South Africa needs an effective, proactive and permanent health monitoring mechanism for its country brand and image.
Country brand monitoring would mean SA is not left on the backfoot, having to explain itself, when it should be focusing on developing an inclusive economy.
It is necessary given everything that has occurred over the past 25 years – specifically in recent years – to propel its originally promising and, at one point sterling, country brand image into a tailspin. And it is particularly important because our leaders and political hopefuls have a strange propensity to threaten or make economic and political policy decisions seemingly on emotion, which seems at odds with the ideals of a country that wants to be seen as a serious player, a nation influencer on the world stage.
There are things that more established brands – including country brands – easily get away with, which new democracies trying to punch above their weight can't. That explains why a country like the United States of America can choose a president like the one it currently has, who does and says many of the seemingly strange things he's known for, yet none of it seems to discourage global business from wanting a piece of the American pie.
Despite its failures and, often, antagonistic foreign policy stances on multilateral issues around the world, the USA is known for boasting strong and independent institutions of democracy and a long-established political culture of democratic alternation. It is therefore known and accepted worldwide that no US president can ever stay for more than two terms in office.
Similarly, people often complain about tourism being affected and almost trickling to a stop whenever natural disasters and other, major negative events – including terrorist attacks – happen in developing countries; while the same does not occur when such events visit established democracies.
This is not unlike established brands being able to rely on massive reputational capital gathered over decades to make their way through storms with a lot more ease than new brands still trying to establish themselves.
A long way to go
South Africa is still a young democracy, with institutions whose resilience in the face of political madness has yet to be proven. Save for the office of the Public Protector under the stewardship of Professor Thuli Madonsela – since sadly gone – and our judiciary over the past ten years, not nine, our institutions have not done us much favour.
As a result, much of the world, including some home-based investors – whether or not they will says so publicly – is waiting to see what the 2019 elections will bring before making long-term decisions.
It is hoped that the mixed messages we have been sending out, ranging from threats of land and property expropriation without compensation, will be replaced by clear political and economic policy stances that will enable healthy levels of stability, sanity and – crucially – predictability.
Reputational impact monitoring
The proposal for a brand or image monitoring mechanism should not come as a surprise to SA, because there already exists in the country a platform that brings government, labour and business to think about policy proposals before they are implemented – namely the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac).
The proposed mechanism would serve as a platform to facilitate regular multi-forum discussions on the possible impact of proposed policy directions on country image and how - following dedicated scenario planning - to mitigate potentially negative ramifications and avoid the country being left at a disadvantage, having to explain its decisions, when its focus should be on inclusive development.
Such a platform would also ensure the crucial link between country image and reputation, on one hand and – on the other hand – economic development and dynamism, is understood, appreciated and nurtured by more South Africans. This includes labour unions, who sometimes appear to be concerned particularly with one side of the economic bread – which is buttered – but forget that everything is linked.
How to do it
In order for the task of rebuilding our country's reputation to be accomplished as well as it should be, government, business and labour must first reach a shared level of appreciation of the damage that has been done, then come up with a medium-to-long term reputation recovery plan.
This plan must be properly resourced and handed to a multi-disciplinary team of experts, most of whom must be independent of undue political influence, to implement.
Furthermore, this team must enjoy a 360-degree view of South Africa, the country brand, inside and outside, if it is to accomplish a relatively seamless, wall-to-wall implementation of the agreed plan and ensure that no reputationally damaged part of the country brand is left to fester and risk bringing down the entire edifice, downstream.
The country brand reputation/image health mechanism should, over time, be an obligatory stop for any policy proposal to be analysed before it goes for signing by the head of state.
Recommendations to go ahead with such policy proposals must be accompanied by properly thought-out, scenario-planned strategy on what could possibly go wrong, in terms of socio-economic and market/investor reaction once signed, and measures to be put in place to limit a negative impact on the country’s reputation, goodwill, and investor appeal.
South Africa is increasingly in competition with countries that take reputation seriously, in the region and across the world. It should never again have to find itself on the defensive because of bad leadership and bad planning.
* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.