Public brand blunders

IT'S easy to think that private sector brands face different sets of challenges to reputation than public brands do, that stakeholder expectations differ according to whether a brand operates in the private or public sector. But this is not quite the case.

Today, corporate/brand reputation is as important in the public sector as it is in the private sector. The promises that brands represent are not more compelling in one sector than they are in the other. The main difference is that private sector brands often, but not always, face more competition than their public counterparts because they operate in the open market, generally speaking.

Because public brands often operate in politically determined monopolistic spaces – shielded by legislation from competition - they easily get away with bad behaviour with full knowledge that the bulk of their customers have few, if any, alternatives to run to when dissatisfied with quality.

Only the well-heeled can switch to private schools, private healthcare and even, increasingly, invest in private energy generating solutions with little reliance on the national electricity grid.

The past few years and in particular 2014 have been rather testing for the patience of South Africans and their appreciation of the country’s public institutions. Things seem to have gotten worse after revelations of the whopping R246m of public funds that were diverted from possible investments in general public good to finance the massive upgrades and construction work on President Jacob Zuma’s private estate, Nkandla.

This amount, which could have made a huge difference in the lives of millions of deserving South Africans, was instead used to benefit one family and its immediate hangers-on.

Nkandla 'culprit' an insult to the intelligence

Recent attempts to steer public anger away from the president to a senior civil servant who, ostensibly, admitted guilt for not following Public Finance Management Act guidelines in procuring services for the Nkandla upgrade - now ‘slapped’ with a ridiculous two-month suspension and a special course on the PFMA - are at best a silly attempt at diversion, and at worst an insult to the intelligence of South Africans.

As the saying goes, the horses have already bolted from the stable.

Like a slap in the face of many historic supporters who desperately want it to succeed, we’ve seen how the ruling ANC will to stop at nothing in defending this indefensible diversion of public funds. Faced with a looming watershed election, the party started brandishing a threatening middle finger in the face of anyone who dared question the diversion, making it clear that Zuma would be the face of its 2014 electoral campaign, noma ka njani (no matter what what)!

Things got worse when sinister attempts were made on the good name of the mild-mannered and respected public protector, Advocate Thuli Madonsela, who was accused of everything from working with the CIA to being part of an agenda to unseat the ANC.

It did not take long for the impunity witnessed at the top to tickle down to other public bodies, almost as a cue to embolden officials managing a variety of public assets.

Trust takes a nosedive

Confronted with reported corporate malfeasance at several state-owned entitites, South Africans’ trust in institutions such as the SA Post Office, the department of home affairs, the SA National Roads Agency Limited, the parliament, the National Prosecuting Authority, the presidency, South African Airways and now, recently, the Hawks elite crime fighting unit, took a further nose dive.

Instead of quick action to restore this dwindling public trust, we’ve seen the government repeatedly trying to shield the wrongdoers, only succumbing to media onslaught and public pressure in select cases.

The SABC board chairperson was finally pressured to tender her resignation following weeks of ‘hide and seek’ with parliament during which she dodged all requests to prove that she had the academic qualifications declared on her CV, and the fraud-accused PetroSA board chairperson was finally removed after he paid a strange visit to the offices of Business Day, his phone camera on the roll, accusing the newspaper’s editor of running a vendetta against him.

One hopes that the much diminished public confidence in South Africa’s public brands will be restored in 2015 when sustainable energy restoration plans are implemented; when sustainable diesel and gas supplies are found to feed our open cycle gas turbines; when Medupi power station gets connected to the grid; and when cabinet finally does something about the apparently vindictive SAA board chairperson who, it has been said, will take no instruction from anyone other than the president himself, known to be very close to her; and that the bizarre story around the qualifications of the SABC's chief operating officer will be resolved once and for all. 
We all hold crucial stakes in our country’s public institutions; our trust in and respect for them is entirely dependent on the extent to which sanity will be seen to have been restored in all of them.

* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley. Views expressed are his own.
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