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How corporates can use PR to showcase company values in a pandemic

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Lenox Lizwi Mhlanga

WITH the nation grappling with a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government is reaching out to the corporate world for help.

In the absence of a plausible vaccine rollout in the country, we have seen the President passing around the proverbial begging bowl for donations and pledges to fund it.

However, genuine as it may seem, the effort is mired in controversy already. News that the initial doses, will, besides health frontline workers, be given to Cabinet ministers, senior government officials, the security sector and Members of Parliament. This smacks of selfishness.

The corporates that made their pledges

have potentially put their reputations at risk. If the revelations by the head of monitoring and evaluation in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Robert Mudyiradima, to the Parliamentary Committee on Health are true.

Zimbabwe is to receive an initial three million doses of the Pfizer-AstraZeneca vaccine under the Covax scheme by the African Union.

This might go against the outpouring of generosity by the corporate sector to support an appeal in good faith with many eager to do something. As one colleague rightly put it, Zimbabweans have the hearts in the right place.

Never mind the economic calamity we are in, we have risen to the occasion, shown the world our character in the face of adversity affecting our fellow countrymen

because of the pandemic.

However, amidst all the emotion surrounding epidemic-related issues, corporates can still rise above all the noise and be proactive, coming through in a way that does not seem condescending.

The challenge is to manage the perceptions and the potential toxicity of the gesture and come out smelling like a rose. They have to sidestep the negative chatter that is already there.

While we leave discussing having a corporate social investment (CSI) strategy for another day, let us examine the entire approach to involvement in the pandemic by corporates and how it fits into their business values.

Public relations is essential in imparting the values and beliefs of a company to the public. And what better opportunity than to

lend a hand whenever the situation demands selfless intervention.

The buying public is very sceptical about buying into corporates that go about trumpeting their inherent beliefs through advertising or what we refer to nowadays as paid media. PR is there to generate credibility by harnessing third-party endorsement through earned media.

Earned media can be decidedly more powerful than advertising because it comes out as more credible. It brings out the desired result, such as a business’ involvement in pandemic mitigation, amplified by media coverage, social media posts or tweets, reviews and open dialogue about the brand within online communities.

However, PR is not there to sell a dummy. It is part of the values of a business to

uplift the community. They should help them out in times of need. Communicating values such as social change, confronting social ills, dealing with poverty or intervention during a pandemic are powerful differentiators. 

PR applies tried and tested tactics to get the word out about the values of a corporate. One such way is partnering with influencers with similar values. We have seen how this has worked wonderfully during Cyclone Idai. It is about looking at both the holistic and long-term needs of the affected communities for maximum impact.

We can adapt the same strategy to the Covid-19 pandemic by matching areas of need with strengths. Instead of attempting to do everything, it is more strategic to focus on those areas where you can make

the most impact. Then leave other aspects to others.

For instance, corporates in the healthcare sector have stepped in the gap communicating about the virus. It is in their purview, even if some feel that they are cashing in on the pandemic. This perception is best managed through public relations by identifying and promoting value-driven strategies.

Some enterprising corporates have put in place programmes to purchase and administer vaccines to employees and their families. The impact is the same. Companies that have their workers at heart win the support and trust of customers. The least they can do is assist their most valuable asset.

However, thought leadership can help companies in the healthcare sector make

profound impact. People trust the voices of doctors and health specialists more than those of everyone else. Hence, messages coming from that quarter hold more weight than those coming from government officials and politicians.

This, for PR practitioners, is a proven and effective way of positioning the company as the one the media will approach to comment on pandemic issues. Information related to the business is more valuable when shared.

By consistently educating others, one is also sharing the values of the company in the public domain. This boosts brand visibility. Executives winning unpaid speaking engagements carry added prestige over sponsored ones.

They have of late been more in the spotlight, featuring in Zoom virtual

conferences and events than in the past. These are the signs of changing times brought about by the pandemic.

They are more comfortable in such curated engagements than in more direct ones. PR plays the role of identifying the opportunity, positioning and directing the virtual performances. This includes ghostwriting articles for publications that reach specific audiences.

Without going off the rails in our discussion, there is an area relatively new in Zimbabwe. That of corporate activism. It is a bolder way to communicate your values through reactive commentary on trending social or political issues.

Companies would prefer to keep well away from the limelight attracting unwanted or undeserved attention. Yet the customers they serve are very much into the socio-

political commentary.

We encourage business leaders to take a stand. People like companies that support their cause. Taking the stage shows an understanding of the interests of your audiences.

Corporates brave enough to wade in the muddy waters of activism, outside of industry lobbying, win support. It has a downside should the authorities decide to clamp down on what it sees as dissent. But if it is done well and backed up by authentic action, executives can exert influence while the brand becomes synonymous with a distinct set of beliefs.

Unfortunately, not all companies focus on beliefs or have a point of view that goes beyond business. But if a business has a unique philosophy, then PR comes in handy to get the word out.

By consistently communicating a coherent set of values using various PR tactics, an organisation can gain reputational capital for something substantive that can separate itself from the rest. This science is one that only PR counsel and strategy can deliver effectively.

About the writer: Lenox Mhlanga is managing consultant at Sunshine Corporate Communications, a consultancy that specialises in strategic reputation management. He can be contacted at [email protected] or +263 772 400 656

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