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Sake 24 - Learning a lesson from FNB-uproar

Prof Ronel Rensburg reflects on the lessons learnt from the FNB advertising campaign. She writes" Learning a lesson from FNB advertising uproar"

The outpour of virulence of individuals in the ANC and ANCYL regarding an advertisement by First National Bank (FNB) and the consequent withdrawal of "offensive" video interviews with young South Africans on social media should not be seen as only a storm in a tea cup.

Businessmen, media people and those for whom freedom of speech is important, should seriously reflect on this incident. This is not the first time that the ANC has attacked a company over its public discourse and communication viewpoints. It will also not be the last time.


FNB also has a stake in the communication mishap: a slight confusion of strategic communication management with stakeholders. Maybe all businesses can learn communication lessons from this issue.

In October 2012 FNB had been named the world's most innovative bank and is now a respected brand name in South Africa (and across the world). It is the preferred bank brand amongst South Africans.

In addition, FNB has one of South Africa's youngest executives, Dr Michael Jordaan. He is an accessible executive and has established a unique profile in social media.

The "offensive" video interviews with young South Africans and the advertisement "you can help" is interpreted as a mainstream marketing campaign. However, if one wants to take a cold academic view, this is essentially a corporate social responsibility programme.

Corporate social responsibility programmes or corporate social investment programmes may be criticised for various reasons, but they often reach noble socio-economic objectives. In a democracy, there should be a symbiosis between business and government in the solution of social problems such as poverty, crime and education.

The question if business should interfere with political discourse and debate, is indeed a valid debate, which will not be scrutinised here. Confusion and lack of strategic management of communication for the integration of stakeholders is the issue at hand.

This is not the first time that FNB landed itself in trouble over an advertisement. It was in early February 2007 and an advertising campaign of R20 million that had been intended to persuade former president Thabo Mbeki to make the fight against crime a priority matter.

The campaign would have been launched in a English Sunday newspaper, but had been withdrawn two days before publication due to a publicity storm similar to the current one. The main sources of adverse publicity then were crime, HIV / AIDS and South Africa's quiet diplomacy towards Zimbabwe. Today issues of crime, primary health care, basic education, corruption and non-delivery of services have now emerged as bones of contention. Twitterati, the Facebook brigade and other social media users nowadays can pick up on horrific abuses within seconds and submit these messages into cyberspace.

This recent slap on the wrist to FNB is this time harsher and FNB is accused of a serious crime: treason. The mere statement is comical. Can businesses commit treason?

About four centuries ago, the British jurist Sir Edward Coke claimed that businesses cannot commit treason, nor can they be outlawed or exiled because they are not living beings. The video recordings reflecting the opinions of the youth on service delivery by government and its shortcomings and how the country can be improved, can hardly be regarded as treason. It is indeed intended as an illustration of "how we can help" - therefore sharing the responsibility of making South Africa an improved country.

In FirstRand's 2012 annual report, the stakeholders with whom the company switch interact are identified as: government, shareholders and analysts, employees, customers, suppliers, communities and civil society.

Therefore it can be assumed that liaison and good relations with different stakeholders is important. Furthermore, we accept that FNB will know how to communicate with the various stakeholders and manage relationships strategically.

The strategic communication management of stakeholder relations extends beyond marketing, advertising and a presence on social networks - it is eventually achieved using different communication platforms and channels for different stakeholders. It is noticeable that the mainstream media as stakeholder is not on the list of stakeholders in the annual report of FirstRand, FNB's holding company.

The corporate communication strategies of enterprises should be inextricably linked to their management strategies. It is a fact that the practitioners in marketing, corporate communications, stakeholder engagement and reputation management in enterprises are not always sure what the differences and objectives of these management functions are.
They may also not know enough about the international, political, social and economic macro-environment in which the business operates.

To keep stakeholders informed and focused, and most successful businesses realise that they, at any given time, might be hampered by the government. If the enterprises' communication is still flawed, the company's corporate reputation can suffer.

Sizwe Nxasana’s (FirstRand and FNB's Chairperson) apologetic confession that the bank acted improperly, is disappointing, but commercially this reaction is understandable. There might even be individuals that reason that FNB embarked upon this endeavour to draw attention to itself and for self-publicity. This might also be a future debate.

Inevitably FNB will survive this communication trial and will again surprise in the future with innovative banking campaigns, but it will have to spend more energy on the strategic management of communication with all of its stakeholders.

Sustainable crisis and reputation management involves more than just a prominent social media presence.

The FNB saga is not the only one in the public display of power of the ANC. That is perhaps why this incident should be seriously pondered.

This drama diverts attention from the real issues rife in the country, but also illustrates the reality of the insidious Protection of Information Bill and President Jacob Zuma's sinister remark that the enterprises of businessmen who support the ANC will flourish.

The futile question is: Will the effective strategic management of communication with stakeholders - including the government - serve any purpose in such a context?

Prof. Ronel Rensburg, director of the Centre for Communication and Reputation Management and Head of the Communication Management Division at the University of Pretoria. These comments were her personal impressions.

(This article has been published in Sake24 February 2013)

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