A study conducted by Reputation Institute in June 2012, listing the most reputable companies, indicated that 60% of people voted for companies based upon their image while 40% voted based upon the perception of their products. BMW, Sony and Walt Disney topped the Reputation Institute’s list of the world’s most reputable companies for demonstrating best CSR activities. Using CSR activities, these companies proved themselves as good corporate citizens placing great importance on their ethical values during business dealings. Their identity was sealed…companies highly regarded because of upholding society.
What we value and care about in our society doesn’t just happen. Are you a lover of Samsung Galaxy Note 10 phones? Do you stick to a vegetarian lifestyle? Are you a firm believer that live music venues need community support? If so, you didn’t develop such values, and identifications, in isolation. Rather, there are a series of messages and understandings circulating within your society on these items that resonated with your inclinations and interests, make meaning for you, and encouraged you to identify with such positions.
Public relations can have a significant role in this process. In fact, one of the more intriguing aspects of the public relations field is its ability to latch on to new ways of thinking about how institutions and individuals come to some mutual understandings of what is valuable, and how those shared meanings set the stage for attitudes and actions.
But public relations’ role in that meaning (or sense) – making process is not obvious, and is certainly not linear. This is because the public relations field has a tendency to first focus on a particular technique, work to convince both its own practitioners and would-be clients that it has mastery over that technique, and then come to grips with how such mastery can make a difference in society.
There is a long record of this. Public Relations has for a long time focused on various ways to win over journalists, emphasized its role as a consultant to corporate efficiency (e.g. the total quality management movement) and, currently, the preoccupation with the central role that it can play with social media monitoring, communication and relationship-building.
However, what if public relations practitioners shifted their thinking more towards first, how a client sees himself within a society and secondly, how his stakeholders see themselves in relationship to him.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR)
Before continuing, let’s stipulate a few things about CSR. First, there is some blurriness among scholars on how CSR arose in the first place (and its exact time of appearance is debatable, but is generally placed in the 1950s). However, there is a significant school of thought that CSR arose originally as a way for corporations to show that they were demonstrating a right to operate in a society by, at a minimum, doing business legally and ethically.
For a very long time now, CSR has been viewed as one centering on a right to operate
asserting a right to operate by displaying a responsibility to communities e.g., providing decent salaries and benefits to employees, offering financial gifts to foundations, schools, and cultural organizations, presenting products and services that meet customer’ needs and lately as one centering on building brand identity by a very product centered conception of CSR where the field is mostly transactional; focusing on building identifications between a product/service and the appropriate customer segments. In this case, CSR focuses more on approaches like cause promotion, philanthropy, and social marketing and how they can all work to link a customer’s sense of identity back to a company’s offerings.
However, both these well-established views tend to downplay how CSR also offers another very valuable approach – that of the organization conveying a persona that allows it to claim that is it immersed in the everyday life of its stakeholders.
For example, although it can certainly be said that one of the major Smartphone manufacturer Samsung is involved in traditionally-understood CSR e.g., when Samsung donates technology to support several science and technology education competitions, one can also see that Samsung construct a persona by using messages and imagery that cast their phones as being integral to everyday life. Samsung ads for the Galaxy Note say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if your phone could read your mind, or your body?” then points out that certain swipes or taps on the phone are like a sign language that allows the phone to, indeed, read your desires.
Granted, there is a strong product feature element in this example, but the larger persona that Samsung attempts to portray is that of corporate entities that are helpful, modern, smart, and intuitive about what their stakeholder audiences desire. Such personas are important to portray, and substantiate through action, especially in the high-tech market arena where products become obsolete in a very short period of time.
If Samsung’s key audiences see this persona as consonant to the kind of values they prize, these audiences would likely see a societal good in what Samsung is doing that transcends any specific features of a particular Smartphone.
In this way, the presentation of CSR messages/imagery is more than proving a “right to operate” or attempting to link only a product’s attributes to the identification needs of each consumer/stakeholder – it is an initiative designed to create a shared space of meaning-making between the individual and the corporate persona.
CSR itself is a societal narrative. Companies create their own CSR stories. They try to make sense by narrating the concept itself. CSR communication can therefore be regarded as a sense making process. This process often comes through the voice of the corporate persona, and this persona is an entity that needs the active involvement of the public relations person. The public relations professional should not just let the persona “happen,” but, realizing that its presence can be immensely powerful, the public relations practitioner should facilitate and guide how the corporation presents the persona.
The practitioner can facilitate and guide by either encouraging representations to be sensitive to the values and identities of stakeholders, pushing top decision makers within the company to ensure that all representations are truthful and accurate, ensuring that all representations are backed up by appropriate action and also supporting adjustments to the persona as is necessitated by changes in the marketplace, societal needs and the evolving concerns and values of stakeholder groups.
Public relations is an essential tool that should offer a hand to a company in a time of multiple societal pressures, the bending of realities through new technologies, and the challenge of diverse publics that are in flux (and sometimes, turmoil). Public relations practitioners can assist clients in conveying a truthful and constructive corporate persona.
To clarify, persona is not merely about image. It is about the correction of character and action that the corporation puts forth in the public arena, so that it can engage with multiple publics. In the process, through gathering feedback, the corporate persona should be continually informed by how stakeholders similarly represent themselves, and then adjust itself accordingly so that it contributes meaningfully to society.