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14 February 2020 laia

Jump-starting Eskom: Step 1 - Communication

Eskom has warned of likely load shedding over the next 18 months, and South Africans are understandably upset. However, as a customer (doubling as a PR and communications specialist), I’m starting to personally feel more positive about the chances of a successful turnaround. But why? What’s changed?

The grid is still restrained, renewable energy (in a year of rising climate change activism) is still not part of the solution mix, and there’s a newbie CEO at the helm (again). So what’s the source of my renewed hope? Communication – that’s what.

I think the decision by new CEO, André de Ruyter (and team) to employ Sikonathi Mantshantsha as Eskom’s spokesperson is a great call. Long outspoken against the mismanagement of the parastatal (from both a media and customer perspective), Mantshantsha brings will him a certain gravitas, due to his ability to communicate authentically and, more importantly, clearly.

Though coming from a low base in terms of reputation management, the speed, use of multiple communications channels – from print to social media – and consistency and clarity of messaging has rapidly improved in the short space of a few weeks. The difference has been night and day.

Concurrently, trying to look from the outside in, I imagine Mantshantsha and team are taking the same approach to improving internal communications within Eskom, servicing a long ignored (and critically important) stakeholder – its staff that effectively ‘power’ the parastatal. This (of which I speculate) follows a recent quote of his:

“Now the task I have accepted is to help contribute to rebuilding the institution – from the inside. I have only one job to do: to truthfully and frankly tell the people of South Africa the exact state of the utility, and to help rebuild the trust with all stakeholders.”

So, what Eskom has effectively done is follow the well-established three-step approach to Reputation Management:

Action

Controlling public messages and creating a strong(er) corporate narrative: This includes improving clarity and (more importantly) authenticity in all media correspondence. You can already see this in the tone of messaging (see phrases and words such as ‘We don’t take the decision to implement load shedding lightly’ and ‘regrettable’, ‘unavoidable’ etc.)

Consistency of the receipt of the above message(s). Be it daily press releases informing the target publics exactly what is going to occur the next day(!), giving able preparation time to those effected.

Interaction

Growing influence in online and offline conversations to improve perception, reputation and, ultimately, brand equity: Improving the use of pre-existingnon-traditional channels such as social media (aka Twitter) to further amplify Eskom’s messaging. If effectively implemented, this will soon graduate into authentic conversations and perhaps other channels such as influencer engagement will soon be on the horizon? As long as the overall tone – and selection of said influencers – be it nano or micro – remain credible, authentic and long-term (we’re not looking for celebrities to get paid to give a quick ‘thumbs up’ to the parastatal in this case: the Eskom – you Electrify me campaign if you will), the parastatal stands a fighting chance to turn its brand conversation from negative to semi-positive.

Reaction

Preparing for any mitigating risks and issues: This will be the true test. How will Eskom handle a potential ‘next crisis’? If all the hard work has already taken place behind the scenes (updating crisis playbooks, re-training executives to be credible and empathetic via real-world crisis simulators, clarifying (and living) the company narrative and messaging, improving existing (and creating new) channels of communication to stakeholders), the chance of reputational ‘outages’ remains minimal.

Despite these first ‘baby steps’ in the turnaround strategy, the jump-starting of Eskom’s communications approach has the potential to take Neil Armstrong-level leaps when it comes to restoring the parastatal to past glories – at least financially. I’m not saying that everything is great, as there is a long road ahead. However, while I remain frustrated as a customer, I am now willing to give Eskom the benefit of the doubt (at least for a while) as it is now playing an active role in enabling me to manage my daily grind with as little interruption as possible, thanks to simply keeping me informed of its progress to date.

Don’t lose hope just yet.

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Gavin Etheridge MD at MSL gavin.etheridge@mslgroup.com

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