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Public relations’ role in times of disaster

public relations with Lenox Lizwi Mhlanga

As the nation came to grips with the grim reality of the aftermath of Cyclone Idai, the corporate world fell over each other rushing to offer assistance.

However, it was the actions of concerned individuals and small groups that spurred them and the government into action.

Our team was thrown smack into the middle of the massive outpouring of generosity that was yet to be experienced in Zimbabwe. So did a number of corporates eager to be seen to be doing something.

As one colleague rightly put it, Zimbabweans have their hearts in the right place. Never mind the economic calamity we are mired in, we have shown the world our true character in the face of adversity affecting our fellow countrymen and countrywomen as a result of the disaster.

However, in the thick of all the emotions surrounding the disaster, the most glaring lesson is that of being pro-active. From the government, the under-financed Civil Protection Unit, right down to companies without proper corporate social investment (CSI) strategies, we all seemed to be caught unawares.

While we leave the issue of CSI strategy for another day (even though we have talked about it here), let us examine the whole approach to disaster relief involvement by corporates and how it fits in their business values.

Richard Etchinson of Crenshaw Communications describes public relations (PR) as an essential business function for imparting a company’s values and beliefs to the public.

Because earned media confers credibility, it can be decidedly more powerful than marketing and advertising. Earned media being the desired result from a business’ efforts, such as involvement in disaster relief, amplified by media coverage, social media posts or tweets, reviews and open dialogue about the brand within online communities.

Today’s buying public is very sceptical about buying into advertising trumpeting a company’s inherent beliefs. PR works to generate credibility through harnessing what we call “third-party endorsement”.

However, PR is not there to sell a dummy. It should be part of that organisation’s values to uplift communities including coming to their assistance in times of need. Communicating such values as social change, confronting social ills and dealing with poverty can be a powerful differentiator.

PR offers tried and tested tactics to get the word out on an organisation’s values. One such way is partnering with organisations or influencers with similar values. We have advised clients going into the disaster area to look at both the holistic and long-term needs of the affected communities in Chipinge and Chimanimani for maximum impact.

One of the major mobile network operators has a phased approach to their relief efforts. They are leaning on their operational capacity to provide support services. Having established a foundation that delivers social impact initiatives shows how value-driven strategies can work wonders.

PR consultants encourage thought leadership, particularly when it comes to speaking engagements. These are an effective way of positioning your company as one to go to on certain specific issues. Usually these are related to your company’s line of business,

If, for example, a company has developed a unique method for attracting millennials into its workforce, its spokesperson can earn speaking sessions at workplace culture and HR industry conferences, Etchinson says.

By consistently educating others, the company is putting its values of inclusion on display while boosting brand visibility in a strategic way. Winning unpaid speaking engagements at industry events carries added prestige over sponsored ones, so they can be worth the extra effort. This includes writing articles for publications that reach specific audiences.

There is an area that is relatively new in Zimbabwe, that of corporate activism. It’s seen as a bolder way to communicate a company’s values through reactive commentary on trending social or political issues. I know a lot of companies would prefer to keep well away from this, but the reality is that the customers you serve are immersed in political commentary.

PR professionals encourage their organisations to step up and take a stand. People like companies that support their causes. Taking the stage shows initiative and a degree of understanding. When an expert comes through and suggests something you should be doing, take it seriously because the competition will take it up while you are twiddling your fingers.

Corporates brave enough to wade in, outside of industry lobbying, would win a lot of support. Of course, it has its downside, when government decides to stamp down on what it sees as dissent. But if it’s done well and backed up by authentic action, the executive 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 does have a unique philosophy, then PR comes in handy to get the word out.

Says Etchinson, by consistently communicating a coherent set of values through various PR tactics, an organisation will gain reputational capital for something substantive that can separate itself from the herd. It’s a science that requires proper PR counsel and strategy, rather than be seen as some knee-jeck reaction because everyone else is doing

Lenox Mhlanga is lead consultant at Magna Carta Reputation Management, a corporate communications agency. He can be contacted at

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