State-owned entities (SOEs) are a vital part of the life of every country in the modern world, but more so in the life of developing countries.
It was on the back of both an interventionist role in the economy and vibrant SOEs that the south-east Asian nations sharpened their industrial development. In South Africa, our SOEs, numbering about 700, are pivotal to our aspiration to becoming a modern, equitable, thriving country.
Understandably, not all of society is satisfied with the performance of the SOEs. Severe criticism of the sector has become commonplace. It is against this background that we formed the State Owned Entities Communicators Association (Soeca). So often the media, and by extension the public, is inclined towards seeing only the failures of the SOE sector. We believe that, while not ignoring the shortcomings of the organisations we represent, the SOE sector has suffered excessive reputational damage in recent years. All of this leaves the SOE communicators with the ethical dilemma to be found in the critical balance between loyalty and accuracy.
Soeca was formed with the sole objective of addressing and responding to these critical challenges. Reputation is currency, without it we might have to close shops. The state of readiness, or lack of it within communication, has demonstrated that many communicators need support and training if they are to become part of the top decision-making process.
The responsibility of SOE communicators goes beyond public relations initiatives designed to make the sector look better. The country expects a measurable impact on social upliftment and the transformation of ordinary people’s lives.
South Africa’s SOEs oversee operational budgets worth about R500billion a year. Communicators have a role to play in seeing that this money is wisely spent and that the net is widened to bring into the economy those still facing the stubborn economic challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment.
The Soeca view is that to achieve government’s social goals, it is essential that we communicate the benefits and achievements of the SOE sector to our people and the world. Soeca is working to establish this awareness among its members.
Among the challenges faced by SOE communicators is a tendency for management to minimise the importance of communication. Too often, management lacks understanding of communication as a strategic tool, reducing communicators to spectators in their own game, while consultants are brought in to do their work.
While considerable attention and credence is given by the media to corruption in the SOEs, rarely is attention given to their existing social impact. For example, Telkom, which has begun paying dividends, offers loss-making service to poor rural distant communities. Eskom provides power to poor municipalities who have billions’ worth of arrears on their accounts.
In the past 23 years it has provided power to more than 1million poor homes. Various other SOEs are in similar situations. This is what separates SOEs from their private sector peers: Profit isnt the only motive.
It is important that all communities see the actions of the SOEs from their own particular viewpoint. In the words of American motivational expert Tony Robbins: “To effectively communicate, we must realise that we are different in the way that we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.”
Typical of the challenges facing SOE communicators is impatience with the rate of transformation in some sectors. Genuine communication leadership is a strategic tool that must promote transformation and assist government in improving the lives of our citizens.
Our message is that communicators must reassert themselves as a credible force through retraining themselves. The lack of growth of communicators from being mere spokespersons is an equal challenge.
Communications must not be seen as a mere conveyor belt nor a secondary element within an organisation, but a necessary strategic management tool. And here, by strengthening the communications profession within the sector, Soeca plays a vital role.
The SOEs and Soeca, as an important element, are an integral part of the implementation of our national goals. Reputation is a currency for SOEs and Soeca has to promote and protect that image in an unflinching way.
While that is true, we must not be blind to the reality that some of the SOEs are run down by greedy individuals who represent nothing else but their own pockets. And when these miscreants are outed, it is our duty to inform the public.