Tuesday, 12 April 2011

CSR and PR

As much as we (PR people) would love it, PR does not ‘own’ CSR. CSR is, or at least in order to be effective should be, core of the business strategy. CSR is the way a company manages and communicates (PR’s job) its impact on society and the environment.

The way companies practice CSR has changed over the past decades; back in the 70s CSR was about philanthropy and what a business could do with some of the money it had to spare. This included supporting the arts or giving to the local community.  Later, there was a shift of thinking and companies started to act more strategically considering results and outcomes and how they could invest in society.   

CSR as we know it today is about how companies manage their business processes in order to maximise their positive impact on society while at the same time minimising any negative impact whether that is economic, social or environmental. However, one cannot deny the fact that at the end of the day, it is all about how businesses can operate profitably within this role.

Companies are now forced to act responsibly against society and this can be attributed to many factors like globalisation, the turmoil in financial markets, technological changes, scarcity of resources and many more. Companies have a great impact on society and in this globalised world this has become an increasing focus for activists.  This is why companies today, have global standards to manage their risks (even though these are sometimes not enforced as we have witnessed) which include procedures, human rights acts and even determine how companies report on CSR.

Sustainability, the latest evolution of CSR looks into the future of business and society and tries to find mutually beneficial solutions to plan for future challenges. So why does sustainability matter to businesses? Well, first, it can improve a company’s reputation both externally and internally. Second, it can bring awards and ultimately it will make the company more profitable.

Sustainability can mean a lot of things for companies like:
  • Managing resources wisely
  • Demonstrating leadership 
  • Being clear in corporate values and governance
  • Giving short term needs a long term value
  •  Managing change responsibly
  •  Employee engagement
  • Preparing for future low carbon economy
  • Supporting the communities from which they employ, trade and purchase
  •  Securing the supply chain
Another point to mention is that CSR is complex and diverse. There are different ways in which companies implement CSR programmes and these usually depend on how a company’s products or services overlap with society and where societal needs meet business opportunities or responsibilities. Companies need to have CSR programmes that apply the company’s specific resources to help with world issues. Also, CSR programmes are flexible and they adapt according to environmental changes or pressures.

The bottom line is that to be successful, CSR has to be embedded in all activities of the company and every employee should be involved in it.  CSR should be part of the mix which includes strategy, product development, marketing, finance, HR and management. When CSR is created for PR purposes only, then it becomes greenwashing and spin.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The web paradox

Every day, millions of people around the world, carry out searches on search engines such as Google for free. We read millions of articles send emails and post comments on social media platforms for free... Really? The BBC documentary ‘The Cost of Free’, part of the BBC series ‘The Virtual Revolution’ sets out to dismiss this common misbelief by illustrating what the real cost of the web is.

We all see the web as a gift that has made our lives easier and convenient. Today, we are just a click away from any information we require. Years ago, when you needed expert advice you would go to a person who would have that knowledge and expertise; now, we get any information we need through the web. When we search for information on the web we do not have to pay anything, but then again if everything is free, how come Google is one of the world’s most profitable companies?

Well, Google, has figured out a way to transform our free search in a money making machine. Every time we search for something, our search terms, are gathered in Google’s databases. Google then uses this information to refine its search system to achieve targeted advertising. How does this work exactly?

When we search for something, we are telling Google our wants and desires. Basically, what marketers and advertisers search to find for years, we are giving out for free to Google, which has a system that can capture all that information and trade it with them. 

Every time we read something, a cookie tracking device which gives out information about our range of interests is planted on our computer, allowing Google to customise the adverts it gives us. We trade a lot of our privacy when we are online; the more time we spend online, the more information they can get about us, the more they can sell. It appears that the product online is not the content, but us! Every time we use Google, we help them and advertisers and marketers make money.

This process is also known as behavioural targeting and it is deeply worrying if we consider that companies now may have some intimate details of our personal lives. But we are also to blame about this because some of this information, we share willingly on social media networks like Facebook and Twitter. Our profiles and personalised status updates are kept online forever and used for any commercial purposes the social network providers fancy.

