Fake News Damage Control for SMEs

Events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent spate of riots have demonstrated how fake news can have far-reaching effects, not only on individuals but on businesses. “Fake news,” a neologism of the digital age, began as a social media phenomenon and has come to describe the proliferation of false content posing as news.

It’s fair to say that the very definition of “media” has changed. Social media has turned users into reporters in what is known as citizen journalism, with the ability to disseminate content and document events using their cellphones. The challenge however, with what many call the “democratization” of news, is that unfounded claims can easily be made, content can be fabricated and easily shared online via social media platforms.

Consider the stockpiling and supply shortages of items such as toilet paper, soap and sugar in supermarkets across the country at the beginning of lockdown. This mass panic buying was set off by fake news. Similarly, during the riots we experienced in July, there were a number of reports of shopping malls being targeted around the country that proved to be false. The ripple effect caused unnecessary shopping mall closures, which affected not only large retailers but boutique stores and small businesses across the board.

The reality is that fake news is not going away, so as a small business it’s worthwhile having a contingency plan or strategy for dealing with misinformation about your business. The following steps could prove useful in combating the effects of fake news on your business:

Step One: Separate Fact from Fiction

In the event that sensationalist news is circulating around the workplace, as a business owner the first step is to determine your stance on the matter – only if and when an immediate threat to your business has been identified. Reacting with an emotion-laden response is likely to cause confusion and may be counter-productive. Instead, it’s recommended to research the facts, establish what the truth is and formulate a response that’s based on these findings. Lay the facts out clearly and distinguish them from hearsay and rumours.

Step Two: Make an Internal Statement

Your employees look to you for direction, so taking a stance on a matter needs to culminate in a formal statement, preferably in writing. Your statement needs to debunk the fake news but also relay empathy towards those who have been adversely affected. Never minimize or negate the effects that fake news can have on the psyche of employees – a well-timed rumour can lead to heightened anxiety and panic, and impact the mental wellbeing of your team matters.

Step Three: Make an External Statement

There are nuances that exist in a formal press release that will differ significantly to the way you convey your stance internally. You may need a public relations professional to assist with formulating a response that makes an impact and communicates your message in a way that cannot be misconstrued by the media or the public. It is not always necessary to make a statement to the media, but when it is, make sure that its well-written and strategically positioned to allay feelings of fear and prevent the repercussions of misinformation on the business. It’s also worth considering whether this external statement needs to be posted to the business’s social media pages for the benefit of your customer base.

Step Four: Seek Legal Advice

What many do not realise is that there are legal repercussions for spreading fake news. The policing of the online space is something that is progressing at a rapid rate, with social media platforms now being held accountable for due process for reporting misinformation and inappropriate content. These legal consequences were made plain, for example, in the case of news relating to COVID-19 – when the new Disaster Management fake news regulations made spreading fake news with the intention to deceive or incite violence, a criminal offence. If the problem escalates, it may be best to seek legal advice, especially if you are able to identify the source of the fake news.

Remaining level-headed during a crisis involving fake news can be challenging. However, taking a firm, confident and reassuring stance on a matter can go a long way in preventing potential chaos and long-term damage to your bottom line.

Pioneering duo opens new path in marketing industry

As ad agency CEO, Taryn Hunter Sharman knew how to spot talent, and had more than once tried to convince a young marketer, Perri King, to join Ebony+Ivory which she ran. Perri, who was carving a career for herself in the corporate sector, always turned her down, mostly because the pay could not match whatever she was earning at the time. 

Then, one day in 2016, she got another call. “If you come work for me,” Taryn told her, “I’ll give you 50%.” Also, there wouldn’t be much in the way of a salary, said Taryn, but she pledged to at least pay Perri’s debit orders with her credit card. “I thought: ‘Now that sounds exciting!’ and I said yes immediately,” says Perri.

That was the start of Faith & Fear, an unusual marketing and advertising business that the two entrepreneurs refuse to call an agency.  

Agencies have a culture of telling their clients what they want to hear, says Taryn, while at Faith & Fear they have an uncompromising approach to saying it like it is. That seminal phone call back in 2016 is just one example. It is also right there in the company’s name, Faith & Fear. 

When she resigned her position as CEO to start Faith & Fear, Taryn knew she was in for a very hard slog, a far cry from the glamorous but false image bestowed on entrepreneurship generally. On the fear side she knew there were going to be a lot of scary, difficult moments, but on the faith side she fervently believed that there must be a better way to do marketing. So why not just put the whole experience in the name, so that there is no chance for anyone, including Taryn and Perri themselves, to forget what they are dealing with?

Their edgy name has since turned into something of a litmus test for Taryn and Perri, who were finalists in 2019 Business Partners Ltd Entrepreneur of the Year®competition. 

They found that if a prospective customer does not quite understand the name, they are probably not a good fit. “But when they love the name, and we don’t have to explain it, we often click instantly and the business kicks off straight away’,” says Taryn.

