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 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 and@drjayecomms

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Public relations’ role in corporate social responsibility

Public relations is the same thing as corporate social responsibility. OR PR exists only to help communicate outcomes of CSR. OR PR offers a middle ground where it operates as a strategic partner to CSR.

PR and CSR working hand in hand

These are three versions of the role public relations plays in the context of corporate social responsibility. You’ll get different versions of what the ‘correct’ version is depending on who you speak to, where their interests lie and the depth of their understanding on one or both disciplines.

Sadly, that depth of understanding often leaves a lot to be desired.

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My view? Well, it is that CSR grew out of PR. Without public relations, CSR would be struggling for a theoretical and strategic starting foundation (see why I hold this view later in this post). CSR has partially developed as a stand-alone business practice because of the connotations associated with the term ‘public relations’.

These connotations are often pejorative and they certainly don’t involve organisational evolution and changing – even if only partially – as a response to stakeholder preferences.

To add further confusion to the history wars and terminology debate, stakeholder relations is another manifestation of CSR. But that is a furphy as stakeholder relations IS PR. It’s just that, once again, the brand has evolved, I suspect, to give its processes and salespeople more credibility than PR.

 What is CSR?

On a superficial (but potentially still useful) level, CSR entails programs which manifest themselves through an organisation investing into areas which its stakeholders find of benefit. For example, school curriculum resources, scholarships and sponsorship for community organisations.

On a more profound level, CSR is about an organisation operating in a manner more in line with stakeholder needs and wants. Examples of how this could manifest itself includes:

  • ensuring an acceptable number of local residents are employed in certain roles
  • sourcing materials based on criteria such as them being sustainable and/or having a minimal environmental footprint and/or being produced in an acceptably ethical manner
  • emitting only what is deemed to be an acceptable amount of greenhouse gases
  • price rises only occurring according to certain benchmarks and guidelines.

It could be that communicating with stakeholders in a certain manner, for some, is also critically important and escalates this dimension up the needs and wants scales. This could manifest itself in an organisation being proactive and not obfuscating in regard to key issues, as well as consulting with stakeholders on important issues before making decisions.

Perhaps most importantly of all on the CSR-communication axis, it means an organisation actually taking on board what the stakeholders have expressed and, at least partially,  adapting business decisions based on them.

Applying any of these approaches will build trust between an organisation and its stakeholders, a core element of reputation enhancement.

What is PR?

The notion of an organisation changing the way it operates based on stakeholder interests and concerns is essentially what public relations, at its most fundamental, is about. This is called two-way symmetrical communication, and it’s one of the main reasons for my passion for the discipline.

Public relations, a combination of science and art, uses market research to determine and inform the most effective approach to stakeholder communication.

So essential aspects of PR include:

  • recognising the symbiotic nature of organisation-stakeholder communication
  • understanding benefits which accrue from organisational change
  • effective provision of information
  • interactive and learning-centred communication. This entails active listening to stakeholders, recognising their issues and increasing the knowledge of stakeholders due to this involvement
  • counselling organisations on how to better adapt their operations (with, hopefully, organisations undertaking some of this change).

Public relations and corporate social responsibility as strategic partners

One of the fundamental tenets of PR is that it includes mechanisms which enable organisations to determine and understand the issues, interests and opportunities of its stakeholders.

As a result of this, the strategic and sophisticated PR practitioner is an invaluable repository of information who can inform and advise the organisation on approaches to best enhance its reputation.

No matter the position one holds on what defines PR or CSR and which discipline should have the responsibility for ensuring as much organisational alignment with stakeholder interests as possible, there is no doubt the two areas can profitably work together. Hopefully, this post provides some insights into how this can occur.

The lazy way for this to manifest itself is by using PR as a simple mechanism to broadcast information to stakeholders on organisational CSR efforts, including the securing of media coverage. For PR to be used for this alone, however, is of course something I view as pretty tragic. As PR professionals, let’s do our best to ensure this happens only in rare situations.

How does CSR and PR work in organisations you work with or for? What experience do you have in the two disciplines working together and what observations and insights can you share? What is your view on CSR being a palatable term for PR and it undertaking activity which should really be the remit of PR?

Two-way symmetrical communication helping achieve business objectives

There are a large number of ways in which the practice of two-way symmetrical communication can be applied to help achieve tangible, money-making business objectives. It may mean that the speed at which money is made is not as quick as initially hoped, it may mean not quite as much money is made and it will definitely involve more ‘process’ being involved to achieve the objective of making money.

PR helps sensitive mining issues

But money will be made and objectives will be achieved; it just means a sufficient amount of respect needs to be shown to those who live in the region and who have a stake in it (e.g. people who utilise or who have an attachment with the local environment) and not take them for granted.

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Specific manifestations of two-way symmetrical in this context include, from a process perspective, undertaking the market and industry research noted in the previous stakeholder relations post in this series.

Secondly, the company can employ ways of accessing the resource being mined that obviates, as such as possible, problematic issues manifesting themselves.

Thirdly, the mining can be delayed for a (probably significant) period of time, waiting for the community to become more up to speed on the mining.

Fourthly, not mining in the most visible and/or sensitive and/or problematic areas (inside vineyards etc) that are scenic or tourism-critical. Alternative means of accessing the resource could be utilised or it could mean that some resources are simply not accessed at all.

Fifthly, utilise means of extracting the resource that have, aesthetically speaking, as low an impact as possible (i.e. it’s hard to see them for key vantage points). Mining companies are already employing this approach. It has meant additional costs in designing innovative infrastructure and equipment, but undergoing this process (forced innovation, if you like) is an opportunity for innovations in efficiency and cost-reduction to also occur.

Sixth, put in place a monitoring system for the local environment, supported by the development of an overseeing scientific sub-committee, to detect if there any impacts occurring from the mining. Salient factors in regard to this follow:

  • The sub-committee should include independent scientists approved by the organisation and, possibly, the community
  • Include local community members in the sub-committee (their close-hand examination of the process will give it not so much added rigour, but a deeper connection to the community. This will help minimise scepticism towards the sub-committee’s credibility)
  • Agree on benchmarks for any potential negative environmental impacts (e.g. gas leaks, compromising aquifers, chemical leakage, coal residues on grape vines, wildlife deaths etc)  that might occur and, importantly, what levels of impact should halt mining until the issue is resolved to sub-committee’s satisfaction
  • The sub-committee is funded by the organisation but it must be independent in the analysis it undertakes and decisions it hands down
  • The organisation needs to outline in what way it will incorporate the sub-committee’s decision making into its own decisions. In all likelihood, the organisation should articulate it takes the sub-committee’s decisions and advice very seriously, but it will still make its own final decisions on the matter in partnership with the appropriate government and regulatory authorities
  • Once creating the sub-committee, it will be difficult for the organisation not to take its advice. This underlines the importance of, very clearly and very proactively, articulating and communicating the sub-committee’s terms of reference early in the process.

This post and the one preceding it on issues management and best practice PR do not contain an exhaustive list of the issues management and two-way symmetrical communication management approaches that can be applied to a situation such as the one addressed. But it should underline that taking these approaches is not difficult to do and it should also go some way towards making it clear that to achieve sustainable business outcomes, it is common sense to take approaches such as those suggested.

Do you agree or disagree?

What elements of what has been proposed do you support or not support? Why? Are the rationales for two-way symmetrical communication approaches valid, or do you think they are not practical in a business environment? Will these approaches help make companies’ approach to stakeholder management outcomes and/or profit-generating capabilities? Or not? What experiences of your own can you share in stakeholder management in the context of situations such as the one outlined that we could learn from?

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