Public relations has acquired a very important and meaningful role in the success and failure of a corporate entity.
--BY JAGDISH PRASAD AGRAWAL
Business has never been conducted in isolation. It is very much part and parcel of society and supplying its demands for products and services in the form of a commercial venture. But these demands are not restricted only to the physical qualities of a product and services but over the years have expanded into social demand such as clean air, pollution and child-labour free production, fair terms of employment, racial non-discrimination transparency, ethical practices, gender equality etc which businesses not only cannot avoid but have to respond to by taking positive steps in terms of integrating them into their operational procedures.
Customers who constitute the society expect businesses to communicate these efforts to them. They are very sensitive to these responses while making purchasing choices. Corporate social responsibility is one such response which has acquired, in recent years, a statutory mandate even in Nepal. An activity that was hitherto informal and voluntary has become a formal imperative for Nepali companies also, as they have to set aside a certain percentage of their profits to spend on designated social issues. But it is not enough to be involved in responding to these social demands- businesses have to communicate that they are serious through public engagements.
Public relations has acquired a very important and meaningful role in the success and failure of a corporate entity as it is the source of genuine information on which to judge a company. The ever changing external factors such as business regulation, changes in consumer behaviour, competitive environment are crucially impacting the success of any business which (updating itself through public engagements for example) responds in terms of changes in their future strategy. Internal innovation, technical up-gradation, managerial efficiencies and above all consciousness about social needs and companies’ sensibilities are important issues which need to be told to society through public relations. Any major policy decision of a company has its public relations implication.
The objectives of the public relations department of a company can only be narrowly defined as the scope of work which keeps on evolving. Consumerism, environmentalism and many other popular social interest movements that are echoed daily in the media are accelerating a management’s search for public defenders, communicators and spokesmen i.e..PR men and women. Paul Barton, when asked “what is PR” answered “Corporate public relations is a function of management which helps a company establish and maintain a good name for itself and its products or services through professional communication techniques”. He further added that a company must deserve a good name in order to maintain it.
The first and foremost quality a PR man has to have is the knack of knowing at all times what goes into the thought process of the public about the company, its product or services. Since any decision of the company has an external reflection, PR men have to help the management in predicting public responses whether it is marketing selling and / or the transactions in the capital market. But the top management of Nepali companies has not been faced with the necessity of a competent PR director, maybe because the business houses in Nepal are mainly family owned private companies not much answerable to the public.
Whenever occasion presents itself in terms of a labour-dispute or any other social issue, the company’s perspectives are mainly put forth by the administrative managers. He is the face of the company in the matter of public relations now. Hence the decision making process of most Nepali companies are devoid of any input on what impact the said decision will have on the public and vice-versa. The government, its ministries and public corporations have started appointing spokes persons who occasionally inform the public on the decision taken by their principal. But it is very informal and casual. The most important part of any public relations policy, which is missing presently, is that it be made an integral part of the top decision making process whether in a government corporation and /or private limited companies. But it is heartening to note that with the public becoming more aware of their right to information, consumer protection and quality aspiration, public relations is finding an integral role in the policy formation of any business.
Public relations is primarily an American concept. With more and more participation of the public in the shareholdings of businesses, the management of enterprises, especially large corporations, are under statutory pressure to inform the public about their activities and performances. The shareholders want these companies to be always under their radars. Under these pressures American management has perfected the art of public engagement along with sales and marketing to an extent where they, in any field, are still the best and dominating companies in the world. They have made it into a forceful tool to shape and mould public opinions.
Corporations invest so much time and money in their public relations activities that recently it has started facing criticisms also. Tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceutical companies spend huge amounts to defend their products which society deems undesirable. Recently climate change also has become an issue which through public relations activities is underplayed by a group with vested interest. In underdeveloped countries there is perennial debate about pollution v/s progress and through public relations debates, the advocates of progress sometimes have a heyday. Despite these distractions and abuses, public relations as a tool has gained momentum not only among American companies but worldwide.
Another dimension of the public relations agenda concerns corporate neutrality and integrity of the enterprises so as to preserve the sovereignty of independent managerial decisions. Hence not only in USA, Europe but also in developing countries the top executives have chosen to remain silent on controversial social and political issues. The general trend has been that of reticence and restraint. But the shareholders’ pressure is demanding that the companies also be a part of the social and political milieu so as to use their clout in shaping and moulding government policy decision. The largest charity contributions are being made by these companies and their retired executives are actively engaged in social causes thereby becoming the ambassador of goodwill of their erstwhile company. Though controversial social and political issues are still a very sticky issue for the business enterprises to be vocal about, the public relations agenda of any big corporation anywhere in the world has cautiously been choosing non-controversial issues to be concerned about. Silence and neutrality no longer remain a better part of executive valour any more. After all, the business enterprises are for stakeholders who demand companies to be more socially responsible.
