsvangirai in surprisingly good spirits as we prepared him for a telephone interview with the BBC's World at One on 11 April. A charming man with a warm smile, Tsvangirai is the perfect contradiction to Mugabe's ranting speeches and firebrand politics.

He clearly cares deeply about his people and getting Zimbabwe back on its feet again - but herein lies the problem. How do you communicate directly with the people of Zimbabwe when you are threatened with violence? And how do you show the world what is happening in Zimbabwe when the international media are banned from the country?

With the news outlets in Zimbabwe controlled by Mugabe, the MDC's only route to publicity is often through face-to-face briefings with journalists. At the time, its only hope of a swift release of election results was the pressure of other African nations, and that meant pressure from the African and global media on their respective governments.

The MDC's power base in Zimbabwe is supported by those who have been forced out of the country but desperately want to get back. We met lawyers, farmers, teachers and bankers, all of whom wanted to return and make a difference in their homeland.

We arrived days before a meeting of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) was due to take place in Lusaka. The MDC had received photographic evidence of widespread intimidation and violence against its supporters in Zimbabwe. MDC secretary general Tendai Biti was flying in to show the world's media, camped in Johannesburg, the evidence. We immediately set about organising a press conference in a Johannesburg hotel. The response from the media was phenomenal. As we organised them into the conference room, camera after camera followed journalist after journalist.

Frantic calls were made to news desks, which were all demanding live feeds. Our knowledge of how these things work in southern Africa told us that live feeds were not a great way forward, but the news desks across the world were insistent. True to form, the electronic images of the beatings were held up by slow internet access in Zimbabwe and Biti was held up by the gridlocked local traffic.

When we finally got going, 20 minutes late, the room fell into a stunned silence as Biti told the media that Zimbabwe was being ruled by military government. Outlining the violence witnessed against the people, he appealed to the world to force Mugabe to release the results of the election and admit defeat.

The next day, every front page in Johannesburg carried the story. 'Zim is under military rule' stated one; 'Zim Showdown' led another.

Yet it was the commentary that provided the most interesting reading, including the shift in (South African ANC leader) Jacob Zuma's position and calls on the SADC conference to show its mettle. It was clear the SADC held the key to encouraging Mugabe to release the election results, thus negating the need for a run-off. Later, we reflected on what to do if the SADC failed to reach any meaningful conclusion. We agreed that the MDC's communications challenge would be made all the more difficult by this outcome, which, as history shows, is what they got.

Getting an intimidated, hungry and deeply sceptical population to go back out and vote after they have seen the last election 'stolen' from them will be tough. Meanwhile, pressure from the global community to allow independent observers and international media into the country continues to bear little fruit. Tsvangirai's team faces a challenging few weeks, yet our experience of working with them shows they won't rest until the polling stations close.

Our few action-packed days in southern Africa were of huge interest and allowed us to pass on our experience of political campaigning and messaging.

All eyes will be on Zimbabwe as the crucial run-off on 27 June looms. The MDC's ability to get its message out in the weeks ahead could change the world.

- Kevin Bell is Fleishman-Hillard vice-president for UKMEA

TIMELINE: Fleishman-Hillard's assistance to Zimbabwe's main opposition party

5 April: MDC contacts Kevin Welman, MD of Fleishman-Hillard's Johannesburg office

7 April: Initial MDC briefing to Welman in Johannesburg

8 April: F-H assistance approved. Kevin Bell and Guto Harri (former senior policy adviser) fly to Johannesburg

9 April: F-H and MDC hold strategy meeting; David Hart, F-H London associate director, flies to Johannesburg

10 April: Strategy and messaging session and press conference with Tendai Biti

11 April: Review of media coverage; preparation for Morgan Tsvangirai's interview with World at One

12 April: Hart and Harri fly to and from Lusaka with MDC team

13-19 April: F-H London team heads back to UK; continuing support to MDC from F-H Johannesburg.

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