US AUTHOR Mark Twain used to say that "a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes". Twain died in 1910, long before the era of instantaneous news coverage and social media, but today his words are truer than ever.
I am, of course, referring to the exhaustive coverage that First National Bank’s (FNB’s) "You Can Help" advertisement has received since it was first aired on January 17.
Emotive words such as "treason" from one end of the spectrum, to "cowardice" on the other, were used in the debate.
Amazingly (and despite all our best efforts to communicate), there is still a lot of confusion about the simple facts.
There are often two sides to a story, and then there’s the truth. Here is a factually correct version of the matter:
• FNB believes in the power of help to make a difference;
• the TV advertisement seeks to inspire all South Africans to help each other;
• there is nothing wrong with the advertisement;
• we have not apologised for the advertisement; and
• the advertisement is still being aired on TV and is available on YouTube.
So what went wrong?
To inform the making of the advertisement itself, our marketing team commissioned an independent company to conduct research into the opinions of the South African youth about our country. About 1,300 school pupils and university students were interviewed during this process.
While about 70% of interviewees expressed optimism about South Africa, they were also sharp critics about areas for improvement.
This is normal in any society and it is their right to express their views.
From these interviews, four video clips were linked to the "You Can Help" blog, including one that carried a negative comment about a Cabinet minister.
None of the clips — neither these four, nor any of the other clips gathered in the research — were ever intended to become an advertisement. We certainly had no intention of playing politics, and there is no logic in FNB deliberately attacking the government or the African National Congress (ANC).
When we were alerted to what was interpreted by the ANC as being "political statements" and "a personal insult" in the content of the four video clips, we immediately removed them.
FirstRand CEO Sizwe Nxasana also apologised to the minister in question via SMS on January 20. On January 25, we met a senior ANC delegation to "clear the air".
We repeated our apology for the posting of the video clips and the ANC expressed support for the actual advertising campaign and the sentiment of helpfulness that it intended to convey.
Admittedly, I am sad that a campaign that was meant to inspire South Africans to make a difference has become so controversial, yet I remain extremely positive about our future and confident in the many well-meaning, hard-working people who want to help make South Africa a better country.
As one commentator put it: "If we can come up with the world’s most innovative bank, then we can do anything." We just need to believe more in ourselves.
We live in a truly wonderful country; one that is admired around the world.
Yet, as South Africans, we sometimes forget what our great nation is capable of.
One needs only look at our astonishing achievements to realise that, despite our past, we are a country that succeeds by turning adversity into opportunity.
Our robust banking system has withstood the harsh pressures of the global economic crisis. SA’s young scientists are positioned at the forefront of discovery with the construction of the Square Kilometre Array in the Karoo and surrounds.
Our medical academics are now setting the benchmarks in the field of HIV/AIDS research and treatment, and although we may endure frustration at times, our sporting teams remain a source of national pride.
It is clear, then, from these few examples, that we have so much to be proud of.
If we could just temper our cynicism with understanding and inform our judgment with a measure of patience, we will continue to prove to the world that the miracle of South Africa is alive and well.
It is widely acknowledged that ideals rather than narrow profit motives drive the greatest companies.
Further, ideals, defined as a principle or value that one actively pursues as a goal, are not tied to a particular business model and have no expiry date.
This is powerfully endorsed by Jim Stengel in his 2011 book, Grow, after he conducted extensive empirical research on what makes companies successful.
He says: "A brand ideal is a higher purpose of a brand or organisation, which goes beyond the product or service they sell. The ideal is the brand’s inspirational reason for being. It explains why the brand exists and the impact it seeks to make in the world."
The companies he highlighted as the top performers operated according to these principles and generated a return on investment 400% greater than the Standard & Poor’s 500.
FNB’s brand ideal is help.
We believe that help has the power to create a better world. To echo Anne Bernstein, founding director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise, "business is a fundamental part of society and has an intense interest in society being successful".
This belief in long-term sustainable growth over a restricted definition of business purpose has long been at the heart of the way FNB thinks and acts, and is evident in initiatives such as our investment in Soweto in the early 1980s, with the building of FNB Stadium. We are founding sponsors of the Homecoming Revolution and SA: The Good News, as well as having been a bid sponsor and the first African firm to sign up as a national supporter of the Fifa 2010 World Cup.
Understanding that a better society is a side effect of doing good business, FNB has always sought to transcend mere product advertising and seek instead to fill South Africans with pride, raise their morale and remind them of their own value as some of the most passionate, compassionate, proud and helpful individuals in the world.
To this end, you may recall our previous "Anthem", "Lost Dog" and "Praise Singer" advertisements.
So convinced are we of the huge potential for nation-building inherent in simply helping one another, that FNB will continue with its "You Can Help" campaign.
Our belief in its message of help and its role in building a better SA, which first inspired the campaign, remains firm.
If you believe, as we do, "that you must be the change you wish to see in the world", join us in helping help happen. It is tougher than being critical, but a lot more fulfilling.
• Jordaan is CEO of FNB.