Another issue of the lack of privacy is that web content is pretty much permanent; our profiles, pictures and videos we share, will remain there forever, making it very easy for somebody to search about us.Have you ever tried ‘googling’ your name, to see what comes up? Because if you have not it is very likely that your future employer will, so be cautious when posting stuff online which you might regret later.

Unfortunately, the cost of using the web, in unclear for us and we do not realise how vulnerable we become by exposing so much information about our personal lives online. Are we walking blind into surveillance or do we realise the current position we put ourselves in and just feel that giving away all of this information is a fair exchange for what we get in return? Our privacy has become a commodity in return for a convenient and free online space. Is this a win-win situation then? 

Learn more about Google's philosophy here & more on how Google makes money here

Friday, 11 March 2011

Principles of Social Marketing

Social marketing is the application of marketing principles in campaigns that seek to achieve social change. ‘It uses marketing principles and techniques to advance a social cause, idea or behaviour. More specifically, it is the design, implementation and control of programmes seeking to increase acceptability of a social idea or cause in target group(s)’ (Kotler,P. 1982: 490). However, commercial marketing principles are not used in the same way as in traditional marketing but they are modified to fit the social context. 
Social marketing should not be confused with societal marketing or social media marketing.

Social marketing or cause campaigns always have a specific goal which can be either to change negative behaviour (i.e. no smoking in public areas), or to promote positive behaviour (i.e. asking people to recycle) or as Kotler et al (2002: 5) put it ‘to influence a target audience to voluntarily accept, reject, modify or abandon a behaviour for the benefit of individuals, groups or society as a whole’. 

It is very important to remember that social marketing is about behaviour change and not attitude change. A campaign for obesity is not successful if people start thinking that they should change their diet, it is only successful when they actually change their eating habits. Also, social marketing seeks to establish long-term change and not to have some short-term effect on the target group(s).  This is why cause campaigns often seek changes in public policy, organisational structures, laws and social programmes. Social marketing avoids victim blaming and focuses more on social reform. This way it often targets the government, businesses or the industry and not individuals.

In commercial marketing, marketers sell products or services whereas in social marketing, change agents sell behaviour change. There are some fundamental differences between commercial marketing and social marketing. The first as I have previously mentioned, is the product sold. (Goods & services vs. behaviour change). The second is audience segmentation; in commercial marketing the primary aim is financial gain whereas in social marketing the aim is societal gain. Thus, commercial marketing campaigns target the most profitable audiences unlike social marketing which often targets hard-to-reach groups (drug addicts or old people). Another difference is the competitive environment in which they function. In commercial marketing there might be a great number of competitors selling the same product while in social marketing the environment is less competitive, where usually the only competitor is the target audience’s current behaviour. Lastly, commercial marketing promotes a product that is wanted by the customer whereas it is often the case that the behaviour change which is promoted by the change agent is not desired by the target audience. In this and other ways, social marketing is harder than commercial marketing.

Despite the differences between commercial marketing and social marketing, the two share some similarities: (1) They are targeted; they are aimed at (a) specific group(s); (2) Research is used to build effective strategies; (3) Audiences are segmented; strategies are tailored according to the needs, wants, resources and behaviour of each segment; (4) The 4P’s of marketing (product, place, price, promotion) are considered.

Kotler, P. (1982). Marketing for non-profit organizations, 2nd Ed . Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall
Kotler, P., Roberto, N. and Lee, N. (2002). Social Marketing: Improving the Quality of Life. USA: Sage Publications Inc.
Tench, R. and Yeomans, L.(2006) Exploring Public Relations. Essex: Pearson Education Limited

Thursday, 3 March 2011

PR and spin have undermined trust in politics.. or not?

               'Lies and deception in politics are not synonymous with spin.' 

