A few weeks ago I heard Minister of Trade and Industry, Rob Davies, bemoaning the fact that the pace of BEE is too slow, saying that many of the companies who assert they have Black partners or board members, are not taking BEE seriously. This, in his opinion, was because these ‘token’ Blacks are given ‘less serious portfolios like Public Relations’ (my quotations).
If this is indeed his opinion, I would challenge Minister Davies and say he knows very little of what PR is. Hence, as a corporate communication specialist, I’m offering a quick lesson on the vital, strategic role of PR in the overall functioning and survival of an organisation. To be given this portfolio would indicate the board’s absolute trust in the person selected and its willingness to hand over the management of the organisation’s entire communications, including its corporate identity, brand, stakeholders’ perceptions and its reputation. That is a HUGE responsibility for a PR professional.
Some might argue that PR activity does not contribute to the bottom-line profits, but try telling a Chairperson or CEO of an organisation in the throes of a sale, takeover or merger that the company is only worth what it says on the balance sheet! He’ll counter that with notions of ‘good will’, ‘solid stakeholder relations’ and ‘reputational capital’ as the difference between the asking price and the ‘book value’. And for me, that indicates the worth of the corporate communication and PR function.
So, what does the PR function involve? To show it’s not just about publicity and events, let’s take as an example, South African Breweries (SAB), the largest producer and distributor of alcohol brands, and let’s look at what the Public Relations or Corporate Communications Director has had to manage over the past few years. Let me add, I offer this example as an analyst, not as an employee of SAB.
Since 2003, government departments, including that of Trade and Industry, Transport, Social Development and Health, together with a number of special interest groups, have been investigating ways of dealing with the major social problem of alcohol-related violence in SA and, in October 2010 the government proposed a ban on the advertising of alcohol, including a ban on sponsorship by alcohol companies which, until then, had been among the major sponsors of sport, arts and social development programmes in the country. This much-publicised move has been the topic of on-going debate.
However, our focus in this lesson, is what the SAB PR director would have been doing to address this critical decision which could negatively impact the organisation.
External Organisational Communication
External stakeholders are strategically important to the organization and therefore communication with them focuses on ‘knowledge creation’ and ‘relationship building’ especially around issues that affect the organization and where it stands on those issues. It therefore covers all the corporate communication functions aimed at influencing the external environment. The goal of public relations and public affairs is to communicate information that presents the organisation in a favourable light so as to influence its publics to support the organisation on a particular issue. Therefore, SAB’s PR director would use the special PR techniques within the public affairs function including: issues management, government relations, lobbying and coalition building, media, community relations and corporate social responsibility.
This involves an organisation’s scanning and monitoring the environment for any issues – economic, social, legislative or environmental – that could impact it. If there is evidence of a potentially threatening issue, such as this one, SAB would conduct a threat assessment to establish possible impacts. Within this process, an organization also considers possible scenarios, responses to them and the possible outcomes, to protect their reputation, operations, and financial conditions, to neutralize damage. In this case, SAB goals would be to prevent or minimize government legislation and regulation that would negatively impact its business.
Faced with the challenges and the anticipated loss of its multimillion rand advertising activity, and the impact on its agencies and on labour, the PR director’s team would’ve analysed the situation and asked, how do we control and manage the negative influences from this? SAB PR would have to re-strategize its corporate communication activities, in order to build a reputational platform within which SAB would continue to grow, despite the impending government regulation, and still retain its positive image and position and strong reputation.
To achieve its goals, SAB would’ve set objectives and actions within the framework of opening up channels of communication with all SABs stakeholders and the general public, taking cognizance of the voices in the public sphere, and engage with them too.
Government relations and Lobbying
On the one hand, there’s the government communicating with its people around an issue of public interest, showing its good intentions to improve society by addressing the alcohol problem by proposing the ban on alcohol advertising. On the other hand, big business (SAB), as one of governments various constituencies, wants to communicate with government about issues that concern them with a view to influencing government decision-making. The political and PR technique of lobbying is used by organizations and special interest groups, to access and influence government regulation and legislation in a particular direction. So SAB would’ve had a lobbyist negotiating its way around this problem with a number of government departments which, incidentally, could have had conflicting agendas themselves! But that’s another story…..
In addition, big business needs access to the media in order to proactively get support for their positions. In this regard, the media has always played a pivotal role in disseminating relevant information around social and public issues, raising points of argument from all sides of debates.
