‘Tools’ or ‘mechanisms’ used to communicate with

Saving the world – one cigarette at a time

It isn’t communication and public relations that will save the world; it’s what PR professionals have to work with – corporates’ social responsibility and business innovation.

Smoking kills

CVS Pharmacy is doing it by ditching cigarettes from their retail shelves. Chick-Fil-A and Starbucks are doing it through their stances on gay rights and sexual orientation. There are opportunities aplenty in the areas of resources (including energy) and waste.

Positive public relations from commercial and ethical foundations

On February 5, 2014, CVS Pharmacy (CVS Caremark), one of America’s largest pharma-retail companies, announced it will end the sale of tobacco products in its 7,600 stores come October, 2014.

This is a guest post by Adedamola Jayeola, who writes from Loyalist College in Ontario, Canada. Adedamola has written previously for this PR blog and brings a unique perspective and experiences to his observations, thanks in part to his Nigerian background, but also due to his global perspective.

Launching the move with the slogan “CVS quits for good,” company CEO, Larry J. Merlo said that “tobacco products have no place in a setting where healthcare is delivered and removing them from our pharmacies is the right thing to do.” This makes CVS the first pharmaceutical retailer of its size to chart such a course. As expected, the announcement received commendation from stakeholders such as the American Nurses Association, the American Medical Association and even the White House, to name a few.

This is not a step without consequences.

The company is projected to lose about two billion dollars in revenue (one percent of its estimated $120billion annual revenue) and significant ‘traffic’ from tobacco consumers, meaning further negative ‘knock on’ impact on the sale of other merchandise in the pharmacies.

Analyses will uncover different objectives for this decision, from the public health perspective proffered by the company, to business strategy (CVS Caremark plans to evolve from the retail model into a health care provider) or just “Great PR”, as described by Forbes.com and other industry watchers.

However, what is indisputable is that CVS is taking a stand, a definite one. Tobacco smoking is still dangerous to health and CVS wants to have nothing to do with it.

Taking a stand: fallacy or fact?

Do brands take stands now? Recently, some brands have brazenly expressed, or alluded to ,opinion on controversial issues, often dividing their audience into different schools of thought in the process.

The debate on gay rights and sexual orientation involving Chick-Fil-A, Starbucks and some brands in sports and entertainment come to mind. For-profit ventures now declare a corporate stand on sensitive topics, either as a matter of choice or in a move of strategy. Indifference as a business stance seems to be losing its appeal.

Not to be dismissive of socio-cultural or ethno-religious issues, I find CVS ending tobacco sale an action with greater impact. With consideration of health dynamics, morbidity as a sequel to tobacco usage will supersede individual orientations such as sexual preferences or proclivities. It is a matter of life first, before how you swing. No pun intended.

Applying conscience and commerciality to African enterprises

I had a chat with a colleague on the lesson(s) indigenous businesses (small, medium and large-scale) in Africa’s emerging economies can take from CVS. She gave me that “you cannot be serious” look which I (admittedly) saw coming.

The peculiarities of the business environments in some regions on the continent will make any brand think again before deciding to be a hero. According to the World Bank’s Doing Business Report of 2014, Nigeria and Kenya score 147 and 129 respectively (out of 189) in a ranking of “ease of doing business.” Suffice to say ,the regional average for Sub-Saharan Africa in this data is 142.

Behind any ‘sunny’ statistic positioning the continent as emergent are everyday challenges of infrastructure, finance and lately, security. For local businesses, these are real excuses to be indifferent and leave saving the world to super, cape-donning [and western-based? – Ed.] brands.

These handicaps notwithstanding, I believe Africa’s businesses can take a stand on some issues of global importance. Possible areas include:

  1. Energy: Nigeria (my home country) is still challenged in power production for domestic and industrial consumption. This forces many businesses to generate their own electricity, often through fossil-fuel powered engines. The downside of this is extreme air and noise pollution, especially in the commercial cities. Until power is fixed, brands that take a stand to Go Green on energy (solar, wind, etc.) either partially or totally, will reduce their own carbon footprint. The benefits for the society if there is industry-wide replication will be tremendous.
  2. Waste: Waste and energy share an interesting relationship. Public-Private-Partnerships (PPPs) on waste management are yielding success in cities such as Lagos and Accra. The progress can be made symmetrical if brands are active with sustainability initiatives (recycling, composting, etc.) or develop in-house eco-preservation projects that are strategically communicated.
  3. Resources: Specifically, raw materials that go into manufacturing or production. Issues and conflict from crude-oil exploration in Nigeria’s Niger Delta are legendary, but little attention is paid to other natural resources. For example, wood is an important raw material for industries such as art, tourism and furniture on the West African coast. Players in these industries can take a stand on preserving the earth through tree planting projects, or choose to adopt synthetic materials as substitutes for wood, if possible.

