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The fine line between tone deafness and moving forward

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DAN BROTMAN

However as it begins to sink in that this pandemic is likely to remain with us for several years, some argue that we need to start re-engaging on all sorts of uncomfortable topics, including those not directly related to COVID-19.

Jessica White, a former public relations and communications specialist at Investec, believes that businesses need to be especially careful about not speaking from a brand-centric perspective. “Any brand that is taking this opportunity to push itself, and not with the betterment of humanity underpinning what they are doing, is going to be very quickly ignored.”

She says mixing a message of integrity with a sales message can come across as tone deaf. She gives the example of a recent advert that began with, “We are all in this together”, and then immediately transitioned to a hard sales pitch. While big business tends to be less trusted during times of crisis, “there is a massive void of large companies providing inspiring thought leadership”.

White imagines that such thought leadership would provoke optimism and inspiration about what the economy and life could look like when the pandemic is eventually over, beyond clichéd messages of hope. She surmises that many business leaders are reluctant to position themselves as thought leaders at this time because they are afraid of making promises for which they will eventually be held accountable.

She sees small, medium, and micro-enterprises (SMMEs), not big business, as the real heroes of this crisis. “SMMEs are keeping people optimistic by showcasing how they are keeping their businesses alive and doing good, and being vocal about it. Big business needs to look to SMMEs for bravery.”

Somewhat controversial thought leadership is being provided by the likes of futurist John Sanei, who recently co-authored the e-book The COVID Reset: Reimagining Our Collective Future. “We need a new conversation”, says Sanei, who critiques our current economic system rather than targeting individual business leaders who are disproportionately benefitting from it. “Big business knows it’s behaving badly. However it can’t get off the ‘train’ of the economic situation we are in, as that’s just the way in which the system was designed.”

Sanei advocates moving away from measuring success based on the acquisition of material possessions and towards building a more mature and conscious capitalism. He takes issue with misplaced anger towards the government for changing its mind on certain lockdown-related restrictions, as he believes that adaptability is key to management, just as individuals frequently adapt their personal and professional decisions as the crisis unfolds.

Media entrepreneur and unapologetic provocateur Gareth Cliff doesn’t believe the pandemic should serve as an excuse to refrain from criticising the government’s actions. His open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa has received widespread coverage in the media. In it, he compares the lockdown to “being treated like naughty children and yourselves being our self-appointed parents”.

Cliff boldly asserts that, “If you resign yourself to letting the government do whatever it wants, and abandon your freedoms, liberties, and rights, then you deserve to be a slave.” He believes that citizens who refrain from speaking out against government decisions with which they disagree are weak as “politicians in this country treat people with disdain and disrespect”.

Cliff predicts that as the true economic costs of the ongoing lockdown come to light, we will see more resistance, hatred, anger, and civil unrest break out. He doesn’t think the media’s role is to make its readers feel better, rather to provide information and a variety of opinions from experts.

SA Jewish Report editor Peta Krost Maunder is faced with these difficult editorial decisions on a weekly basis. “I’m aware that people are extremely vulnerable. They are looking for good content that fits where they are at. Stories I may have commissioned a while back about activities or events that aren’t relevant now would be wrong [to publish].”

She gives the example of a hypothetical article on going on a date, which wouldn’t be possible at the moment. A more relatable story, she suggests, would be the joys of online dating over this period.

Marketing expert and SA Jewish Report board member Dina Diamond advocates a healthy dose of escapism. “If there are stories that are outside of COVID-19 that are interesting or informative and can distract us from the ongoing onslaught of negative news, then there is no reason why they shouldn’t be covered.”

At a time when communal organisations are united in providing relief for the Jewish and wider community, is it appropriate to criticise communal leadership, engage in potentially fractious debates, or to interrogate the sombre data recently released on the state of South African Jewry?

Former Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies Executive Director David Jacobson believes that the answer is yes, but it needs to be done sensitively. “During this pandemic, there has been a silent agreement that communal issues that were once important have taken a backseat,” he says. “However, there has to be life after COVID-19. All communities are beginning to think beyond the immediate crisis, and this means that people also want to get intellectual stimulation on issues other than COVID-19.” He believes that slowly and inevitably, Jewish culture needs to continue to thrive, including music, social justice, and academia.

“These issues haven’t gone away. This is an incredible opportunity to enter into these conversations with more empathy and an open ear.”

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