I enjoy keeping tabs on the narrative pulse of South Africa. By listening out for the narrative take on events I believe we get glimpses into our consciousness as a nation. The same applies to organisations and understanding their own narratives. One really gets to grips with this narrative pulse when listening to comments made by listeners who call in to radio talk shows.
The latest check on the South African pulse takes the form of the wake of events following criticisms pitched against our president, Thabo Mbeki, by a former advisor and the ensuing debate between the ANC, YCL and SACP.
Today, while driving, I was listening to SAfm where the topic was around the “malicious attack and hurling of insults” by the Young Communist League (YCL) towards Mbeki after he criticized SACP leader Blade Nzimande in a speech. By and large the thread to the listeners comments was one of defense towards the Presidency and outrage at how disrespectful the allegations were being towards Mbeki (“dictator” is one specific allegation). Interesting that in a functioning democracy where freedom of speech is enshrined in a broad constitution people were defending the institution of the presidency with a fervour one might expect citizens of a dictatorship to do so. Not only this, they were defending Mbeki passionately as well: highlighting the good work he has done and how undeserved he is of such criticisms.
Mbeki seems to be one of those public figures who has a polished public narrative. This is evident in how people defend him. Another such character is that of our famed Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel. Manuel has a way of delivering bad news with chocolate coating. One wonders what would happen if news had to break that counters such a narrative … will his narrative tarnish or will it prove resilient? In my opinion, such leaders will need to do a helluva lot to break the dominance their positive narratives have in our society. You see, when we have a dominant narrative on an event or someone and new information come sot light that presents an alternative view is most often rejected for being so contrary to the dominant narrative. It also explains how leader fall from fame so tragically – we cannot really believe that the person we thought was so good is actually so bad!
The public narrative is much more than just reputation. Traditional professionals in this space work hard on reputation management where the standard response to a public saga is to get them holding HIV/Aids babies in front of photogrpahers. Leaders and their associated PR, PA, Media Liaison and spokespersons need to catch a wake up on the public narrative.
A well developed public narrative is almost bullet proof. You want to breed loyalty? Start thinking about who you and how that informs your public narrative as an organisation and as an individual.