Solly Moeng | Dr Death, Somizi, Trump - when will brands learn their lesson about toxic links?

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Solly Moeng (Supplied)
Solly Moeng (Supplied)

Self-respecting brands should focus their energy and the employment of their capital – human, financial and otherwise – delivering on the core business of maximising shareholder and broader stakeholder value, instead of fighting unnecessary battles in the courts of law and public opinion, says Solly Moeng.

In recent months and weeks, we have witnessed a number of interesting, even ground shattering, developments between big, long established, political and corporate brands on one hand and, on the other hand, person/influencer brands that they have chosen to associate with, often for leverage and profit.

These range from the US Republican Party and immediate past US president Donald Trump; local reality star and entertainment personality, Somizi Mhlongo-Motaung, and the reputational impact of his conduct on the brands that use him as an influencer; former Expresso Morning Show presenter and Outsurance influencer, Katlego Maboe, who was dumped by the brands that used to use his once glowing image to push their products and services, following allegations of impropriety by his estranged wife; as well as Dr Wouter Basson, also known as "Dr Death" and the Mediclinic Group.

Dr Basson is also known as "Dr Death" because of his alleged involvement with and masterminding of the apartheid government's chemical weapons mission, known as "Project Coast", reportedly aimed at killing anti-apartheid activists during apartheid.

The South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef) recently called on Somizi Mhlongo-Motaung to stop his followers from harassing and intimidating two journalists after he exposed their contact details EFF style on social media. The forum reported that "some (of his fans) have directly threatened journalist Julia Madibogo and Kabelo Khumalo's wife with rape, while Khumalo received threats to his life.

The fans also threatened the safety of the journalists' families. They have tormented them for doing their jobs and asking questions, in line with the Press Code, that demands of journalists to give a right of reply to everyone they intend to write stories about.

All of this happened after the said journalists tried to obtain Mhlongo-Motaung's version of the rumours about troubles in his marriage to SA model and entrepreneur, Mohale Tebogo Motaung, who is said to have moved out of their marital home following some domestic arguments. Forgetting that he is the one who chose to be a media personality, whose entire life has been paraded in the media by himself over the years, often at personal benefit, Mhlongo-Motaung did not take kindly to the media showing interest in rumours of trouble in the paradise of his love nest.

In response, and apparently also responding to what he later described as many years of the media reporting untruths about him, he decided to give journalists a taste of their own medicine and "see what it feels like to be bullied", before sharing their telephone numbers with his fans on social media. As he would have expected, his fans did not hold back.

In the case of Dr Basson, Mediclinic would have known of the risk it was taking when it agreed to let him use its facilities. In a clumsy attempt to defend the relationship between the group and Dr Basson, Mediclinic's chief marketing officer for southern Africa, Biren Valodia, had this to say: "I need to clarify that, by law, doctors are independent practitioners and are not employed by any hospital group. Dr Basson is not employed by Mediclinic Southern Africa and does not have his consulting rooms at Mediclinic facilities. He consults from his own rooms. That's where his patients choose to consult him."

He probably should have stopped there, but he did not. Instead, he couldn't stop himself from adding: "In the interest of our patients, we must respect each patient's rights to choose the appropriate medical professional to deliver the required treatment at the facility of the patient's choice."

There is, of course, nothing legally wrong with Valodia's explanation, but reputational battles are seldom won or lost in the courts of law alone. They are more often won and lost in the more brutal and unpredictable courts of public opinion.

Over the years, since the end of apartheid, Dr Basson has often managed to land on all fours each time someone tossed him up into the air, often by using the courts to get him deregistered as a doctor on account of the allegations about his role in the apartheid government's chemical killing machine. But, in the absence of credible evidence directly linking him to what was done then, no one has succeeded. But none of that means that "brand Wouter Basson" has been cleansed and rid of the dark cloud hanging over its head; far from it. He seems to have been marked for life.

Any brand that chooses to associate with Dr Basson must know this and should always expect to be pushed onto the defensive for working with a man with serious human rights allegations hanging over his head, especially at a time of serious, unending, conspiracy theories and fake news, that some have resorted to extracting verses from religious scriptures to explain; and at a time of seriously depleted citizen trust in the government ahead of the arrival of vaccines to fight against the further spread of the coronavirus.

In the US, the real impact of Trump, on the political fortunes of the Republican Party, is yet to be properly recorded. These are still early days, but the reported internal divisions in this Grand Old Party (GOP) - with a small but steadily growing number of members condemning Trump's behaviour in the weeks leading to the end of his presidency and many more still standing firmly behind him - are an indication that Trump has not left a neutral mark on the image of the GOP.

Those who want it to make it through the current reputational storms will have to decide between acknowledging his hurtful impact and promising to never let it happen again, or holding on to their pride, with the party's reputational wagon firmly attached to that of Trump – not the other way – and leaving it up to others to stick with them through thick and thin or not. They must simply never forget that history books will not miss a mention of the deadly insurrection against the nation's Capitol, incited by Trump and several Republican senators now facing possible ethical censure in the new administration.

Normally, all self-respecting brands should aim to focus as much of their energy and the employment of their capital – human, financial and otherwise – delivering on the core business of maximising shareholder and broader stakeholder value, instead of fighting unnecessary battles in the legal courts and the courts of public opinion. They should, therefore, think twice before letting toxic or potentially unstable person brands attach their wagons onto theirs.

Sadly, we live in times of generally heightened levels of impunity, especially in politics, where political brands seem to deliberately associate themselves with toxicity or to defend toxic behaviour, instead of sanctioning it, all for financial gain.

A number of corporate brands have also tried this, but often at great reputational cost that results in customers moving their business elsewhere; something we are yet to see happen with more significant outcomes in our politics. In the end, consumers of political messages must learn from consumers of corporate and retail goods and services, and master the art of walking away from reputationally damaged political brands. 

Views expressed are the author's own. 

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