The last decade has seen a clamouring for businesses to change some of their practices and tune them to the new issues that are emerging on the social horizon in which they operate. C. Simmon once said, “Public opinion or public sentiment is able to sustain or to pull down any law of the commonwealth”. So strong can the impact of public views be. These transformations have to be substantive and not merely cosmetic. The image of a company is more than a brand. It has to be built on a sound value system. Image is like a true friend tested when in need. But sadly business enterprises in Nepal have not learnt much of a lesson on this score. Businesses have to deserve the image they want to build.
Nepali businesses have many times failed as their perception about changes in consumer behaviour and external factors have not been sensitive enough. We have ignored the signs of impending peril and failed to respond in time. This failure can directly be attributed to the absence of public relations and the lackadaisical approach the top management has given to this managerial function. Any failure is a scar on the image of a company. It requires prevention and astute handling if it is sliding down at all. Recent years have seen many instances of alleged infringement of labeling codes of food items which adversely affected the image of the private sector.
In these instances the intervention on behalf of the company by a competent public relations office perhaps would have managed the damage more effectively but that was conspicuous by its absence. It is important to believe that Nepali businesses are as important to Nepal’s economic survival as U.S. businesses are for sustaining that economy. In order to do that, our businesses have to be firmly convinced that they have to create a very good impression of themselves on Nepali society as a whole. They can only do this if the company’s core values take into consideration and integrate into their operational management the social, moral, cultural and human ethos that Nepali society respects. It is a difficult task but images are built on sticking to values in times of peril. Once built it can last forever if we strive so. What applies to an individual applies to businesses also in the matter of image building.
Nepali top management has to be concerned that in order to be able to address multi dimensional social and public issues it has to build a competent professional public relations institution in its management system. This has to take precedence and be at a top level along with other policy and decision making processes. The CEO of a company is supposed to be solely responsible for the effective public communications about the company. It will be a fallacy to assume that public relations are required only if the company is listed in the stock market. The person heading this division has to have free access to all decision making process of the enterprise. Since any public relations programme is specific to that company, it will take time for any new incumbent to know the history of the company, its existing relations to the public on the day and to formulate a comprehensive programme for the future. Honest communication lies at the core of any public relations programme. Abraham Lincoln had quipped in 1858, “you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time”. Public relations as opined by him is not public brain washing, neither is it mass persuasion in favour of the company, product or services. The main objective of any public relations function is to make company opinion public through transparency and simple communication and seek public support for social causes the company believes in.
In common perception the public relations activity of the company is taken negatively. They think that disguise, manipulation, false statement, and deception are the ploys the company employs to self-promote and /or to defend its anti-social activities. Lobbying for its own self interest to the detriment of others, building nexuses for business protection and creating non-entry barriers do form an integral part of public relations agendas worldwide. These attempts at creating illusion and falsifying images has deleterious impact on its own working culture as negative thoughts and practices pile up suspicions internally as well as externally. These trends have to be checked not by moralising but by settling up watch-dogs who constantly criticise any such malpractices and point out the chasm between what is said and the reality.
Response to social demands is a new space which Nepali businesses also have to fulfill. But the skill required to fill this space is very specialised. It is not a technical job but the person has to have the sensibilities of a journalist who can anticipate what public reaction will be to any policy decision that the business enterprise may be contemplating for the future. His job is more anticipatory than reactionary. He will be required to do, on a daily basis, with a degree of excellence, the usual chores of filing reports to shareholders, writing and placement of articles and speeches, publicity including press releases, organising and implementing special events such as exhibitions, conferences, receptions, tours and so on. The expertise for these activities will be available readily and can be further sharpened by on the job training.
But what is lacking is the expertise to contribute at the top strung of policy making. Large companies and their bigger decisions do affect the public and CEOs would definitely like to consult his PR man on the likely implications of the decision in the public domain but the expertise and experience required for such consultation is missing in the Nepali context as of now. However, if given the opportunity and exposure to participation in the decision making process the right and competent PR manpower can be developed soon. So far, issues arising out of the hiring and firing decisions, waste disposal, pollution packaging, pricing etc have stirred public wrath but the PR man has played no role in addressing them. It is time that corporate top management involve PR executives also while taking decisions on these issues. It will be more sustaining.
The pressure of circumstances is already propelling Nepali companies towards responding to technical changes but to social changes they are slow, something which they cannot ignore anymore. The barriers to social changes will be overcome only if middle level managers are persuaded by the top level management to listen to their PR man. Public relations is different from lobbying and advocacy. Whereas lobbying and advocacy is seeking certain concessions, public relations is responding to social demands. It is a much larger and multi dimensional response. Responding internally and externally and at the same time to be seen to be doing so through effective communication requires a PR man not only to be a very sensitive human being but also an expert in communication, social and behavioural science.
The best public relations would be if the company can institutionalise a systematic culture of keeping in touch with the media and other stakeholders professionally on a regular basis. The culture has to manifest itself in a style of dealing from their top men to the telephone operator guided by a PR policy of polite response and a clear cut demarcation of what to reveal and what not to.
The writer is the chairman of Nimbus Group.