Lenox Lizwi Mhlanga
In a rapidly changing communications environment such as that in Zimbabwe, communicators need to refocus on their core responsibility. That of building trust for their clients and their causes. These are the words of Frank Shaw, corporate communications vice president at Microsoft, when he addressed the In2 Summit that took place in New York recently.
The Holmes Report’s In2Summit is a global network of events that explore the innovation, disruption and evolution that has, and continues to, redefine influence and engagement in the public relations industry.
Shaw was kicking off a discussion on The Speed of Change — CCOs On Tomorrow’s Challenges, by discussing the changes impacting communicators and the media upon which they depend.
Shaw told the audience that early in his career, if one got a story in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, one could tick the box and say mission accomplished.
“Our industry has been changed, and not necessarily in a good way. One had a factual story in a publication that was trusted, that people agreed was accurate. Today, our ability to tell stories that way has been radically challenged.”
In much the same way, public relations practitioners in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in the region, are satisfied with getting stories published in mainstream publications such as NewsDay, The Herald, or The Zimbabwe Independent and Financial Gazette. For them that imbues a huge sense of achievement.
And yet, there’s more great journalism happening today than at any times, according to Shaw. New media business models are spreading in influence.
News organisations all over the world are enjoying success with their online publications, something that seems to elude local media houses. The media have the power to drive social change. There are more ways to tell stories and reaching audiences than ever before. Shaw calls this the golden age of journalism.
The reality is that advocacy around social issues globally is now being driven based on news reporting than on press releases from in-house communicators. In other ways, issues drive news and no longer the other way around. The days of agenda setting are, clearly, numbered.
In a fast-changing environment, with potential benefits and heightened risks, the job of the communicator is now clearer than before: build and maintain trust in the clients and causes they work for. In a world where trust is hard to build and easy to lose, that’s our job.
Shaw suggested several rules for building trust in such an environment.
“Stand up for what you stand for,” he said. “Communicating about purpose and values and belief is fundamental. It’s not enough to tell people what you’re doing; you have to talk about why.”
How many corporate entities in Zimbabwe are daring enough to take a stand, be it in politics, society or the environment? Are they able to withstand intense scrutiny in those issues that the public holds dear?
Taking a stand on hard issues instead of “soft” ones is a challenge that looms large for companies in Zimbabwe as the country opens for business. The attraction for “playing it safe” has always been the undoing of corporates who are found wanting when they are expected to genuinely fill the gap.
Secondly, Shaw said, while “content may be king, context is queen.” We must be open and bring our customers on the journey we have been on because they have been part of it. While companies struggled during the economic downturn, customers endured worse.
And finally, he urged: “Trust doesn’t have to be boring. We can be bold in terms of the stories we tell and the news outlets we work with to tell them.” The importance of building strategic contacts with the media through effective media relations becomes of critical importance.
Are our corporates prepared to peel the covers, bare all and share the challenges they have faced when the economy tanked? There are a lot of lessons the world can learn from the unique Zimbabwean story. It’s one worth sharing in a way that builds character and respect from global peers.
One CEO put it succinctly when he told a business gathering that any company that survived the Zimbabwean crisis could survive anything. Isn’t that experience worth sharing? War stories are worth their weight in gold as investors scout for strategic partners and new markets in the local economy gathers pace.
At the same conference, the issue of context was dealt with by General Electric (GE) chief communications officer, Deirdre Latour. It is instructive that GE is one of the many companies that are making exploratory forays into the Zimbabwean market, so we should take note.
Latour said that the communicator deals with such a broad coalition of people, the CEO and the chief financial officer and the chief operations officer, all of whom have a point of view of what should be said and what shouldn’t.
“But GE we have always come back to our people and their values and what they expect of us. We have always been ahead of other industrials on sustainability and environmental issues, for example, and so we were able to take a position that we did not think (the US) withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement was the right way forward.”
At the same time, he said, that point about context was important. At GE they are going through a difficult cycle right now. So, it’s not necessarily only about the bottom line. It’s about being seen to be doing good in the face of operational challenges.
Torod Neptune, worldwide Vice President and Chief Communications Officer at Lenovo, said that when it comes to major issues, they are asked to comment on or weigh in an almost infinite number of issues.
“We have to ask ourselves where we have been given permission to have a point of view, where it can be authentic to who we are. We also need to focus on those issues where we can have an impact. It’s not about engaging for engagement sake. We have to select those issues where we can make a difference,” he said.
When a company feels they are being pressured to “do something”, it should be weighed against its overall impact and it being acceptable in the community. Acting on issues because it’s fashionable or “seems nice to do”, will look “staged” and less authentic.
Finally, Latour said there was not a major decision at GE taken without input from the communications function.
“I think there’s a realisation that reputation is vital to the company’s ability to operate and that reputation can be damaged very easily. I would say that if you work for an organisation that doesn’t understand the value of reputation, go to work somewhere else.”
“One of the great opportunities for PR practitioners is to convince clients of the direct impact corporate reputation has on corporate success”, says Francis Ingham, ICCO chief executive and PRCA director general.
This answers the conundrum which Zimbabwean communicators find themselves in as they clamour for relevance and acceptance to the C-suite.
Reputation is everything, and who is better placed and equipped to superintend this valued asset than the communications person in an organisation?