Attacks on South African businesses: A failure of communication

Quick and transparent responses are arguably the twin fundamental actions successful organisations take in managing crises of significant proportions. While a quick response is the result of extensive planning and preparation, transparency has more to do with the corporate ethics and strategic communication policy incorporated into the organisation’s culture. The method to achieve this depends on the situation, and there is by no means a one-size-fits-all approach.

Recently, South African businesses in Nigeria were allegedly meted out with pockets of reprisals following the xenophobic mayhem that culminated in the brutal killings of other African migrants, especially Nigerians, by South Africans – including wanton destruction of their property in South Africa. How did these multinationals respond, in terms of proactively communicating their position on the dastardly acts and calming the fraying nerves of aggrieved Nigerians before the reprisals?

Industry intelligence reveals that the vindictive storm began to gather on Nigeria’s social media landscape as soon as the horrendous motion images of burning, looting and butchery of African nationals, particularly Nigerians resident in SA, went viral.

In the case of South African businesses in Nigeria, however, there was apparently no prior effective and coordinated communication on social and traditional media, whereas a majority of comments and reactions about the incessant attacks echoed the public’s resentment and vengeance towards the xenophobic situation. The repeated denunciations of the attacks on Nigerians forcefully overshadowed efforts (if any) by the social media team of South African-owned businesses to nip the crisis in the bud, and instead amplified the negative sentiments against South Africans and whatever they represent within the digital space.

In consequence, less than 24 hours, the festering bad blood snowballed into tangible violence with facilities enclosing businesses such as Shoprite, MTN and PEP among other going concerns with South African origin attacked and a few goods allegedly looted. Errant Nigerian youths were fingered as amateur social media videos showed aggrieved and rampaging mobs protesting in the city of Lagos. A few MTN masts were reportedly set ablaze in Lagos and Ibadan.

However, communication experts and industry watchers are of the opinion that the situation could have been better managed had South African-owned businesses been proactive in their communications and involvement in such a sensitive matter. They also affirmed that any form of communication thereafter could only be regarded as damage control.

Chido Nwakanma, a communication strategist, marketer and scholar with extensive media and industry experience registered disappointment in his tone towards the situation during a telephone interview with MARKETING EDGE. “Both the communication and security architecture failed; nobody monitored the scene as it unfolded and I think somebody should have paid attention and made proper preparations. Now we have a situation where the streets have decided to take laws into their hands.”

Mr. Nwakanma, however, noted that the situation could still be turned around and the narrative changed from negative to positive depending on how fast the presidency and influencers step in. “Some harm has been done but more harm will be done if we keep quiet, particularly, we need to change the narrative that destroying things is the right thing to do. No society has survived rulership by the mob. There is a lot of passion and anger, but it has to be controlled to prevent more damage.

“Where was the president? Why was he not speaking? All the influencers should have taken charge and cooled the situation down. Shoprite alone has about 50,000 firms that supply their products; that means if Shoprite should shut down even for a week, these firms will have to shut down too. There were going to be multiple chain effects if the crisis had persisted; ‘mobocracy’ is not the way.”

In strong terms, a strategy and brand enthusiast, Bolaji Okusaga, Managing Consultant, Precise Communications condemned the violence. He also blamed South African businesses that domiciled in Nigeria for not having their roots deep enough in the Nigerian soil.

On the other hand, he said: “Foreign companies need to start thinking locally. South Africans have distanced themselves from the system and as such are not fully integrated into the Nigerian socio-cultural fabric. They need to put up local faces so as to be insulated when there is crisis.”

The Chairman, Lagos NIPR, Olusegun McMedal, called for a quick response from the government highlighting that a press release was not enough but rather there should have been visuals showing empathy. “The government ought to have calmed the situation; a press release couldn’t have doused such heated tension. It would be nice to see the Nigerian government talk tough. It did not give the situation the seriousness it deserved. He opined that the urgency of the situation did not call for diplomatic letters alone. “It was time to talk and empathise with the people. The South Africans needed to be brought to the table and there should have been a joint press conference.”

Mr. McMedal went further to condemn the alleged vandalisation and looting of goods from Shoprite. “Nigerian youths are suffering and they are angry; obviously looking for quick fixes. They think looting and selling these items will give them some form of relief. The government should have arrested as many as they could to serve as a deterrent.”

Following the ensuing crises and pockets of violence, major South African business issued press releases condemning the xenophobia in all its ramifications. But analysts believe that their communication was belated, aloof and unsympathetic. They said their (SA going concerns) denunciations were shared only when pushed to do so, alleging that there is a huge disconnect between SA brands and Nigerians at all levels.

In reality, when dealing with a crisis, an organisation needs to have a core crisis communication team, consisting of the most senior communicators, as well as subject matters experts (SMEs) who are called in based on the scenario, and almost always the legal and risk teams. Social media teams also need to be more empowered to address real issues in real time.

Meanwhile, there appeared to be none of the above, not even a brand risk assessment team on the part of SA owned businesses to address real issues in real time. If there had been, no doubt the pockets of reprisals would have been nipped in the bud.


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