Reconstructing Zimbabwe’s reputation…currently a disaster!

By Tabani Moyo

Zimbabwe is a complex thesis of multiple disciplinary subjects. One of them is in the industry of reputation management, which is currently a disaster! This is manifested in the repeated own goals which the country scores at every turning point when the ruling elite is under pressure.

This was the case when the Harare administration responded with disproportionate force to the January 2019 demonstrations which were organised by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). Accordingly, reports from human rights advocacy and lobby organisations such as NGO Human Rights Forum noted that more than 17 people were shot dead while 78 reported gunshot wounds from the Zimbabwe Defence Forces shootings. In an unprecedented development, more than 1 000 people were arrested countrywide. Heinous crimes were also committed under the darkness of a week-long internet shutdown, which was declared by the high court as illegal.

The afore-stated acts of organised state heavy handedness attracted backlash from the international community, as Zimbabwe drifted from the mantra of breaking with the past and attempts towards a rebirth following the demise of the Robert Mugabe regime into the same orbits of isolation and a pariah state.

This presents a typical case of reputation deconstruction as the leadership takes a lead in mutilating the value proposition which the country made towards starting on a clean slate and constructing a new Zimbabwe from the rubble of the November 2017 military coup.

But a problematic development occurred when the government engaged a USA Public Relations company to help the country in sprucing up its image globally at the whooping cost of half a million United States dollars. This was in response to the (Donald)Trump administration’s move to slap the country with a fresh set of targeted sanctions as the Harare establishment had shown no signs towards rebirth and breaking with the path of human rights violations.

These developments bring to the fore some key reputation management issues which are worthy discussing and recommendations for the republic towards a strategic and coherent reputation management strategy which is both durable and sustainable.

The ‘purchasability’ of reputation

The attempts by the Harare administration towards paying the US firm, Ballard Partners Inc., to turn around its reputation fortunes, brings to the fore the concept of “purchasability” of reputation. This concept has been tested for a long time from various disciplines and there is consensus that in the short-term establishments might record small gains towards purchasing reputations. However, in the long run, the bubble will always burst as it is impossible to purchase a character.

I have always argued that reputation, is a 360-degree facet. Hence there are no quick gains. It has to be built “inside-outside”. As long as there is pre-occupation with the external stakeholders’ view of an organisation, company or country, the ultimate and definite outcome is that there will be a reputation deconstruction as the envisaged positive reputation will be a kite flying high without internal mechanism towards keeping its competitiveness.

In general terms, Zimbabwe’s half a million dollars cost is an attempt towards living on borrowed reputation. Though it would have worked in the age of traditional media, where the entities controlled the type of reputation that would be established and maintained in the eyes of the stakeholders, social media has opened a floodgate of various forms of stakeholders punching holes to the reputation bubbles that float in the air without internal stakeholder’s consensus driving them.

Observability of the reputation

Because reputation is not an observable and tangible asset, the top leadership always pay little attention to it, but with fatal consequences. This is what has happened with Zimbabwe, it had managed to sell an impression and promise that the country had reached a turning point on November 2017, after the dethroning of Mugabe and moving on a new trajectory. This promise seems to have been hinged on the need to impress external stakeholders and abandoning the demands and expectations of the internal stakeholders — the citizens — who were yearning for lasting change and breaking with the dark past.

The citizens bear the brunt of the broken politics in the country and they communicate the true reputational dynamics of the establishment rather than the hired international reputation and public relations companies. This, therefore, requires the leadership to strike a strategic balance by first engaging in meaningful dialogue with its internal stakeholders before attempting to appease the foreign capitals, saying that Zimbabwe has changed.

The deconstruction process of the reputation is an ongoing process, but due to the fact that the deconstruction is happening on an intangible asset, it happens without notice if there is no set strategy on managing the complex issue of reputation. In most cases there is shock therapy, as has happened with the Harare administration losing half a million dollars on a lost cause, rather than going to the drawing board and seeking to start building a strong foundation which starts internally and ultimately shapes the world view of the external stakeholders

Reputational opportunity cost

The Zimbabwean officialdom, by choosing to pay half a million dollars to a consultant towards an image make-over has squandered an opportunity towards resetting and defining a durable and sustainable reputation mix. I have written extensively in other platforms highlighting that reputation is a combination of identity and image. In summary, image is taken to mean external stakeholders’ view of the country, especially that held by investors and other nations. Identity is taken to mean the citizens — view of the country. In other words, “how do we see ourselves?” Reputation, therefore, is taken to be a collective term referring to all stakeholders’ views, including identity and image.

