Flags and Statues: The Power of Symbols


In the wake of the tragic and shocking massacre of nine worshippers in Charleston, USA, the Governor of South Carolina proposed removing the old Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the legislature. Other Southern states appear to be following suit.

I don’t know the historic or legal issues involved; mine is merely an observation, not a judgement. But it does seem odd, to this South African at least, that a flag symbolising a failed attempt to disband the Union of states should still be flying on government property. It seems similar to flying the old South African flag at official functions alongside the new one; or the old Vrystaat and Transvaal republic flags.

The flag appears to have significant symbolic and emotional value, however perverted or distorted their thinking, for white supremacists (as does, it seems, our old SA flag and that of Rhodesia – Dylann Roof was wearing all three).

Then, of course, there are the statues – controversial and emotional. Marble reminders of a past that was both good and bad. Statues of southern generals have come in for some flak, and Cecil John Rhodes has fled his plinth in Cape Town, too.

But what about our business symbols. What values are important to us? How do we express them? What stories do we tell? More important, what stories do our employees tell? And our customers? Are they all saying the same thing?

The stories that are told about us will depend not on what we say (our own stories) but on what we do and what people experience. Our persuasion will not change the way people perceive us; attitudes are changed by experiences, not words. If you have a bad experience with a particular person or organisation, it is what they do about it that matters, not what they say they will do. Someone said that mistakes happen; it’s what happens next that matters.

Nivea posted a series of adverts a few years ago based on the theme, ‘Re-civilise yourself.’ Black consumers heard again the insulting colonial slur suggesting that they weren’t civilised. Nivea could have argued that they were being misunderstood and explained that it was just a new way of inviting customers to ‘reinvent’ themselves. But they didn’t. They simply withdrew the advert and apologised.

Compare that to the way the Spar group has handled their PJ Powers debacle. Instead of accepting that not every advertising campaign works, withdrawing the adverts and apologising, Spar has put out a garbled explanation that convinces no one. Something about pyjamas – I have heard of pyjama parties, but pyjama Powers?

Instead of keeping the failed campaign a relatively quiet affair between PJ Powers and the Spar Group (and some of her friends perhaps) the fallout is widespread – even Simply Communicate is talking about it.

We can hold onto the symbols we love and understand (including flags, statues and advertising campaigns) or we can accept that the background and life experiences of others give them a different perspective on the same symbols and find better, more inclusive ways to convey our message.

What symbols are important to your business? What story do they tell?

First published on the Simply Communicate website. Find more articles here

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About Ian Webster

I have been running my own consultancy (Simply Communicate) for nearly five years – training and consulting in all things people management and development. Prior to that I was 16 years in corporate HR in a unionised environment becoming Training Manager and Human Resources Manager. Before that I was seven years in customer service, and 13 years an ordained minister. I have a Degree in Theology and a post-graduate diploma in Human Resources Management.

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