Taryn’s idea of starting her own business stemmed from her increasing disillusionment with the way in which ad agencies operated even as she doubled the turnover of Ebony + Ivory, where she started as an intern, worked her way to the top in four years and ran it as CEO for eight years. 

Towards the end of her tenure at Ebony + Ivory, Taryn was so disenchanted with the industry that she decided to take a sabbatical to reconsider her career. It took all of the first weekend for her to decide to start her own company, and she called Perri, whom she had known socially for some time. Because of the difficult journey ahead, Taryn did not want to do it alone.  

The timing was good. Perri, who had cut her teeth in the marketing departments of the accounting firm Deloitte and the IT company EOH, had recently stepped out of her corporate career to set up a function venue in Johannesburg with a business partner. It was a good business, but the partnership did not work, so Perri jumped at the chance of launching Faith & Fear with Taryn.

Taryn and Perri, who both operate from Johannesburg, explain that Faith & Fear differs in three important ways from traditional ad agencies. Firstly, the two of them remain directly involved in every project. This is in contrast to the tendency in traditional ad agencies where the senior executives get wheeled out for pitching to important clients. Once the client is suitably impressed and awards the contract, the execution of the job is fobbed off to a junior team, and the client never sees the senior ad execs again. 

Secondly, Faith & Fear ditched the industry standard of billing per hour and chose to quote upfront based on the value of the completed project to the client, and thirdly, they stick relentlessly to the strategy agreed upon with the client, avoiding the drift away from the original plan that so often happens when projects are not properly managed. 

Their departure from industry habits allowed them to experiment also with a radically lean approach to overheads and staff. Taryn and Perri briefly tried sharing an office, but it felt way too much like an agency, and since then they have been working from home, or from whichever spot they chose to put their laptops down. 

When they need to build a team to work on a project, they tap into their network of talented collaborators, many of whom also roam free as they work. In this way, they can scale up a network of collaborators across the globe, as they have done recently for the launch of a South African start-up at the SXSW festival in Texas.

By the time the Covid-19 pandemic forced large numbers of the corporate workforce to work from home, Faith & Fear had been at it for a number of years. They were therefore in an excellent position to advise their clients on what to do, including the messaging that urgently needed to go out. 2020 turned out to be a huge year for Faith & Fear.

This year is unlikely to be as intense now that many companies have settled into a holding pattern and are waiting for clearer signs of the direction of the pandemic and the economy, says Taryn.

As for their own direction, Taryn and Perri have been growing increasingly certain that they are on the right path. Having won major accounts within the banking, insurance and medical aid sectors, they have been making inroads into this usually conservative industry – a good sign that while their approach is radical, it makes solid business sense.  At some point they will have to consider finding more partners like themselves in order to scale up their operations, but, vows Taryn, never in such a way that it becomes like an agency.

Bright future ahead for fast-growing lighting company

It is hard to imagine a more difficult time start to a business than that of Mario Roos’s experience with his lighting and energy company LighTec, a finalist in the 2019 Business Partners Ltd Entrepreneur of the Year® competition. 

The initial spark was a massive fall-out that Mario had with his employer. He was general manager of a similar company that maintains the lighting in retail stores across Southern Africa. He spent years growing the company under difficult circumstances. The passive owner often took large amounts of cash out of the business, leaving Mario to explain to suppliers why they could not be paid in full. 

The final straw was when the owner reneged on an agreement to give Mario some equity in the company, or at least improve his pay, after he had won a R3 million contract with a large retail chain for the company.

In the ensuing argument, Mario announced his resignation, but instead of allowing for a notice period and refusing to pay him the leave owed to him, the boss told Mario to leave immediately. And so he found himself on the evening of 17 August 2017 with his wife Hayley, who wasn’t working at the time, sitting at their dining room table of their rented house in Cape Town without any income or savings. 

What he did have was a firm belief in the potential of the industry that he joined a few years before as “a guy who climbed the ladder to change the light bulbs”. One of his frustrations with the company is that was just about all they offered – changing light bulbs. As he rose through the ranks and later became general manager (GM), he saw lucrative opportunities to add electrical, engineering and power-consumption solutions to the service.

Now, he was determined to do it in a business of his own. Hayley decided to find a part-time job to tide them over, and Mario, who had built strong contacts among retail chains with his hands-on approach as GM, convinced Exclusive Books to give his new company, called LighTec, a chance. Not only that, but they agreed to pay LighTec every seven days for the first few months. Once again, Mario found himself as the hands-on light-bulb changer as he traveled the country with a bakkie and one helper.

Then came a further blow – Mario’s former boss sued to enforce a vague restraint-of-trade that Mario had agreed to when he was appointed GM. With the help of a lawyer friend, Mario negotiated them down from a restraint of two years to six months only, and he was allowed to keep Exclusive Books as a client. 

