Dissident Spin Doctor: Shaping society positively
by Emma King (@EmmainSA) It’s easy to sit back, whether as a business or an individual, and expect “them” to sort out the problems in society. It’s equally easy to complain when “they” don’t get it right and when issues don’t get rectified. But I’ve always been of the opinion that someone doesn’t have a right to whinge and moan if they haven’t bothered to try and do anything about it; don’t come telling me that you haven’t voted and then in the same breath complain about politics.
Make the choice
So, if this stands true, surely it makes sense for business leaders — whose impact, reach and might are far more than that of an individual — to play a role in shaping society positively. For however much one person may pledge not to use single-use plastics, for example, until the Woolies and the PnPs and the MacDs of the world make a decision at executive level to stop handing out plastic bags or straws at every opportunity, the fight is far from being won. [PnP announced this week that it’s starting to trial compostable supermarket bags — ed-at-large.] That takes a very special kind of business to do this, one that has a visionary leadership team, and one that’s prepared to sometimes make a choice that’s not necessarily the easiest or cheapest to carry through on.
As someone who heads up a business that is minuscule in comparison to those behemoths, there seems little chance that my lil’ ol’ team and I alone may turn the tide on gender inequality in the workplace, or create a transformed industry, or rid the sea of plastic pollution. But there are some things that we’ve done that I believe make a small impact in and around the communities which we work with and operate within. I think that any business could do the same, without having to rely on the budgets or impact of scale that the big boys and girls have access to:
1. Focus your energy on stuff that makes a real and meaningful difference
It’s easy for businesses to allocate a CSI budget that does a couple of projects which look good in the end of year report, or which produce good photo opps for the social media streams. But if they don’t make a meaningful, lasting difference, what’s the point?
For me, it means doing a couple of things really well, rather than lots of things badly, and knowing that, within that one small community, something or someone has really benefited.
It also means doing more than just ticking the box and this extends to more than just client work. If we’re to see true transformation in our industry and our country, it has to be about more than just finding the easiest way to rack up the BEE points. Economic transformation is not just about enabling a small group of people who are sitting at executive and ownership level; it’s about fundamental changes that need to be made at grassroots levels — addressing issues of children having access to basic education (let alone tertiary); radically looking at ways to improve literacy levels; and building more mentorship and internship programmes that allow young people to enter the industry.
These are all core skills that we inherently hold within our businesses — how can we share them better?
2. Consider what may be of value over and above cold, hard cash
“Making a difference” doesn’t always mean having to write out a fat cheque. We have an incredible amount of skills that we sell out to clients every day. Imagine if we saw the value of those skills and allowed others to benefit from it —if we shared our knowledge on branding and marketing, or building a business, or even designing a logo, with young up-and- coming entrepreneurs. (My experience with them is often that they have boundless energy and commitment, and are incredibly innovative, but often are desperate for mentorship in fine-tuning and guiding their ways of working.)
When I started my business, I also wanted to look at ways in which we could use the skills we have to benefit initiatives and people in South Africa that need it, not just the clients that have big budgets. It’s resulted in us taking on pro-bono clients and projects that we can offer real value to and has meant that we’ve been lucky enough to meet and work with some of the most-inspiring clients of our carers, getting involved in everything from tracking rhino poachers in the middle of the bush in Kruger to running social media and fundraising campaigns for an initiative that pairs at-risk kids with shelter dogs to learn life skills to hosting an annual Christmas party for an organisation in Khayelitsha.
We’ve recently extended this so that each staff member allocate three-to-five days a year of their time of company resources — whether that be time painting a wall, building a website, or doing a campaign — for a “passion project” or deserving initiative of their choice.
And this effects more than just morale; it effects the bottom line as well. I believe that a business, where people feel that they have a valuable role to play, results in happy employees and less staff turnover.
3. Create a place where you want to come in to work at every day
What it all comes down to, however, is more than just about “doing good”. I personally like to come in to work in a business where we feel as if we’re making a positive contribution to the society which we operate in.
Mahatma Ghandi famously said, “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” Closer to home, our new president quoted Bra Hugh, challenging South Africans to join his call to #SendMe to help those in our society who need our help.
I’m pretty sure he’d be pleased if many of us in this industry put up our hands to volunteer.
Updated at 10.35am on 6 July 2018.
Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.
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