Recently, I attended the debate ‘PR and spin have undermined trust in politics’ which was organised by my university (University of Westminster). The panel was made up of Kevin Maguire, associate and political editor of the Daily Mirror and Sheila Gunn, political consultant, formerly political journalist and John Major’s spokesperson speaking for the motion and Lance Prince, former Labour ‘spin doctor’, now author and commentator and Francis Ingham, Chief Executive of the PRCA speaking against the motion. Overall I thought that the debate was very interesting and that all of the speakers had strong arguments. So what was the outcome of the debate? Have public relations and spin, undermined trust in politics, or not?

Well, you might think that the answer to that question is pretty obvious, but sometimes what is very clear at first, might turn out to be different if we look at it a bit more sceptical. Up until the debate, I used to believe that pubic relations and the work of spin doctors had definitely played a role in undermining trust in politics (in Britain). However, I had never attempted to challenge that and to consider any other factors there might be to blame and this debate was definitely an eye-opener.

It was suggested that although public relations and spin do play a role in undermining trust in politics, the real problem is rooted in the behaviour of MPs themselves and the media. Mr Price and Mr Ingham, suggested that first of all MPs have lost the public’s trust because of their improper behaviour. They are mischievous (sex scandals) and dishonest and also give the public false hope and make promises that at the end they do not keep. (Recent example: Bob Blackman, Conservative Party MP pledged to vote against any rise in tuition fees during his election campaign and then broke that promise by voting in favour of the rise). The media was another driver of mistrust is politics. This is because they are always looking for ‘hot’ stories to expose MPs. So the way journalists report on politicians reinforces the MPs’ bad image. One might say that they are just doing their job but perhaps if they didn’t report so extensively about every politician’s personal life, the public would have a better perception about them.

Kevin Maguire on the other hand who was blaming public relations for undermining trust in politics, called public relations practitioners ‘herbivores’, ‘horns’ and ‘devils’ among other. Well that was harsh! So what were the opposing views? Mr Price argued that ‘spin doctors’ should not be blamed because their job is to merely translate what politicians want to say to the public. So spin is only as vicious and bad as those who employ it. He also noted that there had not been a politician in history (Britain) who did not have a ‘spin doctor’ next to him. ‘Politicians are hooked on ‘spin’ and media management’ (Lance Prince). The conclusion was that good communicators cannot turn a bad politician into a nice one and that bad communicators cannot turn a good politician into a bad one. The outcome of the debate, which I firmly support, was that PR and ‘spin’ have not undermined trust in politics.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Social Media Webcast

This week I had to do a webcast for one of the modules in my course. This was the brief:

You are the Social Media Strategist within a PR agency. The MD of the agency has suggested that you produce a short webcast to the agency’s current and prospective clients that introduces them to certain key aspects and issues regarding social media.Your webcast is to address the following areas:

1. What is social media, why is it called socia media?
2. What are the sociological and cultural concepts behind social media and what is their relevance to PR?
3. How will the agency be using social media?
4. What are the benefits to the client?
5. What are the negatives to the client and how will they be dealt with?

Please be kind enough to excuse my poor editing skills :)

Monday, 21 February 2011

Does spin damage the democratic health of a nation?

Public Relations is often referred to as a ‘spin industry’ in which campaigns involve a partisan or distorted presentation of news/information. Tactics of ‘spin’ are often used by corporations, hospitals, even NGO’s and other organisations who want to control the news agenda to suit their needs, but the term ‘spin’ is usually associated with politics and political communication. The media is another institution that uses ‘spin’ and while they criticise public relations and the government for ‘spin’, they fail to recognise that they (media) also ‘spin’ stories when they select news content and provide their own interpretation of facts.

The widespread use of spin has negative consequences for democracy. Cutlip et al. suggest that effective democracy requires effective communication between citizens and the government: ‘In a very real sense, the purpose of democracy itself closely matches the purpose of public relations. Successful democratic government maintains responsive relationships with constituents, based on mutual understanding and two-way communication.’ (Cutlip et al. 2000: 448).  