Constitutionally, restraints-of-trade are difficult to enforce, but even so his former boss would perhaps have negotiated harder had he known what LighTec was about to become. Today, Exclusive Books is still a client and in just four years Mario has grown the company to where it services 1200 retail stores throughout South Africa, employs a total of 24 staff members in its Johannesburg head office and Cape Town branch and is projecting a turnover of R18 million this year. 

Mario describes a difficult organic growth path for his business, starting with servicing the Exclusive Books contract himself, then appointing subcontractors for the next contracts he landed, and later employing those subcontractors as employees. Hayley soon joined the company and today heads up its administration.

Remarkably, Mario has been able to build the company with virtually no outside finance, apart from a recent COVID-19 emergency loan. His aversion to debt stems from his first business, a property development firm which he started as a young accountant just before it was wiped out in the financial crash of 2008. He lost everything, but gained valuable lessons, says Mario, not least of which is how to start over from scratch. It was that setback that brought him into the lighting industry as a lowly worker, and since then he has never stopped learning the ropes of the industry which he has grown to love. 

One milestone for Mario was to be honoured as a finalist in the 2019 Business Partners Ltd Entrepreneur of the Year®. From a marketing perspective, the competition put the company on a different level, says Mario. Just the video on the company that was produced for the competition has helped enormously as a marketing tool. 

LighTec’s services go far beyond the simple maintenance of lighting and the changing of light bulbs. It employs highly qualified electricians and has electrical engineers on retainer so that it can offer maintenance of refrigeration, power generation and air-flow systems. Most recently, LighTec finds itself on the forefront of the fledgling certification industry for the energy-efficiency of buildings. 

Mario’s horizon as an entrepreneur has also broadened. He is setting up a venture capital fund for investments in small technical companies such as LighTec, and he is involved in a project with the University of Stellenbosch that will bring sustainable electrification to twenty poor schools, and light to the lives of the children who learn there.

2014 Sanlam / Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year® competition open for entries

Fostering the culture of entrepreneurship in SA since 1988

The 2014 Sanlam / Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year® competition was today launched on 4 February, and organisers are calling for entrepreneurs who are striving to contribute positively towards South Africa’s economy and increase job creation – the heroes of the country’s economy – to submit their entries.

Now in its 26th year, South Africa’s pre-eminent entrepreneurial platform, which embraces local entrepreneurship by offering an opportunity for entrepreneurs to showcase their achievements and elevate their profile, as well as their profits.

According to Nimo Naidoo, project manager at Sanlam / Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year®, the competition aims to recognise, profile and reward entrepreneurs, as well as foster a culture of entrepreneurship in the country. “The competition celebrates and acknowledges entrepreneurial accomplishments and talent, and in turn inspires fellow entrepreneurs to take their business to new heights, as well encourages others to consider their entrepreneurship as a viable career path.

“It is truly inspirational to listen to entrepreneurs share their journeys, and it is important for these stories to be shared – not only to provide acknowledgment to the entrepreneur for their constant hard work and dedication, but also to inspire others to follow in their footsteps.”

The overall 2013 Sanlam / Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year®, Tommy Makhatho, owner of BiBi Cash & Carry, says that the most interesting stories in business involve entrepreneurs and that these need to be shared, especially with the youth. “In my opinion, the number of entrepreneurs in the country is slowly declining, and one of the reasons is because the youth are not exposed to inspirational success stories.

“Countries such as the United States tell their stories, and while South Africa has stories to be told, they are not told enough. These stories need to be exposed to the youth, and competitions such as the Sanlam / Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year® does exactly that.”

The competition provides entrepreneurs with the chance to win prizes worth R1 340 000, which includes cash prizes to the value of R350 000, as well receive valuable mentorship support, networking opportunities and associated marketing and national media exposure.

Makhatho (55) says being recognised for his business’ achievements has motivated and given him the confidence to review his business’ goals. “Winning this award has made me aware of where the business has come from and what we have survived thus far. It has also provided me with the strength to pursue another 25 years. This recognition makes me realise that this is only the beginning of our journey and that people should never stop dreaming, no matter their age.”

Makhatho says that he has also noticed an increase in interest towards his business since receiving the award. “I have been approached by many companies wanting to take my business to the next level. Thanks to the awareness generated from the awards, opportunities are now presenting themselves.”

The competition is open to entrepreneurs from all industries and businesses of any size. A series of national workshops will also be hosted leading up to the competition, which enables business owners to gain valuable entrepreneurial knowledge and lessons from a variety of speakers.

“Entrepreneurs truly are the heroes of our economy. The individuals that are providing positive knock-on effects for those around them, whether it is through business growth and development or job creation, should be recognised and rewarded. It is therefore vital that we equip these individuals with the tools and information that they need in order to grow their businesses further,” says Naidoo.