As the media scrutinise every detail of the Oscar Pistorius trial, his publicity team has tried to salvage a portion of the online conversation.
As the media frenzy around Pistorius’s bail hearing escalated last week, his media team worked hard to get its message out.
Within days of the shooting of Reeva Steenkamp, the Pistorius camp enlisted the aid of UK spin doctor Stuart Higgins, repurposed Pistorius’s official website and, if internet tools are to be trusted, may have deleted tweets from Pistorius’s Twitter feed.
Days after the shooting, Higgins, former editor of the UK’s the Sun tabloid newspaper flew to South Africa to provide media relations support to Pistorius. Higgins had previously represented Pistorius during the 2012 Olympic Games. He returned to London last week, but continues to do “back-end work” from there.
Sam Beckbessinger, head of strategy at the e-marketing agency Quirk, said having Higgins help craft the message on Pistorius’s behalf was sensible, given the circumstances.
"If [Pistorius] proves innocent or merely negligent, then it will be important to ensure that Oscar has not already been tried and hanged in the court of public opinion,” she said.
The Pistorius family has been keeping a low profile, leaving the talking to local reputation management company Vuma, to Oscar’s uncle Arnold Pistorius and online to Pistorius’s official website oscarpistorius.com.
The case of Pistorius shooting and killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day, has drawn the morbid fascination of readers and viewers around the world.
Online searches for information on Pistorius have outstripped those for information on Lance Armstrong during the doping scandal and for Tiger Woods after news of his infidelity broke out.
A Google Trends search on Pistorius shows little online interest in the athlete last year, barring a couple of spikes during the Olympic and Paralympic Games between July and September, and another, smaller spike in December when Pistorius raced against a horse in Qatar to raise awareness of disability sport.
But on the day that Steenkamp was killed, there were over a million searches on Google for information on Pistorius and Steenkamp.
One of the first search results for information on Pistorius is his official website. The site has undergone a substantial redesign since charges were laid against him.
Shavana Mushwana, a spokesperson for the family, told the Mail & Guardian that the website was redesigned last week.
“Following the recent tragic events and the enormous global interest, the family of Oscar Pistorius has taken the decision to devote his official website to the latest news about developments as well as messages of support,” he said.
“The website will provide the opportunity for the media to make enquiries or requests but for understandable legal reasons it may not always be possible to respond or comment.”
In early February the website featured imagery from Pistorius’s Nike advert – although the unfortunate tagline “I am the bullet in the chamber” is not visible on the page – and glamorous images of Pistorius as a high-powered athlete and fashionable celebrity.
These images have since been removed. Instead the website now boasts images of Pistorius together with excited schoolchildren, a girl in a wheelchair, and triumphantly waving a South African flag. These images diverge sharply from the recent images of him in the dock, looking teary-eyed and dejected.
In addition, the marketing and sponsorship aspects of the original site have been removed while new categories have been added, including a section for press statements and “messages of support” from fans. A new media articles section features news reports, columns and blogs that are sympathetic to Pistorius.
“The imagery on the site has been altered substantially from hyper-masculine GQ ads and imposing low-angle portraits, to friendly photos with a more human angle, reminding the public of the hero persona that he so recently enjoyed,” said Beckbessinger.
But while the website is the one space where the Pistorius camp can speak directly to the public and give their side of the story, Beckbessinger said, it would not ultimately define the tone of the wider conversation.
“[This] is happening much more vigorously in living rooms, newspapers and social networks all around the world,” she said.
Jude Mathurine, head of the New Media Lab at Rhodes University, said that in the social media age, a public relations team would not be able to reclaim the dominant narrative simply by putting out press releases or talking to sympathetic media.
“You do it by putting out spin and influencing the influencers, so they begin to put out the alternative messages and not just conjecture,” he said.
Mathurine said the website was just one way to massage public opinion.
“It’s meant to provide an alternative to the mainstream that can potentially cause pause because if your client is found not guilty, it provides tools … for this person’s rehabilitation,” he said.
But Mathurine also pointed out that Twitaholic, an online tool that tracks the statistics of popular Twitter users, shows what appears to be 10 missing tweets from Pistorius’s timeline. The tweets appear to have disappeared after the shooting.
“It should be noted that Twitaholic records that @oscarpistorius Twitter followers jumped from 237 505 on 14 February to 272 473 on 20 February – an increase of 14%,” said Mathurine.
“More tellingly, there are 10 fewer updates on 20 February than there were on 14 February. It begs the question, ‘What entries were removed in this time?'”
At the weekend, the Twitter accounts of both Carl Pistorius and Aimee Pistorius, Oscar’s siblings, were shut down after Carl’s Twitter account was allegedly hacked.
But Pistorius’s account remained active – although it was not updated since February 13, the day before the shooting. Potentially damaging tweets, showing Pistorius at target practice, boasting of a 96% headshot rate or talking about going into “full combat recon mode” after hearing a noise in the pantry also remain on the feed.
Asked whether Pistorius’s Twitter feed had been altered in any way since February 14, the day of the shooting, Mushwana responded: “We are unfortunately not able to comment further on this issue.”
South Africa’s reputation problem
Meanwhile, Ronél Rensburg, professor in the division of communications management at the University of Pretoria has warned that there are wider implications to the Pistorius trial.
"We now have seen how the Pistorius camp is dealing with the issue at hand. The question is how the country will manage its reputation with regards to all the encompassing problems that are again echoed in this matter.”
Rensburg said that the bail hearing last week had raised questions about police corruption, credibility and its ability to present clear evidence, as well as the functioning of the legal system.
“This might even have an influence on the extradition case of Shrien Divani,” she said. “Inevitably South Africa is again in the news for all the wrong reasons, and again it has a reputation problem,” she said.