Tuesday, January 31, 2012

SPECIAL REPORT. South Africa's leading reputational management consultant on how TopTV, with its porn plan, got it all so wrong.

From the moment news broke about TopTV's plans for a new pornographic TV package, everything for the South African pay TV operator started going disastrously wrong.

With mounting public criticism, a nasty and very public court battle with South Africa's broadcasting regulator, seemingly no control over the barrage of bad press or any intention to stem or be out in front of the news story in a simply voracious news cycle, TopTV has inflicted huge reputational damage to its brand, leaving South Africa's television industry wondering: How on earth did TopTV (un)manage to get it all so wrong?

I asked South Africa's leading reputational consultant Janine Lazarus, the owner of Janine Lazarus Media Consultancy in Johannesburg and our country's definitive thought leader when it comes to reputational management of brands and companies and personalities, what TopTV did wrong, what the pay TV operator should have and could do differently, and why the pay TV operator's plans for a new porn package wasn't managed more carefully.

Janine Lazarus works as one of South Africa's leading media skills trainers and as such, she deals primarily with individual and organizational reputation management. Adding even more apt context and incredible insight, is her stint as managing editor for Penthouse magazine as well as many years as a investigative hard news journalist, very well-versed with the relentless 24/7 news machine and the factors that drive it.

Here is her thoughts on TopTV's porno debacle, and why she says TopTV needs ''some serious rethinking and strategizing – that is if it isn't too late'':

'I personally have no issue with a television channel that offers adult content. As a journalist with 27 years of experience in the mainstream print and broadcast media, I am a fervent believer in freedom of expression – a concept our government cannot seem to wrap its head around.

Anything less than freedom of expression will result in this country heading down the same slippery slope that we found ourselves in when I was a reporter in the 80's. And that is something not even worth thinking about.

There is undoubtedly a strong business case for adult content on television – whether the Mother Grundy's out there like it or not. And to create some sort of vague link between pornography and violent sexual crimes is nothing short of ridiculous. I spent years as a crime reporter interviewing some of the country's most diabolical serial killers, and not one of them ever alluded to the belief that pornography made them into what they had become.

It may be of some interest for you to note that when I left newspapers, I spent about a year working as deputy editor of Penthouse magazine. As a woman, I was never offended by either the material or the photographs.

The fact that MultiChoice and e.tv faced a similar public outcry when they flirted with adult content doesn't mean much. When one organization fails to get it right, it doesn't mean that another organization can't do better. BUT – and that's a big BUT – it all comes down to having a carefully considered plan when communicating your message. Making sure that all your t's are crossed and your i's are dotted is not a luxury. It is an absolute necessity.

To my mind, the biggest fly in this ointment was the patent lack of communication on the part of TopTV. Being evasive is exactly what I caution delegates in my Media Training programmes to steer clear of. All ducking and diving does is to create a strong perception in the marketplace that you have something to hide.

Communicating – even over something as controversial as adult content – is absolutely critical. The last place the public should read about something involving any organization is in the newspaper. It is up to the organization to proactively communicate a uniform message that is clear and concise. Getting all key players to sing off the same hymn sheet is really all it takes.

For the CEO to first deny in May 2010 that TopTV would be doing any such channels, and then to go ''missing in action'' after that, is exactly what not to do. It creates a very real lack of integrity.

Decisions rest on CEO's. In fact, many organizations have been made or un-made by their executives. When a journalist wants a comment from the Head Honcho, palming then off to someone in sales or even in marketing doesn't quite cut it. It may not be comfortable for most people to admit that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword

Court interdicts, public hearings and fervent backlash all just results – if you'll forgive me – in an even sexier story. The media just love anything that smacks of sensation. And TopTV is providing the press with something that they can really sink their teeth into.

What cannot be pushed aside however, is the timing of the launch. The 20th of December ??? I think not. Something about jingle bells and Christmas pudding that just doesn't sit right. Just like location is important when buying a house, so is timing when starting a business venture.

Unfortunately, once the milk has been spilled, there is not much that an organization can do about it. Of course, not finding oneself in this unenviable position would have been first prize. But, failing that, there are ways in which to deal effectively with a crisis. The one sure-fast way to mitigate risk is it to connect with the issue.

Inaction spells even more disaster. The sad reality is that it will now be very difficult for the public to divorce the brand from the debate on pornography, and – even worse – the fracas surrounding getting Icasa's stamp of approval. What is needed now is some serious rethinking and strategizing – that is if it isn't too late.'

Janine Lazarus from Janine Lazarus Media Consultancy can be reached at http://www.janinemedia.co.za/ and 011 454 2499.