PRCA SEA Future Leader Award Entry: Lidya Sophiani, Maverick Indonesia

The annual PRCA SEA Future Leader award for Insight saw PR and communications practitioners aged 25 and under enter essays of up to 1,000 words, responding to the following brief: In the world of digital disruption and a highly diverse Asia Pacific region, what role does Public Relations & Communications play in building responsible, ethical businesses?’ Below is one of the shortlisted essays.

Fueled by the internet, today’s consumers are constantly bombarded with tons of information trying to grab their attention. Bots, machine learning and artificial intelligence are invading their privacy to ostensibly serve them better.

Their world, experienced in large part from the internet, is also now fraught with danger. Frauds, spam, phishing, identity theft, hoaxes, fake news and deep fakes make their world one where trust is in short supply.

Businesses are particularly vulnerable because they are generally seen as impersonal money- making machines with no real social purpose. Their marketing and even corporate social responsibility programs are viewed with suspicion and often met with infuriation because of their senseless domination of the consumers’ bandwidth.

In this brave new world, PR and communications has one major role in ensuring the continued prosperity of any business: building its social capital.

With social capital, businesses — especially those in controversial industries — can secure social operating licenses among the networks of communities they depend on for their continued success. This will not only help inoculate them against attacks and crises but also gives them a platform from which to communicate with credibility, authenticity and transparency.

PR’s first task in building social capital then is to help businesses attune themselves to the nuances and norms of the societies they operate in. They need to make sure that the corporation’s values and identity align with what’s actually going on in the marketplace.

Part of this attunement hinges on education and getting a buy-in from the top management of a corporation.

Responsibility and ethics do not always come readily and naturally to businesses, whose objective is to make money. Businesses have often had to be made to realize that in a highly connected and well-informed society of the 21st century, no business would thrive by simply making positive claims.

The public’s skepticism means that they are more likely to double-check any claims made by companies and expose inconsistencies and gap between companies’ claims and actions. As such, not giving enough attention to ensure the implementation of responsible and ethical business practices would mean exposing their businesses to risks of losing profit and revenue, especially since it is more costly to fix a company’s image than actually maintaining it.

PR’s next task, assuming it is successful to get business to realize that embracing responsibility and ethics is good business, is to give it a solid platform from which to communicate.

Just as personal branding is a futile exercise if the subject has no character to start off with, businesses that haven’t defined their corporate character will find it difficult to differentiate themselves and convince anyone of its authenticity.

PR can help a company do some corporate soul searching, a process that, when done correctly, can energize the company with a unique corporate character and a sense of social purpose beyond just making money.

If this is achieved, then what remains is to ensure that the rest of the corporation is aligned before activating the corporation’s corporate character, communicating in a way that is authentic and “useful” for the communities that are important to its continued prosperity, rather than targets of a marketing campaign.

This is when a company with social capital will realize that it has cultivated a network of communities and influencers bound to its social purpose in a non-transactional manner, where they create shared value for each other.

Take the example of Danone AQUA’s #BijakBerplastik campaign in Indonesia. Danone AQUA launched the campaign in 2018 as an extension of its effort to become the leader of sustainable effort since its first recycling program that was initiated in 1993. Through the program, Danone AQUA collaborates with various parties, from healthy and sustainable lifestyle enthusiasts, activists, artists, as well as social enterprises.

Working together with communities and other parties who share the same interests and approaches such as adopting positive activism and avoiding blame-shifting in resolving plastic waste issue, Danone AQUA has driven a nationwide awareness on the importance of responsible consumption and waste management. When a company works alongside local communities to solve a common problem, they are building their social capital and exercise responsible and ethical business practice that benefits all the parties involved.

Danone AQUA here used its PR function to identify and connect it to various communities and parties involved in the collaboration for #BijakBerplastik campaign with a localized approach that works best for all. Buy-ins from communities and local organizations, however, would not be possible without company’s awareness and realization of the need to be responsible and ethical in continuing their business.

While the final results are yet to be seen, Danone AQUA, which has been reviled by environmentalists for its disposable water cups and bottles that have washed ashore on Indonesian beaches, has already won some critics over and even a few advocates in its journey to cut down plastic containers.

PR and communication’s role in building responsible and ethical business is now more crucial than before because of the climate of distrust that prevails. As professionals in PR and communications, we have traditionally bridged the gap between businesses on one hand and the media and other stakeholders on the other.

We go out into the world and bring back insights, new information and new skills to enable our business clients to remain relevant and connected to their consumers and other stakeholders that matter to them.

This is a role that PR has traditionally held but repurposed for today. It involves PR and communications professionals to work in the intersection of management, analysis, measurement and evaluation, as communications now need to take place across paid, earned, shared and owned platforms.