A reputation is the backbone of any organisation. It is the social license which enables the organisation to attain the trust of stakeholders who will support the organisation’s cause based on their perception. Reputation is commonly referred to as an organisation’s most valuable asset. It is difficult to build, but very easy to destroy.
In a breakout session on rebuilding reputations, Gao Mothoagae from Sasol remarked that organisations should follow the principle of “prevention is better than cure” when conducting their business. She added that doing good business should not solely be for the purposes of building or maintaining reputations. Mothoagae emphasised that “ethics should be the cornerstone of what every business does because good business pays dividends, ultimately when you do things right, everything falls into place”. Businesses that conduct themselves ethically do not have to scramble to tick boxes for compliance.
However, Mothoagae acknowledged that it is inevitable for businesses to encounter crises. Having a crisis management programme helps organisations prepare for, manage, and recover from issues and incidents that threaten its staff, brand, valuation, customers, finances or operations. When a business that has been conducting itself ethically finds itself in a crisis, the negative story does not overwhelm the good work which the organisation has been doing. On a brighter note, it is important to acknowledge that each crisis can be fixed.
“Crisis generates an opportunity to renew” – Zondo, Oxfam
Louisa Zondo from Oxfam South Africa who is involved in managing the sexual exploitation cases against aid workers in Haiti believes that “crisis generates an opportunity to renew” if it is followed by an appropriate response. Oxfam has taken a stance “to ensure an urgent, comprehensive and accountable response across the Oxfam confederation which will lead to deep-rooted lasting change”. Zondo stated that Oxfam is embracing the challenge as a catalyst for change.
Mothoagae recommended that organisations involved in reputational crises send out aligned messages to the public. Failure to send out an effective message could make room for opportunists to make assumptions and change the story for their own benefit. She recalled a situation whereby her organisation was involved in a crisis, but an opportunist took the gap to pursue their own agenda. “The loss of trust has both short term and long term effects,” said Zondo. In Oxfam’s case, she acknowledged that the loss of funding had an immediate impact on the organisation’s operations. Despite the loss of funding, the organisation had to carry on with their work with limited resources.
Inculcating and aligning personal and organisational values
It is vital for companies to ensure that the people they appoint are custodians of company values. “This is where the role of HR comes into play during the interview process to establish each individual’s ethical point of departure and, once employees are appointed, it is important to make sure that these values remain front of mind”. For example, Sasol employees have been ingrained to be custodians of safety. The company emphasises that safety is about “doing the right thing even when nobody is looking”. Social media has also exacerbated the proliferation of information and Mothoagae emphasised that “in this world that we live in, someone is always watching”. The engagements that employees of a company have with their network could be detrimental to the company too. According to Mothoagae, “an employee could say something, and it will become about the corporate and not the employee anymore”.
According to Zondo, Oxfam is constantly engaging to ensure consciousness about what their values are and what they mean. Currently, Oxfam is driving feminist leadership and there is an internal observer to monitor that people are always “living the values on a moment by moment basis”. Having this culture in place encourages employees to identify and mitigate the occurrence of incidents which could hinder organisational reputation.
IMAGE: Gao Mothoagae (Sasol) in conversation with Nick Rockey (Trialogue) on rebuilding reputations
Article written by Claude Kamangirira
Photo taken by Cobus Oosthuizen