These suggestions are not unfamiliar and would fit somewhere in a corporate social responsibility (CSR) plan. Are they practical? Yes (though I admit this practicality is relative). For instance, in (1) and (3) three above, production costs may be involved, no matter how marginal.

So, here is the crux. Taking a stand will be a step beyond executing a CSR script. As earlier described, it will often come at an appreciable cost, even in the short-term. With pressure on Walgreen and other players in pharma-retail to tow the CVS line, credence is being lent to a radical, yet credible point of view:

the brand of the future cannot afford to only create value for profit, it must demonstrate values in itself. Strong values that may yet give our dying earth some hope.

Adedamola Jayeola writes from Loyalist College in Ontario, Canada. He’s online at www.adejay.com and@drjayecomms

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Politics and influence: the furnace of internal communication

Identifying and leveraging influencers, just like with external communication, is a critical element of internal communication. Communicating within organisations is, in many ways, a compelling microcosm of external communication. The politics of people, however, can make it a much richer and more intense experience for professional communicators.

Reasons for this include:

  • target audiences for the communication are right there, in your face – forget six degrees of separation!
  • different leaders wanting communication to be undertaken in different ways – often involving communication timing and degrees of transparency – and with different content
  • the personal politics of positioning and careers.

People want to be perceived in a certain way. Put this in a professional context, where people work, and this want is deepened and made more complex. The natural desire to be liked and respected is made more important because careers and income generation enter the equation very strongly.

It is a cave man/survival/law of the jungle situation, which goes equally for both genders. Supporting families becomes a factor. Protecting your turf and ensuring there is a pathway to progress (or escape?) is an atavistic urge.

You can, however, combine the reflective, intellectualised capability of humans, especially well developed (one would hope) in the contemporary business environment – especially with leadership. But you still have conflict associated with each person wanting to, basically, ‘protect their turf’.

So in this complex, politicised context, it would be unwise to characterise internal communication as a lesser species than it’s better funded genetically related cousin with the bigger ego, external communication.

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Identifying and leveraging influencers for internal communication

Influencers are not necessarily bosses. And they are definitely not necessarily those which occupy the very top tiers of organisational leadership. And one reason for this is that those who are officially ‘leaders’ do not necessarily exhibit ‘leadership’.

I’ve discussed how face-to-face is, in nearly every context, going to be the most effective form of communication. The same goes for those being closest to you in the workplace having the greatest potential to influence your behaviour. So it makes sense leaders closer to individual employees are going to have a greater impact, in most cases, than those leaders further removed than them.

This is one reason why leader-led communication is so important. And why it is so important that top-tier leadership engages with lower level leaders to ensure messaging, storytelling and, most importantly, behaviour is consistent across the organisation. Behaviour relates to the:

  • competency and alacrity with which work is undertaken
  • way in which employees treat each other and external organisational stakeholders
  • the values and ethics of employees and how they apply them in the workplace.

There are plenty of employees who show leadership who are not leaders. They will have no one reporting to them, but through their behaviour (including the respectful manner in which they deal with all employees) and the proactivity with which they communicate they are a hub of influence and communication. Smart organisations will identify who these people are and find ways of prioritising the feeding of information to them and utilising their influence.

Informal communication settings will provide more meaning and context for most employees: the beers, cigarettes and lunchroom context.

It may sound flippant, but wherever informal conversations are occurring between employees there will be work-centric conversations occurring where organisational content is being discussed. Getting to the informal influencers to assist in message traction will assist organisational communication effectiveness and functionality.

Additionally, there is a place within organisational communication to use different people to lead specific conversations. For instance, the chief financial officer will probably hold optimum credibility with employees when discussing the financial state of the organisation than line supervisors; the chief information technology officer will probably be listened to more closely than others when IT issues are being communicated.

It may be somewhat painful for some organisational leaders, but I strongly subscribe to the MBWA (management by walking around) approach to communication. Leaders will become more relevant to employees and their messaging will resonate more clearly when it is obvious they are personally reaching out to employees by talking WITH them, not at them.

Dialogue, empathy, contextualising organisational stories and content to individuals is clearly an effective approach to communication.

An extension of this is leadership having regular large group face-to-face forums with employees, giving them updates on key organisational matters; asking for feedback; providing opportunities for new ideas to be tabled.

Have you used an approach which involved influencing the informal leaders in an organisation to assist with proactive or issues management-related communication? How has the politics of organisational existence influenced the way in which you have undertaken internal communication and what have you learned from situations where politics are rife?

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Does business exploit employees’ social media real estate?

Using personal social media profiles to promote content for businesses potentially means compromising, and diminishing, who you are as an individual human being – it can be dehumanising. This issue is likely to become an increasingly vexed one for not just professional marketers and public relations professionals, but for any employee of, and/or consultant to, an organisation.