Sadly it is often the case that information provided by the government to the public is misleading or inaccurate and fails to present the true picture. Tench, R. and Yeomans, L. state that ‘while democracy may depend on effective communication, not all communication is in the interests of the government’ (2006: 92). Democracy is based on the fundamental value of serving the wider public interest but there are always conflicts of interest involved in news management; there are various stakeholders to consider and not everybody can be satisfied. As a result, governments ‘spin’ the news to accommodate their own agenda. This is what was done by Alastair Campbell, a famous ‘spin doctor’ who was working for the British Government during the Iraq war. The "September Dossier" in September 2002 and the "Iraq Dossier" in February 2003 both contained fabricated information whose purpose was to justify the invasion of Iraq and to encourage public support.  

So it is clear that ‘spin’ not only damages the reputation of the PR industry but also the democratic health of a nation. Spin lowers public trust and also harms democratic processes. Unfortunately ‘spin’ is part of our culture and as Tench, R. and Yeomans, L. suggest, ‘a pervasive culture of secrecy that should be replaced by a culture of openness’ (2006: 91). There is a need for clear, two way communication between organisations and the public where news dissemination is truthful and impartial.

Cutlip, S. et al. (2000) Effective Public Relations, 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall
Tench, R. & Yeomans, L.(2006) Exploring Public Relations. Essex: Pearson Education Limited

Saturday, 12 February 2011

NGO's, activism and PR

The third sector is large and diverse; it consists of non-profit and non-governmental organisations that exist to serve a social cause, which can also have a political or an environmental aspect attached to it. Third sector or voluntary organisations are in a continuous battle to improve the world, society and the lives of people who are part of it. The organisations’ causes range from fighting world hunger/poverty, aiding the unwell and sustaining the environment. Although these organisations have different aims, they all engage in the same activities which can be the ‘hands on’ activities like providing physical assistance, campaigning and most importantly advocating and lobbying. 

The key stakeholders of charities and NGO’s are the general public, corporations and local and national governments. Having said that, the relationship of corporate companies with NGO’s can often be tense, as NGO’s are always on the lookout for company misconducts and are prepared to take action if they feel like a corporation is engaging in activity that goes against what they stand for.

From a corporation’s viewpoint, NGO’s can be classified as active publics. As Grunig’s situational theory suggests (Grunig and Hunt 1984), active publics are groups of people who share an interest or concern for an issue or problem and who organise to do something about it.  According to this theory, an organisation should actively communicate with these public and to maintain a positive relationship with them, as they are likely to take action. Seeing that the relationship between corporations and NGO’s can often be edgy, it could then be in a corporation’s or even in the NGO’s interest to form a partnership with each other. Reaching to some kind of negotiation would benefit both and conflict could be avoided. 

Companies often form partnerships with NGO’s as part of their CSR programmes. This could be a win-win relationship. British retailer Marks and Spencer is famous for these kinds of partnerships. Some examples of this work are the M&S and Oxfam clothes Exchange programme in 2008 or Greenpeace supporting M&S’s policy on sustainable sourcing of fisheries products. However, on other occasions such partnerships may have their critics. NestlĂ©’s partnership with the Forest Trust (TFT) last year to combat deforestation (Nestle was allegedly reviewing its palm oil supply chain) was criticised by Greenpeace who organised a campaign against them claiming that this move was just a cover up and that the company had ulterior motives. This is the viral video of the Greenpeace campaign:

This is just an example of how sometimes partnerships with NGO's can backfire. Another interesting issue it that just because an NGO forms a partnership with a company, it does not mean that the NGO will have a favourable view towards it. Companies need to be cautious when selecting partners and to ensure there are no conflicting interests in the process.

An interesting report by C&E Advisory (leading ‘business & society’ consultancy) provides an insight to how companies and NGO’s perceive partnerships formed between them.  The report provides information on the nature and importance of corporate- NGO partnerships, also the challenges and opportunities that arise from them. Click to view the Corporate-NGO Partnership Barometer 2010  

Tench, R.,Yeomans, L.,(2006). Exploring Public Relations. England: Pearson Education Limited.
Grunig, J., Hunt, T.,(1984). Managing Public Relations. USA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers

Additional reading: