Hiring of obscure PR firm to burnish Prasa raises brows

02 August 2015 - 02:00 By PIET RAMPEDI, MZILAKAZI wa AFRIKA and STEPHAN HOFSTATTER

A little-known company has been roped in to polish the battered image of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa. The company, Fore Front Solutions, was allegedly hired without going through normal tender procedures and is to be paid R250, 000 a month for the next six months.The Sunday Times was unable to establish who the owners are. The company is believed to be linked to a Prasa board member and was said to have been hand-picked.According to internal documents and supply-chain memorandums that were seen by Sunday Times reporters this week, Prasa acquired the services of Fore Front Solutions on July 30 on a six-month contract worth R1.5-million.It was appointed "to help Prasa manage and promote a positive media image and also assist the board to deal with reputational issues arising out [of] a sustained negative media coverage of Prasa's operations".story_article_left1Even though it is managed through the office of group chief strategy officer Sipho Sithole, Fore Front Solutions "reports directly to the ad hoc committee of the board, chaired by Mashila Matlala", according a Prasa internal communique sent out to staff on Friday.The communique added that "the agency is already on site".The memo for Fore Front's appointment was prepared by Sithole on July 28, recommended by Prasa chief procurement officer Joseph Phungula the following day, and approved by acting group CEO Nkosinathi Khena two days later.Three senior Prasa sources said senior communications staff rebelled when they were introduced to the public relations agency's representatives at a tense meeting in Pretoria on Wednesday.They accused Prasa board chairman Popo Molefe and management of appointing Fore Front irregularly in order to benefit its directors. Prasa's communications division has 20 members of staff, including five senior managers.Fore Front's services include writing speeches, press releases and opinion pieces, creating and executing events and managing social media. It will also help Prasa and the board in "anticipating, analysing and interpreting public opinion and attitudes" that might impact negatively on the agency.Fore Front's appointment came after Molefe's sacking of former group CEO Lucky Montana plunged Prasa into turmoil, with senior politicians, executives and unionists taking sides.mini_story_image_hright1Montana publicly accused Molefe of targeting him for resisting what he said was the chairman's attempt to interfere in procurement. He laid criminal charges against Molefe, some board members and service providers, accusing them of procurement irregularities and of attempting to blackmail disgraced former Prasa chief engineer Daniel Mtimkuluto fabricate lies about him.For his part, Molefe accused Montana of undermining his authority, breaching the conditions of his notice and with-holding 13 subpoenas issued against Prasa officials by public protector Thuli Madonsela in order to prevent them from testifying against him.The officials apparently came forward after Montana's sacking, resulting in Madonsela postponing the release of her report into maladministration, procurement and appointment irregularities at Prasa.In his motivation for Fore Front's appointment, Sithole said Prasa had endured sustained negative media coverage because of tension between Molefe and Montana, the perceived flouting of governance processes, tender irregularities and questions arising from Madonsela's pending report.He said because of "the absence of capable managers with requisite experience, Prasa has not been able to foil such negative media coverage"."Instead, the organisation has jumped from one issue to another, thereby incurring the wrath of public authorities who begin to question the existence of [the] organisation's media and communication strategy," Sithole said. Although his division was responsible also for marketing and strategy, the two units "do not have staff with the necessary skills and experience" and "senior management capable to run an effective communication campaign".However, senior communications staff who attended Wednesday's meeting denied Sithole's assertion. They accused him of making false claims in order to justify Fore Front's appointment.Sithole said Prasa's supply chain processes and policies had been followed in appointing the company. "It is only on specific matters pertaining to the board that Fore Front will directly deal with the board, otherwise the agency will render services on behalf of Prasa as a group."..

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