MEDIA practitioners in South Africa often say, with reason, that this country is a dynamic news churning machinery that is always on the roll. They do not always have to dig too deep to find something to write about. 72aa0adc2d4a400394a3fccfa3a19314

While government and our public managed companies often take the lead in providing the media with juicy stories to write about, private companies also often vie openly for the coveted Mampara Award. Let’s take the case of Virgin Active, on the private side, and Sanral on the public side.


Virgin Active: a foot in it; a foot out of it

Virgin Active took the adage “respond promptly to potentially reputation harming incidents” too seriously and, perhaps, too far when, seemingly without thinking, it gave a knee-jerk response to a situation that could have been tamed without putting the brand onto the back foot.

This is what happens when a company lacks a clear set of values, or even a sense of humor, to guide conduct in apparently sticky situations.

In the case of values, it also happens when they do exist but they’re not adequately integrated into everyday practice. In the latter situation, which might be the case with Virgin Active, corporate values were often developed by some external agency, beautifully packaged and presented at executive level, where they got endorsed. They would then have been taken through just one round of communication to lower levels of staff during their post-recruitment induction.

Often, no level of scenario planning and role-playing is done when such values are communicated to middle management and the rest of the company’s employees. It is either this or that the company still went ahead and employed a manager who couldn’t think out of the box when he got confronted by spoilt, intolerant members who clearly thought only their view of the world mattered.

Corporate values are never developed in a vacuum. In developing them, the interests of the business, employees, customers and other stakeholders have to be considered. They’re also underpinned by respect of the rule of law. It’s hard to imagine that Virgin Active forgot that we live in a constitutional democracy where citizens take their hard-won freedom of expression very seriously.

This alone should have guided the gym manager at the Old Ed’s to calm himself down first before overzealously taking sides in the conflict between intolerant defenders of Israel, on one hand, and its critic on the other. They shouldn’t have to rely on one of Virgin Active’s big guns being flown down from Head Office to show them how to think ‘corporate reputation’ in their management of simple incidents.

However, it’s thumbs-up to Virgin Active for having wasted no further time before diffusing a reputation bomb that could have left the company with egg in the face.


Sanral: Celebrity plaster on a festering wound

Enter Sanral, which seems to be putting its foot in it each time it opens its mouth; digging itself deeper into its own created mess. It reminds me of a client that we had not too long ago.

Swamped by negative press coverage they could no longer hide from, they asked us to help them “carve sexy, positive, colourful, and dynamic messages” (their own words) to help correct misplaced public perceptions and turn the negative tide.

Basically, like in the case of Sanral’s laughable use of attractive celebrities to defend the indefensible e-tolls, the wounds had already begun to fester. Merely placing a clean plaster on them would not help. Sanral has to acknowledge that its initial public announcements were neither sufficiently well communicated, in terms of reach, nor extended long enough to ensure that all affected residents of Gauteng were afforded the chance to be informed and to transparently engage.

Vusi Mona’s quote of Gerrie Swart; that “celebrity endorsements have become the very foundation of many brands’ success, and the relationships between campaigns and celebrities grow ever more complex”, would be appropriate in another context; not in the Sanral one.

It is too late. Sanral is no longer in traditional, proactive, brand communication mode; it is in crisis communication mode. Until they realise this, they will keep wasting millions of rands on futile campaigns that will only serve to enrich the totally unconvincing celebrities. I can bet you that if cornered in safe spaces, Tbo Touch, Minnie Dlamini and Khanyi Mbau would be happy to confess that they’re just doing it for the money.

Aspirational or not aspirational, the emerging African middle class is not a bunch of fools. Sanral must simply go back to the drawing board, identify areas where it went wrong – many of which have already been pointed out by its many critics – eat humble pie and start all over again.

Goodwill is not bought; it is earned. The fact that more Gauteng motorists are paying the e-tolls, as claimed by Sanral, is not an indication that as a brand, the e-Tolls have finally carved themselves a warm space in the hearts of Gautengers. Fear of prosecution should not be confused with respect and love for the brand and its dodgy ways.