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Public relations: A strategy useful for corporate growth

Public Relations (PR) is a strategic corporate issue which creates meaningful value for corporate growth and market visibility. PR, if properly executed, is at the core of strategic planning or corporate image planning, business development, networking capital, local and international collaborations, digital communication strategy and global penetration. It cannot be side-lined to functional levels in the organisation. PR should claim its place at business and corporate levels and even the boardroom.

marketing insights with MUSEKIWA C TAPERA

PR is a management function which involves analysis of trends, predicting their consequences and advising or counselling the organisation for it to remain relevant in a dynamic global environment. Analysis of trends involves updating the organisation on global dynamics in business, economics and digital communications. It assists also in the analysis of trends in digital communications and their impact on organisations. PR involves putting in place open systems in doing business, thus creating a permeable boundary between the organisation and its environment to allow information in and out so that the organisation does not get into entropy — decay. Image is core to business survival and critical to business growth. Image as directed by PR, creates opportunities for market penetration and positioning, both important ingredients for competitiveness.

Analysis of trends requires competencies related to business and corporate strategy to make sure that business is abreast with modern trends and consistent with global business best practices. It is more than just writing a good news release and coming up with “cosy” corporate golf shirts and magazines. Today’s PR requires more than just being a journalist or media practitioner but a combination of this plus being a professional generalist who understands business up to corporate level. An appreciation of boardroom issues, financial markets, investment dynamics, media strategy, corporate image issues, corporate governance and ethics and branding is important.

Issues, even sensitive ones and those that were considered taboo cannot easily be swept under the carpet. In this context, a PR practitioner has to be of strategic value to his or her organisation by strategically positioning the organisation so that it moves with times. It also includes changing mindsets in the organisation to allow different managerial levels to warm up to new trends in the digital world, politics, international or domestic economics. Globalisation is about shrinking space, time and global trends cannot be ignored by a PR practitioner worth his salt because the relevance of PR in corporates or in government can be gravely compromised, thus relegating the profession to the gutters.

The art of analysis of trends and predicting consequences now requires a practitioner well-positioned to enter the executive level of engagement and even the boardroom and earn respect. That way, one will be able to advise corporate level structures and be given attention. If a PR practitioner confines himself/herself to running with purchase orders for golf-shirts or t-shirts, and always concentrating on processing travel and subsistence allowances, no one will ever take them seriously for corporate level decision-making. This is the reason why terms such as “spin doctors” (meaning you spin someone’s image in a crisis to spruce up his/her outlook), propagandists, spies, masters of ceremony are common.
These terms, while relevant in the day-to-day life of a PR practitioner, remove practitioners from real strategic issues, thus relegating the profession to an after thought, after crisis, or cosmetic/ ornamental department that gives the organisation colour, glitz and glamour but not for real serious business. When retrenchment comes, personnel in the department are the first to be shown the door or have benefits slashed because a PR practitioner has not positioned himself or herself strategically to be of value at the highest levels in the organisation.

In Zimbabwe, PR is not really taken seriously as a strategic issue because of the way it is perceived by accountants, lawyers and economists, who constitute the majority of CEOs, board members and corporate level leaders. Their perception is to view PR people as side-kicks who act as personal assistants to arrange their travel itineraries and advance party to organise venues, speeches etc. This is the reason why they are more comfortable with recruiting former journalists, particularly from television because they use them as the “face” of the organisation (cosmetic purposes) or a print media because they write good copy. In today’s world, PR is a strategy issue which requires more than being used for impressionable purposes. Sadly, those who get into consultation as PR strategists, are easily overshadowed by purely marketing (branding) and advertising professionals, who it is believed bring real value to the organisation because of the immediate dollars and cents that they bring. Yet PR professional advice can create value for the long-term because their job is to create knowledge and understanding of the organisation and its products and services.

From a professional point of view, they surface and resurface the ground for marketing, sales and advertising to thrive. Marketers always talk of brand culture, yet humans are central to it. Human relations is central to PR practice, that’s why PR is often referred to as the conscience of the organisation. Employees are central to brand culture. Their interaction with customers plays a critical role in bridging the gap between the envisioned brand values and those perceived by external stakeholders. The culture of an organisation, that is, its values beliefs and basic assumptions manifest itself in the ways employees feel about the organisation and forms the environment in which brand values must be developed. PR is central to this and it is no mean business. The value created from this perspective is for strategic purposes, and critical for strategic planning because employees are an asset of the organisation.

Burman and Zeplin (2005) argue that building this commitment requires the integration of three sets of managerial activities, of which PR plays an important role. That is, brand-centred HR, brand leadership and brand communications. Why brand-centred HR for PR practitioners? Some may ask. Brand-centred HR should ensure firstly that recruitment and promotion is based upon a close fit between personal identity and brand identity. This entails recruiting and promoting employees with similar values to the brand. PR can proffer professional advice to HR and both departments complement each other on this one for strategic value to the organisation. PR professionals who focus on media relations and publicity may not see this as their management function.

Similarly, the creation of, or training for brand citizenship behaviour in employees is central to PR and marketing. This entails the successful development of employees’ commitment to the organisation’s brand because of its link to the development of appropriate brand behaviours. Brand citizenship behaviour involves seven dimensions:

  • helping behaviour,
  • brand consideration
  • l brand enthusiasm
  • l sportsmanship,
  • l brand endorsement,
  • l self-development,
  • l brand advancement.

While all this appears a marketing activity, PR is central to creating a culture because their concern is what Professor Claude Mararike calls the human factor content in management. Remember corporate culture or organisation culture refers to the internal values, beliefs and assumptions that embody the heritage of the company and communicate its meaning to its members. The above argument is just but one example of the strategic value of PR to organisations that is often taken over by other professions. Therefore, let’s smell the coffee as practitioners.

Lastly, to push my argument for PR as a strategic issue, brand leadership is essential to the development of brand commitment. The role of brand management is too important to be delegated to the marketing department and that it should be the responsibility of senior corporate management team and PR. The CEO should take on the role of brand champions.
This means that PR at the corporate level should give a clear sense of vision — what the organisation aspires to be in future, aligning vision with culture and image and fostering an organisation-wide commitment to the brand. Coming up with internal brand requires leadership to establish corporate structures which convey coherent and consistent messages to staff. Therefore, successful and strategy-driven PR practitioners should act as integrators between elements of corporate identity structures (corporate culture, corporate design, corporate behaviour and corporate communications). Competent and corporate level PR professionals should act as mediators between corporate branding structures and individuals. They should enter the psychological set of all levels. Isn’t that strategic? Lastly, they should facilitate employee brand commitment by acting as role models.
This, therefore, demonstrates that PR, from my point of view, is not the business of simply writing news releases, being MCs, designing function programmes, appearing on television etc. It is really a strategic issue for top level corporate planning and execution. Join the executive levels and change their perception.

Dr. Musekiwa Clinton Tapera is the director of Marketing and PR at Chinhoyi University of Technology. He writes in his personal capacity. For feedback and debate email taperamc@gmail.com or mctapera@cut.ac.zw

*This article was contributed on behalf of the Marketers Association of Zimbabwe, a leading body of marketing professionals promoting professionalism to the highest standards for the benefit of the industry and the economy at large. For any further information, kindly contact mazmembership@mazim.co.zw or visit the website on www.maz.co.zw

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