The government should start by building consensus internally, through a process of genuine national dialogue to allow for citizens to drive the narrative of who they are and shape the image through a coherent narrative. The obsession with building a positive image to the external stakeholders is short-term and rent-seeking. Zimbabwe must define a clear narrative that vibrates from internal dynamics and shape the external world view of the country. The half a million dollars wasted on fixing the mirror image which portrays the ugly self, could have been used to define an internal national dialogue process and to strengthen the national institutions, which then drive the narrative of the actual reputation of the country.

Of questionable national character

A country’s reputation is a formation of its own national character. While one can almost succeed in being deceptive at all fronts, its not sustainable to sustain deception on character. Zimbabwe’s narrative, which forms her character is seen in heavy of use of violence and conflict, borne out of the liberation struggle. Violence punctuated both inter-party and intra-party politics as a means towards manufacturing consent. It defined the turning epochs of our existence and the political organisations that led in organising and discharging the war of liberation till independence. True to Zimbabwe’s national character, it did not stop as the country could hardly go for more than 10 years without state-organised violence leading to the loss of lives of unprecedented proportions. When Mugabe was dethroned, it was hoped that the phase of structured stated sponsored violence had ended. This was the mistaken view held by Britain and her allies, which the country almost succeeded in convincing that Zimbabwe had changed character.

In this regard, Britain, which had been in Zimbabwe longer than other colonial masters, suffered international relations disaster for the second time, having supported Bishop Abel Muzorewa as its preferred candidate in the race for independence.

Character is a belief system, which forms the DNA of an establishment’s reputation. Zimbabwe has shown the world that propaganda has short legs. The national character of organised violence still reigns supreme in the politics of entitlement, impunity and other isms. Therefore, the national character is playing a big role in the deconstruction of the national reputation, which the central government is trying to purchase in vain.

Having noted the aforementioned, I therefore recommend the following:

*Brand is not a veneer: a modern day national brand’s values must run deep.

Beyond the reflex of resorting to disproportionate use of force by the state, internet shutdowns, criminalisation of the civil society organisations and the contradictions of an oxymoron, “the Second Republic”, the country needs a strong internal process of defining its value system. To develop a charter that binds all the country’s citizens and internal stakeholders in answering, who are we? This is a critical process that develops consensus among the citizens and their leadership, who in turn shape the perceptions of the external stakeholders, as to how they view Zimbabwe.

*Don’t preach: today’s stakeholders don’t like being told what to feel, think or do.

The pitfalls of the current government are that it talks a lot, in promising and preaching how it is open for this and that. The world wants to see a “doing” leadership, rather than preaching one. A genuine second republic should be hinged and sitting firm on a foundation of internal stakeholders driving the narrative and shaping how it will then “relay” the message to the external world.

*Under-promise and over-deliver: This has been the country’s Achilles Heel, promising heaven on earth. The current national promise from the Mnangagwa administration is that of breaking with the dark past. But each passing day, through its acts of commission or omission, the administration goes back to default settings of violence. There is no amount of money that can correct this, except a country that is structured in defining and executing a home-grown reputation strategy.

*Be transparent

When trust is low, it’s imperative that stakeholders can see that the government is not withholding any bitter truth. If there is everything wrong about the current path, it’s the entitlement by the ruling elite which weakens institutions for narrow selfish interests. Xi Ping, pushes the philosophy of “Hunting for tigers in higher mountains”, which attacks the elite who enjoy protection by spreading their corrupt tendencies.

*Act on feedback

Failure to produce ongoing responsive engagement with stakeholders increase levels of distrust. This government commits acts of barbarism and expect to get away unscathed. It’s high time the government becomes responsive and accountable through coordinating itself internally and being useful when answers are required. By doing so, the country will be guaranteed of at least stopping the reputation deconstruction process and building towards a better reputation mix.

Tabani Moyo is a chartered marketer, communications and reputation management expert based in Harare. He can be contacted at @TabaniMoyo (Twitter)