Corporate SA deserves the reputational mess it's in

It's a Shovel founder Jessica Whitcutt Yellin on why SA scores so badly in reputation rankings.

The latest survey of most reputable countries by the Reputation Institute ranks South Africa as having a “weak” reputation, coming in at number 36 out of 55, between South Korea and Mexico. The country’s reputation is determined based on how appealing the environment is (nice place, nice people), how effective the government is (safety, corruption, social and economic policies, favourable business environment, etc) and the status of the economy (educated and reliable workforce, good brands, technology, etc). If we ignore the government section, which accounts for 37 percent of the total score – because that’s not our fault, right? Wrong! But we’ll get to that another day! – that means that 63 percent of the country’s reputation is completely within our control. Why are we then scoring so badly?

If you dig a little further into the research, you will see that there is not a single South African company in the global top 100 most reputable companies. Are we really that inconsequential? South Africans are generally quite proud of our multi-national corporates but perhaps we’re all just fooling ourselves and our giants, upon whose shoulders we would like to stand to get our own share of the glory (and inflated P:E ratio), are actually just wanna-bes?

In my opinion, the reason is to be found in the archaic mentality of corporate South African boardrooms. While the rest of the world is grappling the real issues facing the planet and its population, South African execs are too busy justifying why B-BBEE is too difficult to implement and why their remuneration policies need to be in line with international standards. Quite frankly, if your company is doing 0.01 percent of the ‘good’ that the likes of the global best are doing, then your CEO should only be paid 0.01 percent.

Some South African CEOs make the right noises and tick some boxes, but I have yet to find a South African corporate that puts ‘purpose’ front and centre of its strategy – with hard targets, stretch deadlines and a 10X innovation strategy to match. So why then should South African companies expect to have a glowing reputation when the biggest drivers of reputation are the sustainability elements?

South Africa is so stuck in the old economic paradigm of take – make – waste and the externalities of our major industries are so huge that it’s just too scary to even contemplate taking responsibility. What would the numbers of your business look like if you had to account for all your externalities? You’d go out of business, right? So instead, everyone sticks their heads in the sand and does a couple of lame CSI projects. Good enough for the old world but not good enough in the new economy where employees, customers, suppliers, investors, regulators et al will be digging deep to see what kind of company you really are.

If you look at the JSE Top 40, the first truly South African company on the board, Naspers, is ranked #4. One could argue that they are a typical South African success story but take a look at their website: Home page description of who they are: “global internet and entertainment group and one of the largest technology investors in the world”. Nothing about purpose. You have to dig quite hard on their website to find anything about how they give back. Right down at the bottom of the page is a link to their sustainability where they say: “We believe in a connected world – one where the power of local is unlocked to make the world a better place. And we run our business with that philosophy front of mind.” They must be doing amazing stuff then, right? Afraid not. The sum total of their efforts are: a link to a B-BBEE policy (and you know yourself that they are behind the curve); an inhouse training course; a global summit (read: bosberaad) for employees from around the world; a mentoring programme called Rachel’s Angels (can’t find any info on it) in SA; blood donations; winter clothes collections and school bags for the local community by OLX in India; and a five-star green rating on the new corporate head office. Seriously?! They also happen to be in a bit of reputational poo, which they are riding out in true ‘head in the sand’ style.

SA execs are missing the point – one which their equally asleep local investors are also about to realise is an issue. True purpose and true sustainability is more profitable. The Corporate Affairs department should not be a cost centre. It should be leading the reinvention of the business; partnering with marketing and R&D to develop new economy innovations for the business. It should be united with HR to embed a radical new culture in the leadership team and harness the energy and passion of employees.

Perhaps the problem is that Corporate SA has the wrong people in Corporate Affairs?

Whatever the reason, you can bet your bottom dollar that reputational crises will become more and more frequent as the global economy progresses and Corporate SA stagnates.

*With apologies to Naspers for making you the whipping boys. The majority of SA corporates are equally as guilty.

Jessica Whitcutt Yellin is the Founder of It’s a Shovel, a boutique strategic communications and reputation management consultancy. She is on a mission to change the world by helping a more conscious form of capitalism surface through her unique #ReputationWithPurpose model.