I was troubled by the angry letters in my work files. In their own small way, they were caught up in one of the great PR disasters of all time, with most spitting anger, bitterness and invoking the morality of Nelson Mandela.
Their outrage was directed at ‘Big Company’ – the place I worked at more than a decade ago.
Universally, Aussies had voiced their damning concerns for they way they perceived Big Company had treated sick South Africans and Nelson Mandela. Read the back story in an earlier post here.
Their rebukes were in response to a lawsuit slapped on the South African government by 39 pharmaceutical companies, of which Big Company was one.
To protect their patent rights, the pharma companies wanted to stop the South African government from importing and manufacturing cheaper generic HIV medicines, known as antiretrovirals.
Somehow in this evolving and complex issue, Mandela’s name got drawn into the argument, despite having no part in it.
As the official corporate storyteller, I wondered how I would explain the actions of Big Company when even I didn’t fully understand what was going on.
What I knew for sure
The pharma actions felt morally wrong but there was no time for a Pauline Hansen-style intervention: “Please explain!” Equally, it was morally wrong for the South African government to ignore scientific fact on HIV/AIDS and its transmission.
What’s more, this matter was not a local business priority. In fact, it was one of a couple of challenging issues for which I was simultaneously managing the communications on.
The only thing I knew for sure was that a plan was needed STAT to address the inaccuracies and confusion in those letters, and that any corporate response was unlikely to make anyone happy.
After all, the letters showed that no one liked Big Company. Yet everyone loved Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist jailed for nearly three decades.
Mixed responses, yet the same
I categorised the letters as it soon became clear that:
- some people had understood what was going on but weren’t happy;
- others had not understood and weren’t happy; and
- the rest had a garbled understanding and weren’t happy.
So on behalf of Big Company I created three short and simple template letters each responding to one of the above categories of comments. I simply stuck to the facts: I couldn’t defend something I didn’t fully understand.
Creating the template letters sounds easier than it actually was given the complexity of the issue and the emotions it generated – in me and others.
What I’ve learned from years of writing about sex, assisted conception, birth, communicable disease and death is that they’re turbocharged topics that fuel emotions. This issue – which became a global crisis – was no exception.
Pretty soon, Big Company’s response was mailed to scores of Aussies who included addresses on their letters.
I had other plans at the ready in case there was another backlash but the paper storm eventually blew over Down Under.
Another rollercoaster ride
It was a bummer that the letters couldn’t have been mailed three months later in April when the lawsuit was dropped. Apparently Big Company and a handful of other pharma companies formed a collation to push the majority into a settlement.
It was positive news, although some detractors claimed the settlement was to primarily avoid pharma companies having to reveal their pricing structures.
Once dropped, the South African government then announced that it wasn’t actually going to use antiretrovirals.
The Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said that the government didn’t see HIV/AIDS as an infectious disease and it would likely be too difficult to incorporate antiretrovirals into an AIDS management plan.
Humanity braced itself for the next rollercoaster ride in this life-and-death drama.
And therein lies another nugget of truth I’ve learned from decades of managing contentious and controversial issues and crises: they always contain elements of the absurd and extreme.
The people’s hero
So, in Nelson Mandela’s passing and on the day of his memorial service, I remember how Aussies responded to a crisis more than 10,000 kilometres away. And, they drew their moral outrage by invoking what they believed Madiba stood for.
I want the world to know that Madiba was deeply loved Down Under. What’s more, he lives on forever in our hearts. He is the people’s hero or die men se se held, in Afrikaans; the language of the people whom he forgave for legally oppressing him and millions of others.
RIP Madiba: 1918 to 2013
- What do you most want to be remembered for after death?