Published in May-Jun 2022
A long, long time ago, in an era far, far away, the practice of public relations (known suspiciously as PR), was a simple affair: press releases, media events, linking influence-seekers with influence-peddlers. Social events, handshakes, backslapping, and lots of photographs published – that was basically it. Perhaps I am oversimplifying it a bit.
Things have now changed dramatically and we live in a ‘multiverse’, where the click of a button sends out messages to millions of ‘followers’ who then re-forward them via multiple social media platforms. Sigh.
The point of this article is not to delve into the world of PR as a standalone practice; rather, to look at it as a multi-pronged effort that permeates everything corporations do. In which case, the question of whether it should be taught could, perhaps, be rephrased as “How should PR be taught…”
‘Corporate social responsibility’ and the ‘triple bottom line’ (people, planet, profits) have added a weighty dimension to how corporations carry out their business. In this context, even the Queen of England had to divest from many of her holdings as they did not measure up to new, socially accepted standards. One way to look at it is via the visual used to talk about diversity – the Iceberg Model. Above the waterline we see gender, skin colour, race and probably age –below lie a host of other attributes: abilities, language, education, talent and perspectives, to name a few. Similarly, if we think of PR as a standalone activity, divorced from every other department in an organisation, we are missing the ‘engine’ that is driving actions.
This is what happened many years ago when total quality management (TQM) became a buzzword across the business world – later adopted by non-profits as well, and to telling effect. There was actually a separate department (similar to the audit function?) that was responsible for ensuring ‘quality’. These people went about marking, measuring and benchmarking to ensure the end product met a certain standard. Since we had a separate department, ‘quality’ was always seen as someone else’s responsibility. (If you have ever been involved with employee survey results and implementing changes, you will know that unless line managers take responsibility for outcomes, nothing will happen – and the case with employee appraisals – it is NOT the job of HR alone.)
Perhaps you see what I am getting at. Every function of the entity must see its link and contribution to how the external and internal stakeholders perceive the actions and intentions of management. Why internal? Because we are now in an age of employees ‘venting’ on social media; sharing screenshots and challenging senior management on a host of subjects – carbon emissions and fair labour being just two. It is now fashionable for employees (and prospective ones) to take positions on political and social issues, much like celebrities and other public figures do. As they say: you have to deal with the ‘woke’.
Building reputations and brands takes a long time, just as building goodwill does. And we know that all it takes is one, small incident to dent things. Which is why a ‘good’ reputation can sustain you when things go wrong. Management literature is filled with stories of PR disasters and coups, so no need to repeat them here. Now, in the age of social media and ‘customer engagement’, we are constantly walking on eggshells. Let’s look at a hypothetical example.
We have sports leagues all over the world and each one seeks to ‘engage’ with viewers and fans, building up a passionate army of supporters through a variety of means (think soccer). Soccer clubs and players have global followings upon which brands seek to further enhance their reach through merchandising, thereby contributing to their revenue streams. Protecting the brand means not only managing the ‘external’ interface but keeping what goes on behind the scenes kosher. Scandals keep emerging around racial discrimination, unfair practices and even substance abuse. Some clubs are able to weather these storms, having built up a reputation over the years. English and South African cricket have also recently been affected with Yorkshire County being severely penalised.
At the level of a business school, these themes, topics and examples can be woven into the course outline to create awareness that ‘reputation management’ is everyone’s responsibility. This is achieved by ‘stakeholder mapping’ which is done usually with a four-quadrant grid, using ‘Power’ and ‘Interest’ to gauge potential impacts. Naturally, the quadrant with ‘High Power/High Interest’ will get the most attention. Having said this, the power of social media to bring attention and corrective action cannot be discounted. I use topical articles in my classes to bring home this painful fact.
As an example, there is a concerned citizen in Karachi who is passionate about workers at the lowest end of the spectrum getting minimum wage and legal protection. He writes to corporations and government bodies regularly and publishes his efforts widely. So far, his success rate is averaging over 50%, thanks to his ‘naming-and-shaming’ strategy. This is the power of a concerned citizen to effect change. Within the chain of authority in the organisation, there are many departments responsible and which could challenge the system.
Back in the organisation, finance is a good example. The regulatory environment for companies varies across sectors and legal entity statuses. Banks and public listed companies have the highest exposure, considering their financial performance is reportedly quarterly. Employees need to be aware of the need to adhere to the strictest standards at all stages, lest something crops up later.
At a bank, the exposure starts with compliance at the ‘account opening’ stage (know your client) and travels all the way up through the paperwork, approvals and reporting process. Each individual involved has the potential to create a future problem if not careful. (Banks and their shenanigans are always in the news.)
Marketing is considered an ‘external facing’ department while much of what goes on also involves internal stakeholders and vendor management. Reputations with regard to fair dealings and timely payments are easily ruined through exploitative relationships.
Similar issues permeate manufacturing, HR, supply chain, etc. Organisations need to be aware of the potential damage and actively work on their internal communications. As mentioned earlier, bringing up stories in the classroom of how things went right or wrong across the spectrum of functions and departments is a good way to start. What employees need to realise is that all actions and decisions have consequences – good or bad. Recognising this at each stage of decision-making can be a valuable way to ensure positive outcomes.
To recap, a brand is a promise and your reputation. Quality and value are not what you put into it; it is what the customer gets out of it. Your positive image can sustain you should events turn nasty. But it involves the active involvement of all employees, tied to the vision and mission of the organisation. What better time to start than in school?
Leon Menezes is a Professor-of-Practice, IBA Karachi.