by Regina Le Roux

Changing reputations one person at a time

What difference are you making?

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“Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching,” – C.S Lewis

We all know it, we’ve all read about it and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a conference or seminar that doesn’t bang on about the important role that leaders play in the reputation of companies, countries and even the continent. But have we all become so blasé about the concept that we just tune it out, believing that it’s a lost cause, especially if we see the misconduct of company after company, country after country and, ultimately, impacting the reputation of the continent?

As you would have seen from my column last month, the importance of leadership is exactly what the results from the African Public Relations Association (ARPA) research on ethics and reputation that we conducted showed us. Leadership plays a fundamental role in a company, country and continent’s reputation. A brilliant example on the African continent is Rwanda. I had waxed lyrically about my recent trip to Rwanda and how they managed to get it right to create an environment in Africa that is clean and safe. Until you experience it, it does sound like an elaborate public relations ploy. Believe it or not, this mythical place does exist. I felt completely safe walking from the market at 10pm on a Friday evening in downtown Kigali; I did not even need to hide my phone. This is as a result of an active drive by the President and country’s leadership team to be accountable to the people.

Last week, I attended and participated in the second Brand Summit South Africa convened by Solly Moeng. As passionate as I am about Africa and finding ways to change the narrative about the continent, it is just as important to start by improving the image back home. I realised that we are not a united, proud nation and that we’ve lost that magic. This became very evident to me during my Kigali trip. When I went sightseeing with my friends from Ghana and they saw fellow Ghanaian countrymen, it was as if they had met up with long lost friends. Seeing fellow South Africans saw us all ignore each other like stop signs: you know they are there but you have no desire to stop and engage in any type of conversation. Why is that?

We need to fall back in love with our beautiful South Africa and be proud of who we are. When we see fellow South Africans on our travels, we should embrace them and be excited.

Yes, a lot can be said about how our leadership led us down the rabbit hole of misery, mistrust and mediocrity to where our pride levels lie today. The research that we conducted for APRA showed that the country level didn’t fare particularly well at all, with leaders playing the key role in damaging a country’s reputation. But we need to stop blaming and threatening to leave the continent; what is that going to help? Every single person is responsible for their own behaviour, which impacts how those around them perceive them and act towards them. The things that we say and do on an individual level can have a massive impact on how a company, country and the continent is seen.

What I found particularly interesting from our APRA research was that individuals scored 89% for reputation and ethics, which, taken at face value, looks great! It’s a distinction. It is, however, rather disturbing: it means that 11% of the people that answered the survey do not regard themselves as having a good reputation or being particularly ethical. It’s the behaviour of this 11% that is playing a key role in damaging reputations. You might think that what you are saying or doing will not make a difference, but isn’t that exactly what integrity is? What you do when no one is looking? And that impacts your behaviour and, ultimately, your reputation. Take one of the sessions at last week’s Brand Summit: the panel consisted of international guests sharing their lessons on changing the perceptions of a country. One of the ladies from Russia mentioned that when her family and friends heard that she was coming to South Africa, they were very worried for her safety and someone even mentioned that she needs to be careful of the cannibals! It is these misconceptions that have a major impact on tourism, not just locally, but across the continent as well. Fortunately, she is keen to visit our beautiful country again soon. However, when asked whether she would eagerly visit any other African country, you could see the panic set in. I don’t think it’s just a Russian thing. We have our own misconceptions as South Africans about the rest of Africa. Let’s be honest: we really don’t know our own continent. We can all rattle off at last five European countries and name their capital cities and know what their flags look like. How adeptly would you be able to do the same with African countries?

Leadership and governance are non-negotiable, and we need to continue keeping our leaders accountable. They need to actively be seen doing the right thing. Take Dr Zamani Saul, the Premier of the Northern Cape, as an example. Instead of buying himself and all the MECs new vehicles, he used the money for much-needed ambulances. But it is just as important that we become conscious of our own actions and what we say.

We have a magnificent country and continent! If we can all start by celebrating the positive aspects of our countries and the continent and sharing at least one positive story each day, we’ll start seeing a massive positive shift in the narrative of our beautiful continent.

It’s time that we stop selling ourselves short and start celebrating everything that we have to offer. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to change mindsets and the narrative, but it starts with each one of us to make the difference.

The hope is that our leaders are held accountable for their actions and that they will adopt a non-negotiable ethical value system, setting the example on a daily basis. That we will respect every individual so much that our actions are driven by an ethical value system that becomes a reality in everything that we say and do, and not just something that sounds good in theory. That we become so proud of our countries, our countrymen and continent that we can’t ever imagine leaving for other countries, and that we attract those who did leave, back.

There is a wonderful African proverb: “Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Isn’t it time that we start telling the story of the lion?

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