Wilson Bayly Holmes-Ovcon (WBHO) is a construction company that, according to its 2013 online investor report, is “quite remarkable”. WBHO executive chairman Mike Wylie recently stated, “We don’t actively go out and chase growth, but our management team keeps growing in their personal capacities and, as a consequence, the company grows”.
I think it is this “personal growth” that some of the investors found rather unsettling, when 44% of them rejected the remuneration report at the recent AGM. Wylie received
900 000 shares, worth around R6.5 million. Even in the face of having to pay R300 million in fines to the Competition Commission for collusion with other construction companies, particularly during the 2010 World Cup building phase, the company saw profit margins grow by 17.5%.
The company seems to deliver on its website promise that “as a consequence, the company grows”. Never mind that this was on the back of taxpayers’ money during an economic downturn. The financial review on the website also sums up the irreverence for possible slumps in the economy: “The group has navigated the turbulent market conditions experienced over the last three years extremely well, delivering commendable earnings and predictable cash returns to shareholders”.
But Wylie is upset with the media for making the collusion issue such a big thing and for continuing to report on it. According to him, the issue has been “exhausted”. He feels his company is badly treated. “It has been concerning to me to observe how many misconceptions have been circulated in respect of this investigation”, he is quoted as saying in Business Day.
Wylie is not alone. There are plenty of business people, politicians and CEOs who feel they are ‘badly treated’ by the media. Some are perhaps justified, but most are not. Firstly, media are not your public relations channel. It’s their job to look beyond the figures. And if you, or your company, are putting out fluffy statements, don’t be surprised if it is held against you when the moment is right.
What many corporates don’t understand is that neither the public nor investors are stupid. So focusing all your effort on so-called ‘investor relationships’ to the detriment of ‘the public’ will come back to haunt you. What corporates need is a ‘social licence to operate’, one where the public believes that you are worthy of operating in their surroundings.
Corporates in general are pretty poor in communication, which they believe is where they talk and everyone else listens without giving any feedback, especially not critical feedback. That’s why most executives employ corporate communication managers: to ensure that everything negative is held back.
It is not the media’s fault, corporates. If you deceive your clients or steal money from taxpayers, prepare to lose your social licence. And if you don’t do anything about it, your business licence could be taken away too.
To remedy this is not as difficult as it seems. Firstly, don’t do anything that is morally wrong. It might be legally right, but if the majority thinks it is morally wrong, your lawyers won’t be able to help you. Secondly, listen to everything your customers have to say. Try to find out how customers would like to be communicated with, not what is easier/cheaper/more comfortable for you. Then engage with them. Thirdly, take all that nonsensical, politically correct marketing material off your website and replace it with something that is tangible.
Lastly, if you were wrong, say so. Don’t shoot the messenger. Thank him or her for giving you the opportunity to remedy the situation.
This story was first published in the January 2014 issue of The Media magazine.