Communication lessons from the FNB ad case

What can we, as communicators, take away from the recent debate around the FNB ad which is said to have taken an anti-ANC government position?

In a free-market economy operating in a democracy, companies are regarded as corporate citizens. That means, like all citizens, they have rights, freedoms, responsibilities and obligations to their stakeholders and their country. In order to function well, grow, develop and contribute positively to society, organisations therefore need to communicate on many levels in the public sphere: economic, social, environmental and political. Ideologically, these spheres are not neutral, instead they are fraught with conflict at times and hence there needs to be constant and consistent communication between them.

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Large organisations have over the years used the services of specialist corporate communicators to ensure that their relations with the many stakeholders are maintained to build and strengthen their reputations. Corporate reputations are developed over time through public perceptions of their products and their actions, behaviour and communications – in the social, economic and the recruitment or employment spheres. Organisations have to prove to their stakeholders that they are serious not only about making profits but about improving their stakeholders’ lives and the society in which they function.

Specialist communicators assist in getting specific messages out to the specific stakeholders or publics (consumers, employees, investors, government officials, the media, etc.). However, usually each target public wants to hear a different message. Take the case of the FNB issue: the concerned citizens of South Africa want to hear that FNB is voicing its concerns about the future of this country; the government wants to hear that FNB is fully behind it in all it does; the investors want to hear messages that bring in money; the staff members want to hear that their livelihoods are secured by FNB and the media want to hear and distribute stories that will generate public interest, debate, excitement and that sell. Therefore, large organisations have to constantly manage issues that affect the company, plan for crises, lobby government so that the company’s interests are considered in legislation. Their messages are driven by their mission and each communication activity is driven by what the end game is for the organisation.

According to a basic systems approach, companies – as sub-systems of a greater system (society) – should try to maintain equilibrium between the internal and external systems within which they operate. But, given the conflictual nature of society’s sub-systems or different spheres, this is a hard task.

The FNB communication consultants would have been fully aware of all the above when they strategised, planned and executed their ad campaign. What was FNB’s end game? Did it achieve what it set out to do? Some commentators said FNB was wrong to have flighted it, some said FNB was wrong to have apologised for it, and some said politics and business don’t make easy partners, and hence big business should stay out of politics, yet when government needs sponsorships and corporate social investment large organisations are coerced or mandated to commit to these programmes in the name of social and economic development. When organisations speak out against the state of the nation they are called unpatriotic ‘treasonists’.

Ultimately, companies and their corporate communicators need to decide whether they do feel they have a responsibility to the country as a whole and the society of the future; if they do decide to enter into socio-political discourse and debate they need to know that the nation state is not the ruling political party; that they cannot please everyone; that debate around socio-political and economic issues is good especially when it is initiated by big business which is usually seen as only concerned about profits and not about real upliftment of society. Communication by big business needs to focus on the social consequences of its actions and future business leaders need to be big enough to reflect, critique and communicate in the name of public- not self-interest and to risk and take the consequences.

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