The media and media relations
One of PR’s core functions is working with the media. The media’s power to influence is crucial to communicators who want to affect change in society, whether economic, social or political. Traditional media activity by organizations includes press releases, press conferences and various types of publicity to inform the public of what they’re doing. The media carry corporate messages or ‘stories’ to convince stakeholders to change or improve their perceptions of the company. Hence, these messages would be persuasive and include information about the company’s positive, responsive activities that will ensure a positive outcome.
So, how has SAB used the media? Using its website as an example, there is much evidence of its vision and values. On its corporate affairs page we read, “We’re in the business of brewing beer, but we’re committed to doing this in the most ethical, environmentally sustainable and transparent way possible. SABMiller is determined to give back to society and has a commitment to doing what is right”. And in a SAB publication entitled “Leading the way in tackling alcohol abuse” it states:
SAB is proud of the quality products that it produces and the economic and social benefits that it brings to South Africa. Unfortunately, a relatively small percentage of South Africans and this has a disproportionately negative impact on South African society…..SAB has years of experience in leading the way in addressing alcohol abuse in the country. It has listened to the response from local communities and has developed a strategy to tackle alcohol abuse that takes its learning from South Africa and around the world.
CSR and Community Relations
Corporate citizenship refers to an organization’s acknowledgement of its interdependence on other groups, individuals and organizations in society. In as much as these are dependent on the organization in various ways, so too does it depend on them for its survival and success. Organizations engage in corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities in order to create awareness of their involvement in social issues and to influence stakeholder perceptions positively and enhance their reputation.
According to the website, SAB has for years engaged in CSR and community development projects aimed at addressing the social needs of disadvantaged groups. Through this SAB has spent much effort and money on building partnerships with government and other organizations, developing social upliftment projects that portray them as caring, responsible corporate citizens concerned about social problems like alcohol abuse. In the process SAB has gained positive coverage.
Within the framework of public affairs large organizations like SAB form alliances to strengthen their lobbying capacity when negotiating with government to exert a more powerful influence its decision-making in favour of the coalition or alliance. Among those with whom SAB might have built coalitions would be key constituencies with a stake in this debate by virtue of the fact that they too have much to lose if the Bill is passed, and are against the regulation, like sports bodies and the Department of Sport, advertising, sponsorship and other marketing related agencies, as well as labour and unemployment groups. Whilst it is forming coalitions to challenge the proposed ban with ARA (the alcohol industry Association for Responsible Alcohol consumption); WCSA (Wine Cellars South Africa), SA Liquor Traders and the advertising coalition, SAB is also needing to build relations with groups that are for the ban with a view to negotiating their way through the situation by acknowledging the social problem and perhaps making compromises to reach a more balanced outcome, and organizing campaigns with them. These could include the Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC), South Africans Against Drunk Driving (SADD) and Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR).
Public advocacy is showing its influence in communities and is used to lobby government on various social, political and economic issues affecting citizens’ lives. Individuals also see the value in building coalitions that would more effectively serve their specific interests, including environmental, domestic, labour, and community or ‘grassroots’ development. So organizations need to address the different agendas – public interest versus private economic interests – and also communicate with opinion leaders and advocacy groups who are actually lobbying government for outcomes that could impact negatively on them.
Integrated marketing communications
Given the above, SAB would need to take cognizance of the perceived link between their products and the problem of alcoholism, and be seen to be adapting its activities accordingly. PR is constantly working with Marketing to develop new ways of ‘doing business’. Hence, while PR is overseeing the ‘communication for relationships’, Marketing is simultaneously developing different strategies of ‘positive talk for sales and profit’, including ‘black marketing’ techniques, with key stakeholders like business partners and loyal consumers.
From a PR perspective, SAB’s management seems to have done much. From online survey figures, and from online news, Twitter and Facebook comments, the public continues to hold positive perceptions of SAB’s endeavours in business, employment etc., as well as its handling of the current issue. SAB’s PR activities have won stakeholder support. It is still viewed as a ‘good corporate citizen’ and one of the ‘best brands’ with a solid reputation. So, it would seem that the PR efforts seem to be paying off. SAB may not be in danger of collapsing just yet!
If that’s what PR and communication can do for a company, the person in charge has a very serious function and has to be on the board where the big decisions are made.