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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Social media: freedom or fiefdom for public relations?

Social media is an antidote to the nanny state, for young people in particular, offering them a freedom that they are increasingly being deprived of. With its virtually (sic) non-existent rules, ever-evolving ‘etiquettes’, yet-to-be-determined legal precedents and myriad of platforms – which offer opportunities for expression and showboating never known before – social media frontiers are being extended each passing moment.

Social media playground for PR

This is a view recently touched upon on by John Roskam of the Institute of Public Affairs in The Australian. No doubt it’s not the first time this observation has been made, but it’s one I found quite striking and worth exploring.

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The nanny state which Roskam bemoans has been extensively discussed. It is a state of being which is seeing freedoms curtailed for the sake of occupational health & safety. It is having its most extreme manifestation in Australia’s economy, where safety is a major factor in the rising cost of doing business in Australia (e.g. mining, oil & gas), frightening off investment dollars (and jobs) elsewhere.

For Roskam, the freedoms lost to Australian youth are frustrating, too. Examples include children not being allowed to play physical games at school, no matter how seemingly benign, or playgrounds only being permitted to be constructed using certain equipment and after extensive and expensive risk analysis has been undertaken.

An extension of this is the political correctness applied to situations such as children’s sport, whereby coaches of young children are chastised if they answer questions about a match’s score, rather than answering in an obfuscating way along the lines of, “The score doesn’t matter, it’s about participating and having fun.” (Of course this is true, but if the kid asks the question, as a kids’ sporting coach myself I think there is a safe middle ground here which is not condescending to the children.)

Social media as freedom

It’s hard not to agree with Roskam’s assertion that social media offers freedom, though perhaps there is worth in the observation, too, that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”.

And this is not just a throwaway line, not in the context of social media, anyway. Because freedom means being able to act like an idiot, a bully and a saboteur, just as it means being able to behave in a manner useful to society and/or simply to have some harmless fun.

We could talk at length about the cloak of invisibility social media offers those who choose to go down this path. How many times have we heard of cyberbullies and/or those who make comments whilst not choosing to make their identity known, potentially causing all sorts of unhappiness, yet running from taking responsibility for what they have contributed to?

Is this the sort of freedom we want?

Yes, the same sort of thing can and does happen offline, too.  But offline doesn’t have the same viral, audience multiplication characteristics:

  • More people can learn of an opinion, accusation, rumour etc online than they can offline
  • Social proof – the credibility of numbers. An implication of this is that if a piece of information is shared often enough online, then by its sheer proliferation it is assumed it must be true, when clearly this isn’t necessarily the case.

It is true, also, that many online environments can have a moderating effect on information, calming the waters of outrageous pieces of supposed information (more like a piece of data, really).

And it is similarly true, and here we have a wonderful example of social media freedom, that the information posted online can be curated by those choosing to share it. This can mean adding further (perhaps qualifying) insights and opinion, scrutinising what is being shared and, ultimately, accelerating a dialogue on the topic in a much more expansive (if not necessarily in a more intelligent) manner than could have occurred offline.

So yes, social media does offer a unique sort of freedom to all of us. How society ends up using the freedom, well, only time will tell. But it will be interesting to see how it evolves!

Freedom at last: implications for communication/relationship management

For communicators, social media offers wonderful opportunities to share information, enhance reputations and build relationships. And it can help mitigate the impact of crises, through issue identification, conversation monitoring, information sharing and having 3rd party advocates assist in the application of social proof.

Of course, when it comes to crises, social media has made worse many an organisational crisis, too, due to the number of people who can very quickly pick up on a piece of information (or disinformation, as the case may be) and share it.

Another major challenge for communicators are the proliferation of social media platforms which can be utilised. And it’s not one size fits all. One piece of information articulated in the same way cannot simply be replicated across all platforms.

All this interaction requires not just strategic insights, technical skills and creativity, but increased budget.

The many opportunities for expression social media and digital offers creates further new challenges. Video, photos, illustrations, software which makes and distorts all of this, with text being either bastardised into new forms or iterations of language or being superseded completely by digital’s current darling, video .

It’s tempting to accuse still images of dumbing down communication, with infographics being one manifestation. But that would be to deny a powerfully large thing we call the visual arts. Still, you have to wonder that whilst, yes, a picture is worth a thousand words, sometimes those ‘words’ may not make much sense.

Or, and here’s the killer, words may not be connected in a manner which the viewer is able to ‘decipher’ to give the words meaning.

Furthermore, the meaning audiences gain may not be the meaning intended. It is my belief words can be much more specific than images, both to capture the meaning and to customise the meaning in a manner more attuned to the individual’s ability and desire to decipher it.

