Written By: Marjorie Munyonga

The COVID-19 pandemic had changed the way business is conducted in almost all sectors. The customers and stakeholders we thought we knew have suddenly changed, and preferences are dramatically shifting. Social media has become more prominent and customers are demanding e-commerce, health, and hygiene as well as transparency when it comes to their safety and health. Customers and stakeholders are now reconfiguring their needs and focusing on key fundamentals which include affordability, COVID-19, empathy, leadership, flexibility, and virtual platforms. Looking at it all this is anchored on communication and stakeholder management, which are key functions of public relations.

Public Relations is essential. It is no longer just about communication. It is about influencing what the organization does.  PR therefore needs to move from being a support function to a more strategic role.

Sustainability matters

Contemporary concepts such as corporate reputation, corporate trust, organizational legitimacy, corporate governance, socially responsible behaviour, and sustainable development are increasingly becoming topics of societal discourse and key strategic priorities for organizations. Organizations therefore need to consider, adapt to and act upon these important societal issues. This where PR comes in.

A fundamental shift has been taking place in the relationship of business to individuals and society. There is a deliberate move to ensure social order.  Government regulation and market forces are no longer sufficient to ensure this order. Customers and stakeholder have become very powerful and are calling the shots when it comes to corporate and institutional behaviour. This has provided a window of opportunity for PR professionals.

Organizational legitimacy and transparency are becoming important especially in this era where corporate mismanagement of issues is rife. Corporate and institutional behaviour are under greater scrutiny currently than ever before and PR plays the role of defining the organization because organizations have an obligation to society. Organizations make corporate decisions and PR navigates and validates those decisions and makes sure that the decisions involve people and the society.
Business organizations have traditionally focused more on financial goals but there has been a paradigm shift as we are now in an era characterized by a focus on the “Triple Bottom Line”.

Businesses should now concern themselves not only with profit but also social, political, environmental, and ethical issues which have gained strategic importance. All strategic stakeholders, as well societal values and norms must be considered when setting corporate direction.
Businesses now need that corporate social acceptance; ‘license to operate’ and this is obtained from society.   As such it is the role of PR to lead the organization in this regard. The PR function therefore needs to be part of the decision-making process.

Many business leaders lack knowledge to provide direction concerning corporate reputation, enterprise risk, stakeholder identification and management and Issues management. All this has provided a window of opportunity for strategic role playing for PR practitioners.
Unfortunately, many PR professionals do not seem to be rising to the challenge of giving strategic direction in managing reputation or communication relationships with strategic stakeholders. Many organizations have regrettably tucked away their PR departments in the backyard. For most organizations, the contribution of PR to the achievement of corporate goals is still a mystery. The PR function is often seen as peripheral to policy formulation. This may be because of the way it is practiced which reduces it to nothing more than communications, that is, the exchange and transmission of information.

Strategic role of PR

Organizations are PR and communication. PR helps the organization find its true north as it supports the vision of the organization. Generally, organizations are not trusted. CEO’s are not trusted. It is therefore the role of PR to build trust with all internal and external stakeholders, managing reputation, counselling top management on satisfying the societal demand for greater transparency and disclosure. It is PR’s role to promote ‘truth telling’. PR professionals need to understand that there are the corporate ‘voice of reason’ and must reside at the topmost level.

It is time for PR to lead because communication is becoming more horizontal as opposed to top-down. Organizations now need to address the needs of society through public engagement and being radically transparent. Reputation will work 89% as opposed to financial performance.

Businesses must be concerned more about relationships and who they associate with. Emphasis should now be more on how an organization’s reputation is affected by these associations. The key question should be are we networked to others who give value to us? Relationships are the new currency for organizations which therefore makes PR a strategic function.

Marjorie Munyonga is the Corporate Communications & Marketing Manager of Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA). She is a members of the Marketers Association of Zimbabwe (Senior Executive) and a qualified ZimChartered Marketer.