COMBINING GOVERNANCE AND RESPONSIBILITY IN PUBLIC RELATIONS. (III/III)
In the two previous blogs, I argued in favour of a more outward-looking, external and broad understanding of governance and challenged the conventional understanding and workings of corporate social responsibility. The deconstructive work done, it is time now to put the pieces of the puzzle back together and explain Oxygen & Partner’s conceptual approach and positioning.
Combining governance and responsibility in PR: Oxygen & Partner’s unique selling point.
At the intersection of governance and responsibility
As has been argued before, the most common understanding of corporate governance is very much focused on internal structures, stakeholders and procedures. And this is for good reason. The distribution of rights and responsibilities that define the direction and control of an organisational structure is key to its smooth functioning, medium-term stability and long-term prosperity. This implies considerations most notably of internal communication, stakeholder relations, value positioning. Which media crisis doesn’t ultimately originate in some form of mismanagement at the governance level or in a violation for corporate values? This understanding is key to Oxygen & Partners unique positioning in PR.
Nevertheless, this perspective fails to take into account the company’s wider strategic setting: external structures. In Oxygen’s view, a company should not only be considered an economic actor in an economic system, but also an inevitably ‘para-political’ actor in a necessarily politicised society. For example, the act of consuming may be seen an intrinsically political act by way of its implications in the supply chain and concomitantly, the act of producing goods and services, too, entails a responsibility beyond the profit making and the maximisation of shareholder value.
The gap between global markets on the one hand and political institutions on the other makes regulatory state power reach its limits. As a result, companies themselves should bring up an enhanced understanding for the effects they have on society and the environment, but also an understanding for the opportunities that follow from those circumstances. Influence implies leverage. Therefore, the question you need to ask yourself is: how do I want to use my leverage?
The question you need to ask yourself as a company is: how do you want to use your leverage?
What kind of added value?
At a first level, the corporate ‘added value’ is unquestionably determined by CSR itself. In terms of internal and external governance, it is key to know your stakeholders’ expectations and interests. Regardless of sector and size, seeking a stable and sustainable relationship with your stakeholders and society in a larger sense as much as you do with your customer base will broaden the spectrum of your public relations, communication – and eventually also marketing. Well aware that there is no guaranteed return on investment, it should be clear that ROI is not the sole purpose of public relations either. It is, in fact, another form of value creation: the creation of shared value through confidence building, environmental contributions, stakeholder consultations, knowledge pooling, risk mitigations and so forth. The processes underlying the management of and reporting on CSR provide the context to make your stakeholders coalesce around a common document that may be formalised through standards, labels or other independent certifications. And increasingly, these standards and labels are for instance included as requirements in public calls for bids. They are becoming no less than a norm. Like it or not, CSR is shifting from a competitive advantage to a simple necessity.
At the same time, the concept of shared value, which may in the future substitute CSR altogether, can be pushed even further at the level of external governance. Beyond the immediate stakeholders, standards and labels, what stops a company from investing some of its resources, know-how, contacts and networks into its stakeholder base and society at large? Examples could be the protection of cultural heritage, the tackling different variants of illiteracy, supporting up-and-coming artists, the integration of migrants, etc. If ever you have doubted the effectiveness of a media planning or marketing strategy, the lack of substance and of tangible action might be the reason.
Now, do not get this wrong. This is not about random philanthropy. This goal must not be to simply distribute lump sums of money and thereby risking to take undue influence or to create dependencies at the very least. The idea rather is to look for and to enlist agents of change to drive social innovation – and to ultimately be part of the latter. This is our complementary understanding of CSR. Yet this complementary understanding of CSR can and should be submitted to certain conditions. We suggest the following:
First, subsidiarity: make sure no one else has engaged in the same action or projects yet. Second, necessity: make sure your action has a substantial object and drives genuine value creation. Third, adequacy: make sure there is a link between the action undertaken and your company, sector, stakeholders or values. Fourth, proportionality: make sure the scope of action is in relation to the size of your organisation.
Your corporate responsibility defines your public relations.
PR through the governance lens: building reputation, preventing sensitivity
Your corporate responsibility defines your public relations. If you want to position yourself responsibly in this broad sense, we first of all need to define a set of values that underlie everything you do. This holds especially true in a governance perspective, internally or externally. Strengthen your corporate positioning by giving yourself some ethical guidance and communicating it internally. For example, coherence would be one of almost universal importance, while your externalities or sector will demand more specific values and engagements. The management of your stakeholders goes hand in hand with your values. Of course, before anything else, make sure you do not favour one stakeholder group at the expense of another. Always give due thought to the interests and sensibilities of your different stakeholders, and then adapt your communication accordingly. By the same token, well-reflected public relations will help to manage systemic change you might be facing.
At the level of your reputation, and in order to efficiently manage stakeholders with potentially opposed interests, one key asset is required: leadership. By positioning a CEO or another suitable person, you create visibility, strengthen the internal cohesion and enhance recognisability. Strong leadership skills at both the personal and the company level will be an invaluable contributor to the building and management of communities of interested parties. ‘Responsible public relations’, if you will, will produce material for quality content by themselves: there is a message to send, and there will be stories to tell. Your stakeholders and their channels of communication will help put in place the right media, be they owned, earned or paid, and to target and place your message efficiently.
At the crisis level, the pursuit of a PR agenda based on values and stakeholder relations at the very least alleviates some of the inherent risks tied to any business activity or other, as this will be part of good management of stakeholder relations. Imminent or unacknowledged issues will be raised and discussed more easily. While regular and solid internal communication serves as the basis to the organisational structure in general and, in combination with occasional press relations, at the same time provide a key tool for crisis response – just as your media and stakeholder relations already do.
If you think it throughout from the governance end, you will realise all facets of your corporate responsibility and public relations are linked. In order to make the best sense of public relations, Oxygen & Partners therefore proposes its very own Governance – Reputation – Crisis approach.