Opinionista Onkgopotse JJ Tabane 24 January 2013

Business must learn how to play ball in the current political environment

Business is expected to play its part in building social cohesion in South Africa. This past week saw two business giants, First National Bank and Anglo American Platinum, coming under fire for overstepping their mark in communicating in a manner some have described as unpatriotic. Of course, acting for the country and not party is an age old debate, one which will not be resolved in a column. I am, however, coldly saying to business: Calculate your move carefully and manage your stakeholders in self interest by ensuring the sophisticated management of political risk.

The mining giant that hires over 60,000 people and would have boasted about this not so long ago in it’s marketing parlance, has come under fire from the Mining Minister Susan Shabangu, who recently vowed in its favour that mining nationalisation will “not happen in my lifetime”. This was her chance, though, to remind Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) that just because nationalisation is off the table does not mean Big Sister is not watching. The company must close down its government relations division, surely, if it did not think it was prudent to whisper in the ear of the mining minister’s secretary, at least, about the dramatic announcement that would put so many breadwinners out of work. Communications expert Clive Simpkins speculated on a business radio show last week that this may have been done for the shock and effect of getting the attention of government. I hope he is wrong. You don’t play around with people’s lives like that and risk another Marikana just for the “effect” of it, or some twisted strategy to gain attention, or even kowtow to heartless shareholders who would not flinch before closing the tap on 14,000 livelihoods because of an impending billion-rand and loss. There is wisdom in taking stakeholders with you, even if you eventually arrive at the same conclusion.

Hopefully other businesses will learn a big lesson here in strategically managing their communications with stakeholders that matter, such as the ruling party and its ministers. This is by no means saying that the response to threaten auctioning off and withdrawing licences is the best response by the powers that be, but that is a whole article on its own.

First National Bank (FNB) is no stranger to controversy but its track record is truly mixed in this regard. Its campaign using children to say some unpalatable things, must surely not have been subjected to its government relations machinery. We all know how thin-skinned politicians are the world over. It was foolhardy to expect them to clap in approval when “children” are insulting them. It’s like venturing into a foreign country only to have your contact cancelled by politicians you did not lobby properly. It was an Ill-advised campaign overall. One would have thought the aborted anticrime letter campaign aimed at the Mbeki administration a few years ago would have taught FNB how the cookie crumbles in the new South Africa. Even in the 1988s they tried a gimmick where they ran a campaign with ANC colours when it was not fashionable and got their fingers burned. You just don’t come out with guns blazing like that – ask Ruel Khoza next door, or even the men of the cloth who critiqued the ANC in what it considered to be a manner that was out of turn. It is important, as the poem Desiderata tells us, that you tell your truth when it is ready to be received and in a manner that makes it easy to receive.

There are numerous ways in which government can be approached to be warm to business without loud diplomacy so to speak. It is truly not ideal in the context of the freedom of speech, but so are the bank charges. No one really likes them but they are the reality of the banking system. This, by the way, has nothing to do with “speaking truth to power”. It has everything to do with the reason for a business to exist, and whether its posture towards one of the biggest spenders of the economy is seen as progressive. The rule of thumb that was ignored here, was to generally try and avoid mixing commercial activity with religion or politics.  

Having said this, I must hasten to add, though, that FNB is one of the most patriotic of the banks in South Africa and hopefully what has happened to it this time around will not make anyone lose sight of that. I am reminded of a campaign that FNB launched in support of the then International Marketing Council (now Brand South Africa) called “Home Coming Revolution”. The bank encouraged those who migrated in fear of the new South Africa to come back home. It was more than lip service as they would help these prodigal daughters and sons to settle back in South Africa should they chose to return in response to that revolutionary campaign. Also, an FNB campaign to teach people the national anthem using its resources to print the anthem’s lyrics with its advertising spent was quite apt. My personal favourite is Heart Lines (currently being repeated on SABC3), the biggest multimedia campaign that FNB ever ran – to promote values such as integrity, honesty and compassion. This is a corporate that cannot afford to have its name spoiled by an Ill-conceived campaign that pits it against initiatives that are seen as building bridges and building on the goodwill that has been generated over the last 20 years of building a new nation.

So what are the lessons for business?

  • Invest in a clear and thorough stakeholder management strategy linked to your communications strategy. Hire people in these areas who are aware of the current political and business climate where you operate. It does not hurt to ensure that your current stakeholder team is adequately connected to the current leadership in business and government; there is no point in fielding  someone who used to be connected in the 1980s, as they won’t have a clue what is going on right now in the corridors of power and will unable to help you measure the political temperature.
  • Ensure that your corporate strategy is aligned with your business strategy to ensure that your business decisions do not result in your business being targeted unduly by politicians who may want to use you as an example. You are in business to advance the cause of your shareholders. To get yourself targeted as unpatriotic is not a wise business move. Use focus groups if you have to. Test your ideas with your key stakeholders from time to time. No-one is perfect so be ready for some showdowns from time to time, but if your heart is in then right place, you will be embraced for having the humility to “check with someone” before you plunge in.
  • As much as it is possible, act in unison with other like-minded businesses – especially when addressing issues of national impact. In the case of Amplats, for example, the route of joint action with the Chamber of Mines would have provided corporate cover, because if the economy is biting in the sector, it surely can’t just isolate one company. That is why chambers exist. My experience is that there is high risk in the current climate to unnecessarily rise above the parapet as a listed entity and do what may be seen as anti-establishment.
  • Pick up the damn phone and inform key stakeholders about big decisions. This is both courteous and strategic, and may well help manage the fallout that is inevitable. I am not prepared to accept that a decision like firing thousands of workers must be announced to the government in the press. No matter how much you may not like such a government, you are saddled with them for the next while. Play the game accordingly.

What these two cases have shown us is how much work still needs to be done in South Africa to build bridges between government and business in order to achieve common national objectives. There is a dire need for constant dialogue before we see the real birth or even death of social cohesion. DM



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