Business pressuring employees for social media sharing

Is there anything wrong with a business asking its employees to use their personal social media real estate to promote a product, service or business? The easy answer is no, because it’s just asking. There is no need to actually undertake the social media sharing/commenting requested.

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But that ignores three factors:

  • Merely by asking, some people will feel pressured to undertake the social media sharing
  • Many people on social media tend to be fairly non-disciplined when it comes to sharing/liking/RTing etc, so the business is on to a ‘winner’ by asking its employees to undertake this activity at all
  • What if the organisation monitors what employees/consultants actually share and then use non-cooperation against the individual? Big brother stuff.

You think the Big Brother approach doesn’t happen? Seriously? If so, I think you’re being hopelessly romantic and/or naive. Even if it doesn’t happen very often, it remains an approach which a business can take if it wishes.

The moral dimension of Craig Pearce (me) asking for social media shares

I ask in my blog posts and on social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn for people to share my posts, hoping it increases readership and the perceived credibility of my blog and, by extension, myself. I do this for a number of reasons:

  • It’s a bit of sport/fun to see subscriber numbers to my blog increase and for social media shares to go up
  • It might lead to increased and better quality work opportunities
  • It helps raise awareness of what I like to think are interesting and valuable thoughts on PR, corporate communication and marketing
  • It will hopefully lead to greater engagement on the blog and get people adding value to thought leadership I have written.

So if I can ask for social media sharing to take place, why shouldn’t businesses?

It’s a good question. And I’m not sure if I have a good answer!

The morality of business asking for social media sharing

I tend to think of facebook as a purely personal platform. LinkedIn I think of as being purely professional. And Twitter is a bit of a mixed bag, but mainly professional.

The upshot of this being I think it fine for business to ask for shares on an employee’s LinkedIn platform, and also on Twitter, but not on facebook. This is a purely personal perspective and millions will probably disagree.

And a good reason for disagreeing is that we have, really, become promiscuous sharers on social media. For many people the line between keeping information personal on social media is about as non-existent as the line which exists regarding shouting out personal information on mobile phones in public places (but don’t get me started on that one…).

There are three approaches I think businesses should apply as a default when seeking employee shares on their social media real estate:

  • Make it a hard and fast written policy that no monitoring of employees sharing of business news/imperatives on social media platforms will be held against them, unless the sharing contains comment which compromises the organisation in some way or is unlawful
  • It should also be policy that a lack of social media sharing about the business will never be held against the employee
  • Be non-pushy in the asking of shares on employees’ social media platforms. I would be putting it something like this: ‘Please consider sharing news of XYZ on one of your social media platforms such as LinkedIn….etc’

And I would certainly be prioritising the asking of shares on business-oriented social media platforms, not personal/social-oriented ones, the reason for which seems self-evident.

Not least of which there is less risk of employees thinking the business is infringing in their personal space – which will impact on employee perceptions towards the business, how much they admire the business and, crucially, their productivity and how long they work at the business. Increased employee turnover is, in particular, a massive cost which a business does not want to increase.

Advantages for employees in business-driven social media sharing

In the context of a platform such as LinkedIn, I think there are a number of common sense advantages to employees agreeing to share news of their business on LinkedIn:

  • As LinkedIn is a very visible window into the history, attitude and ‘soul’ of you as a professional, sharing – and commenting positively – on an employer’s news indicates you are a supporter of the company you work for – this is, patently, going to be perceived as being a good thing
  • If the news is relevant to the employee’s actual professional line of work, it could help them learn something about the topic being discussed through other people’s comments and/or information sharing, thereby potentially becoming more adept at their profession.
  • By promoting an employer on LinkedIn, it will probably help in some way to the business increasing its brand equity and enhancing its reputation. This will contribute in some way to the longevity and potentially even income of the business, making it a more secure long term employer of the individual.

Personal choice and personal credibility on social media

At the end of the day, of course people have the right to choose what they do and don’t share on social media. What they share and how they comment on the shares tells us a lot about the sort of person they are.

Personally, I am mystified why people would want to share something related to fast food products, FMCG products or anything with an obvious and in-your-face commercial focus.

On the other hand, I totally get social media shares on activity related to the arts, culture, politics, social issues and sport. Yes, there are plenty of cultural and sport ‘products’ out there, so my delineation between these and FMCG, for instance, is a personal and, perhaps, spurious one!

What do you think about this discussion? Do you share news of your employer on social media? if so, which platforms do you think are appropriate to do this on? Where do you draw the line in platforms to use for business purposes and the kind of news you will share on your employer or other businesses on social media? Have you ever been offended or felt compromised by being asked by your employer to share news of it on social media?

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