Really, even at the best of times it’s hard to know to know whether social is a bane or a boost to professional communication. It’s certainly complicated it! And, as well all know, it ain’t going nowhere, so best we figure out excellent solutions and be ever open to a rapid evolution to the approaches we choose to take.

Where have you seen, or experienced, the impact which social media’s freedom characteristic has had on public relations or marketing? Where do you feel the freedom dimension is helpful or a hindrance to professional communication? Have you observed where the nanny state mindset is being applied to social media (apart from China!)?

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Government public relations is often best practice

Despite some negative ninny naysayers, practicing PR for government organisations is an excellent and rewarding option as it often takes a strategic, holistic, best practice approach, it is founded on a thorough process and great rigour, it is generally well-funded, it provides excellent career opportunities and it inherently exists to benefit all society.

Government PR works in teams to help all society

Yes, there are those smarty pants who think that working for government is a bludge (an Australian term for slacking off or taking it easy). I’d bet that most of these smarty pants haven’t worked in a comms role for a government organisation because, in my experience, this perspective is bollocks.

As someone who is occasionally [:)] accused of generalising, the accusation noted above is really beyond the pale. It is up to the individual (person and organisation) whether they don’t work hard to achieve best-possible outcomes. It certainly isn’t an inherent characteristic of government PR. If anything, it’s the opposite.

I’ve had experience with the following government organisations and they all worked (and work) extremely hard in securing excellent results, as well as applying what can loosely be described as ‘best practice’:

  • Australian Nuclear Science & Technology Organisation
  • Centennial Park & Moore Park Trust
  • EnergyAustralia
  • Endeavour Energy
  • Delta Electricity.

Best practice government PR

You only have to look at roll call of winners of Australia’s leading PR awards, the Golden target Awards, to see how positively the industry views the quality of government comms. Yes, this is due to more factors than the pure talent that works in government PR (see below) but that is clearly a significant factor in the equation.

There is a serious responsibility on all government employees to work hard, as all of us taxpayers are paying their salaries. There is also ministerial pressure on those who work in government departments to get it right. This is not a pressure to be underestimated.

In my experience, you do NOT want to get on the wrong side of a minister or his or her staff. I’ve seen it happen and the impact can be more severe than in a comparable private sector situation.

An outcome of this is that government PR tends to take a big picture, holistic perspective as well as seek to apply approaches that are founded on best practice.

The rigour with which government PR approaches its craft is often based on its endemic processes and quality controls. These processes and controls – like good PR theory – are not a burden. Conversely, they provide a solid, well informed platform from which creativity can be used to achieve effectiveness.

The rigour actually makes it easier to achieve excellent results. Admittedly, though, it can be a trial for those who have to document the processes in the first place!!

Funding for government public relations

Government departments and agencies are well resourced with comms employees. Communication – public relations and marketing – is highly respected as a discipline within government and its potential for reputation and bottom line impact well understood.

Because of this, the diversity of PR specialisations is well represented within government. Media relations, community relations, corporate social responsbility, marketing communication, sponsorship, publication production, event management and social media and website are some of the specialisations.

These and other responsibilities are sometimes blurred in single roles and even if they aren’t, opportunities exist to gain experience in complementary specialisations. I’d suggest getting these opportunities to broaden your skill set is easier to achieve in government than other sectors.

Getting these opportunities and experience can:

  • help stimulate interest and engagement in PR’s wider remit
  • provide opportunities for advancement in different specialisations
  • help build a skill set which facilitates career progression.

Like any industry, working in one area of government will often give you an advantage when applying for roles in other government entities as you have experienced the unique challenges and rewards of the sector.

Public relations benefitting society

One of my own passions is making a positive difference to society through the work I do. I’d like to leave some sort of legacy (no matter how small) that I can explain to my son in the hope that it inspires him to do the same. It’s one of the reasons we are both involved in Surf Lifesaving Australia – it offers an invaluable community service.

There really is no better place to work than in government if this is an aspiration you, too, have.

Government and its arms are there to make society a better place:

  • This includes ensuring our natural environment survives for future generations
  • This includes ensuring that, socially, all people have an opportunity to achieve their potential.
  • This includes ensuring that all people are given a voice in decisions that affect them personally and affect their concerns in the world.

Public relations is not limited to communication. Public relations is about involving relevant parties in decision making processes and issues which impact upon them – then evolving decisions and processes to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. Of course, excellent results appear in many different ways and we need to take a broad perspective to our goal of achieving these outcomes.

Have you worked in or with government public relations? what can you tell us about your experiences? Good or bad? Come on, don’t be soft or shy – give it up!!

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