This increasingly significant annual forum, held in the picturesque, snow-covered town last week, brought together communication professionals from all over the world to discuss a whole array of topics pertinent to the art of communication.
Importantly, the focus was not just on theory; participants from the government sector, the corporate sector, tertiary institutions and NGOs shared professional experiences of how the smart application of strategic communications saved reputations and, by extension, goodwill and share value for their organisations.
We also discussed situations in which goodwill and reputations would have been protected, had reputation managers seen storms before they hit their brands and proactively put measures in place to prevent crisis.
The forum also covers the role of media in its plurality.
The 2016 forum attracted cabinet ministers, academics, senior corporate communications and reputation management executives, other communication practitioners, consultants, students in related fields, integrated communication agencies, and others from a variety of organisations which increasingly consider communications a key business function.
There was palpable consensus in the Davos Congress Centre that communication can make or break corporate, brand, and organisational reputation. In a reputation-driven economy such as ours, brand health can no longer be taken for granted.
The case of South Africa
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan is correct when he calls on all South Africans, including government, business and labour, to back the effort made by him and the Treasury team to stop this country from becoming a reputational basket case.
Much of what has been happening in South Africa – or rather, much of what has been done to our beloved homeland over the past few years by the likes of President Jacob Zuma and some members of his family, the Gupta family, South African Airways’ Dudu Myeni and friends, the SABC’s Hlaudi Motsoeneng and, more recently, all the murky turf wars we have been experiencing, is bad for South Africa’s brand reputation.
All of these things – added to incidents of crime that get used in foreign media to profile South Africa, like the rape and murder last week of a sixteen-year-old jogger in Tokai forest – put us on a collective reputational back foot.
Gordhan is correct to warn us that the world is watching, and that people have begun to ask uncomfortable questions about us. Even the most patriotic South Africans and some of those who have always vowed total, blind, and unquestioning loyalty to the African National Congress are beginning to feel the kick that is no longer gentle in their backsides.
During the session discussing “Country Reputation” at the World Communications Forum, the question was asked: “Who is in charge of communications, identity and trust?”
Our Communications Minister Faith Muthambi elaborated on bodies such as the Government Communications and Information System, the SABC, Brand SA (formerly the International Marketing Council of South Africa) as well as laudable efforts to streamline mandates and reporting lines for the plethora of other government-controlled media and communication agencies.
Her presentation, like those of other government presenters, was rather scant on responsibilities for country reputation management, values that drive reputation, and what gets done to sanction those whose conduct endangers country reputation.
Only the Seychelles came close to providing specifics. Understandably, it would have been hard for Minister Muthambi to go into details on this in the current climate.
Can Brand SA be in charge of South Africa’s country reputation?
My immediate answer is no. As currently constituted, especially given its reporting lines, Brand SA can only keep wasting money on futile feel-good campaigns about the country while the organisation carefully avoids touching on the real causes of damage to South Africa’s reputation.
Its mandate is to keep placing fancy-looking bandages on festering wounds, without any attempts to deal with the root causes of those wounds.
The reasons for this are obvious. Brand SA is a government structure, publicly funded, and its employees are highly-paid civil servants who are just an addition to the public sector wage bill. They’re at the beck and call of politicians and can only act more like a glorified propaganda machine than real reputation managers.
Addressing forum delegates in Davos, Paul Holmes, US PR Guru, founder and CEO of the Holmes Report and UK SABRE Awards, elaborated on five key requirements for people managing reputation: courage, business acumen, curiosity, empathy and integrity.
The courage referred to here is of Public Protector Advocate Thuli Madonsela’s type. This is because it requires those charged with managing reputation to have the wherewithal to put their foot down when potentially damaging action is being envisaged, even by seniors, and to sanction those whose conduct stands to damage prospects of attracting reputation-conscious investors and tourists.
Frankly, I do not see anyone at Brand SA telling our politicians to stop their nonsense, as it makes their job difficult. Structured as it currently is, Brand SA can only thrive by swimming just below the political radar, ensuring that it never steps on the reputation-wrecking political toes that we see all around us.
A properly functioning, effective Brand SA should also act as a buffer between rating agencies and the country’s reputation. Instead of being reactive, it should be operationally equipped and staffed to see trouble while it’s still hundreds of miles away and help government correct course before a collision that will leave us all on the back foot.
Control of its mandate should also be more independent from political influence than it currently is; or it should be led by people who have the Thuli Madonsela type of courage, for the sake of our country’s reputation.
Sadly, such people are unlikely to be found among the hordes of obsequious political deployees who put the party first.