Should you lie to protect a good reputation? As a main discussion point at Reputation Matters’ 2015 Reputation Conference, this question sparked a stimulating discussion and fresh perspectives from communication professionals.
“Have you ever lied to the media and other stakeholders to protect your organisation and chief executive officer (CEO)?” Interestingly, 17 out of 20 communication directors working for Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) listed companies answered “yes” to the question, some saying that they are “paid to lie”.
This was one of the findings in a study conducted by Professor Ronél Rensburg, head of the Communication Division at the University of Pretoria, who shared the results at Reputation Matters’ inaugural Reputation Conference, which took place at the Protea Hotel Fire & Ice Cape Town in November 2015.
She also stated that 14 of the respondents said they would lie again if they had to. A follow-up study involving a wider sample of communication professionals will be released soon, however Rensburg says the results already reflect her original findings.
Lying is not the way to go, was the strong message by multi-award winning Sunday Times investigative journalist, Mzilikazi Wa Afrika. “I will advise you as executives or public relations (PR) agents, when you prepare a press statement, be honest, be transparent and whenever you’ve made a mistake, admit it. Admit your oversight, admit shortcomings . . . don’t lie.”
Wa Afrika spoke of his experiences when confronting corrupt politicians who denied allegations put to them and told how he had turned down millions of rands in bribes to keep quiet. He even had a near-death escape while conducting an undercover investigation into human trafficking.
Huma Gruaz, public relations and marketing executive at Alpaytac in the United States, illustrated how several organisations had made communication blunders that had damaged their reputation. One example was the Black Fish documentary that negatively exposed Sea World, whose profits dropped significantly after the film was released. Another was the online dating site Tinder’s Twitter rant about a Vanity Fair article on dating, which led to Twitter users mocking the organisation. In both examples the way the organisations responded to the negative publicity resulted in even greater damage to their reputation.
Honesty improves reputation
Gruaz also emphasised the importance of honesty with stakeholders and stated that reputations improved when organisations were open about making principled decisions, even if this affected their profits. In most cases these effects were only temporary as stakeholders’ support for the organisation increased because of their transparent and honest approach.
Addressing the value of trust in building a strong reputation, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Argon Asset Management, Mothobi Seseli, added that while investment performance was critical, perceived performance – based on trust and the reputation of a firm – was a major factor in choosing who manages your money.
The conference host, Reputation Matters’ managing director, Regine le Roux, explained how communication professionals need to juggle many expectations and requirements at once when it comes to managing a reputation. Her book, Reputation Matters, building blocks to becoming the business people want to do business with, was also launched at the event.
“The conference provided communication professionals with stimulating and fresh new perspectives and case studies to inspire and equip them for the challenges they face,” Le Roux comments.
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