Nelson Mandela’s Death Should Breathe New Life into PR

“Difficulties break some men but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end.” ~Nelson Mandela (1918 — 2013)

He was a Nobel peace prize winner. He is the sole reason millions of oppressed South Africans live free from apartheid. He was the global emblem of human rights for decades. He was the former president of South Africa, and the liberator of a nation.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was known as “Madiba,” “Tata,” “Khulu,” “46664” and a father figure to the world. And PR agencies can learn a thing or two from the enormous footsteps he left for us to follow…

For years, I have attested (and others have agreed) that PR should not be about clients and profit. Rather, it should be about stories and the causes they represent. It’s been said in this fabled industry that “everyone has a story to tell.” Why can’t everyone have a cause as well? 

Ending the apartheid regime in South Africa was Mandela’s, and for his goodwill combating this grueling oppression, he spent 27 years in prison as an innocent man. Peaceful. Stoic. Resolute. And above all, heroic in silence. While his cause is globally recognized, why can’t our clients become industry recognized? Locally recognized? Visible for an outreach that will outlast its brand.

Consider: A restaurant owner that feeds the hungry annually. A dentist that fixes cleft palettes twice a year. An HVAC repair company that visits the impoverished to ensure the heater is working during the winter. A street corner preacher that walks people across a busy, metropolitan intersection. A PR agency that provides one non-profit with free media outreach for a few months.

Why not? 

Nelson Mandela had was born July 1918 and it took him a little more than 20 years to realize activism was his passion. That’s when he joined and led the Youth League of African National Congress (ANC). For 20 more years, he reached the enslaved and wrongfully persecuted in Johannesburg with organized demonstrations that created global awareness about the black resistance against apartheid.

Against logic and his spirit of grace, Mandela knew his people needed to protect themselves with more than song, so he created the Umkhonto we Sizwe (the armed guard of the ANC). For that, he was charged with sabotage against the government and thrown into maximum security prison, but not before a four-hour address in court that is now known as the “Rivonia Trial.”

During that inspirational speech, Mandela said this poignantly to a judge in Pretoria. He stood tall, spoke calmly and said to a white judge with no fear or concern of self:

“During my lifetime, I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities” … “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve, but if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

While the great majority of CSR campaigns are nowhere near this serious and paramount to the needs of mankind, there are needs everywhere waiting to be served. There are things waiting to be done. There are people needing to be heard. Why can’t one of those causes be embraced from PR, its professionals and the clients we all serve?

I challenge PR professionals to look within your clients and see something greater. See something that will outlast them. Even if they make the clips that fasten open chip bags, there is a way that product can be used for more than keeping Doritos fresh. How? That’s up to you and your client. CSR is called “corporate social responsibility” for a reason. Because we all have a mandate to serve in some fashion. Even if it is just not being a political sandbag, jargon cornucopia and backstabbing blowhard in the workplace.

Treat each other better. Think beyond your own circumstances. And don’t take others for granted. That’s a start. Even Mandela had a start. No, not in the 1960s where he etched a legacy that will never be erased.

It happened some time after 1918 and before the early 1940s when he looked at himself in the mirror and said, “Yes. That is how I will make a difference.”

The world will become a better place — if not, your neighborhood — if you dare have that conversation with your clients, your team and even yourself.