Putting the ugly genie back in the bottle


The front cover of the Mail&Guardian after the newspaper printed the Public Protector's provisional report on the Nkandla upgrade.

Obviously as a last minute stand in, I was asked this week to participate in a panel discussion on corporate reputation and why it matters.

While this was happening news consumers were engaging with the contents of the bombshell Nkandla draft report, leaked to the Mail and Guardian in which it was reported President Zuma had gained substantial personal benefit from upgrades that exceeded his security needs. The Public Protector apparently recommends the President has to repay the state; and the amount is estimated to be in the region of R20-million.

No doubt the ministerial security cluster will use this leak to discredit the veracity of the report and will aim big artillery at the messenger. A media/public interest debate will rage. All of that is a given.

But back to the panel discussion where there was general consensus that an already frayed presidential reputation was now in tatters and before an election possibly 100 days away, could anything be done to salvage it? In many democracies leadership would be unable to survive a scandal of this magnitude and it would lead to the downfall of an administration.

Our politicians are of course made of sterner stuff so that isn’t going to happen. But off the base of such a crisis can any semblance of reputation be salvaged?

Well a company facing this type of crisis might use the following strategy, I suggested. The leader of the organisation/government has to address the issue publically and cogently and admit aspects of oversight have failed and take full responsibility. Then apologise for that lack of oversight and its consequences. One former UK spin-type once told me a heartfelt apology solves 50 percent of a problem.

In any scandal heads need to roll. The more the better and the higher up the food-chain, the more effective. If there is a crisis, take the media to the place in question. To ground zero. Whether it’s a catastrophic oil spill or a mansion behind closed doors. The more we see of the problem the more likely we are to understand it.

That same media juggler said take the secrecy out of the equation and the news cycle on the issue tends to contract. Then a promise always helps ameliorate against a dire situation. In this case promise no more money will be spent and that unauthorised money will be paid back.

Then finally turn the scandal into a crusade. Commit to new protocols, new guidelines, new legislation that will ensure that nothing like this happens again the future. You are seen as a visionary and for a while the ugly genie is rammed back in the bottle.