by Carey Finn (@carey_finn) Lebo Madiba (@lebonator), managing partner public relations and influence at Ogilvy Johannesburg, talks about the real value of communications, PR and branding in times of both crisis and calm.
Q5: You believe that communications and branding can solve complex business challenges. Could you explain how?
Lebo Madiba: Communications and branding can solve complex business challenges by being the conscience of corporate brands. In the complex world that we live in today, the focus for communication, particularly corporate communication, should be about creating shareholders and, to some extent, stakeholder value. The idea of shareholder value is a tricky one. At the heart of it, it means that brands, and the corporates that they belong to, must serve their customers well and organise employees in ways that allow them to express their talents in the service of customers. As a result [of their doing this], the company and shareholders will prosper, and society will be better off.
Externally, the expectation of consumers and the public is that the private sector should strive for consistent leadership, positive social impact and stability. These are complex issues, particularly for businesses that do not have direct contact with the public. However, this is where the value of communications, PR and branding lies. It is in the ability to [distill] trade and organisational behaviour into simple, digestible messages that address audiences at their various levels of comprehension, across platforms, in a way that creates value.
In our current context with the outbreak of [the novel] coronavirus (covid-19) [pandemic], the value of communications in helping to solve complex issues lies in helping brands reconcile the distinct dynamics and requirements of different time horizons, ie winning in the now, while preparing for medium-to-long-term growth in changing times. This would involve helping brands prioritise actions to take in the heat of the outbreak (how should we respond in the unfolding situation?), while looking ahead to ensure that they are primed to take advantage of the recovery (how do we make up for lost ground, leveraging shifts and driving momentum?), and [ready for] the “new normal” beyond (how do we get on the front foot in a changed landscape?).
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Q5: What would you say are the key trends to be aware of in the PR and influence fields in 2020?
LM: [The first trend is] “brandstanding” and purpose. Not a new trend but one which will continue to grow is brandstanding, an “activist capitalism”, where brands are taking a stance on current social, environmental or political issues, often very aligned to the brand’s identity and or values; this links to purpose. Although covid-19 seems to have caught the world by surprise, we may see some brands rising to the challenge and taking a stand, especially now that we are beginning to sense what its impact will be on global economic markets.
Brandstanding is not a cheap PR exercise; brands that have done it, like Gillette and Nike, have demonstrated bravery. Doing it well is critical and requires the understanding of the markets and consumers within which the brand operates, as it could go really well or fail dismally but, when linked to purpose, it makes a big difference.
The world is volatile; there is high regard for values, and consumers are attaching their own values to brands. In planning, particularly for corporate PR and communications, a proper assessment of strategic leadership needs to consider the principles of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), as this [takes into account] the nature of changing dynamics and the speed of change, the lack of predictability and sense of awareness, the cause-and-effect chain and the haziness of reality of today’s world. This enables the ability to anticipate the [big] issues, the consequences of these issues and actions, the appreciation of interdependencies, and the preparedness to drive alternative realities and to interpret and address relevant opportunities.
[The second trend is] influence. You say influence; I say influencer! That side of PR is murky at the moment, as engagements that are supposed to drive influence are more transactional and inauthentic, and there’s some fatigue among consumers.
In the true sense of PR, influence is not about influencers and celebrities; it is about compelling content and messaging, about being culturally relevant, creating channels that naturally produce content that is shareable and earns brands the right to matter in the lives of the consumer. As PR, when we think of influence, it should be more about capitalising on opportunities [and] creating meaningful conversations as part of brand engagement in a way that makes brands distinctive as thought leaders and therefore influential. For influence to be effective, PR needs to maximise the creativity of influence as an integrated channel in the marketing mix, with best-in-class access to people and technology to make brands matter in the social age.
[The third trend is] reputation and crisis. Reputation management is the bedrock of PR and, by nature, this often comes with the responsibility of managing or containing crises. However, we live in the anti-establishment era with crisis becoming a norm, [in part] due to the rise of disinformation. The reality is that no brand is safe; where, in the past, crisis management was often more in the space of financials and governance, with the proliferation of social and the #hashtag generation, cases that are becoming more exposed are varied, from corruption to integrity, race, gender and other social issues.
2020 has presented us with a different type of crisis, a global one, that has created a challenging time for broader society. Brands are facing scenarios they could not have planned for, bringing to life the crisis management realisation that “you cannot control what happens to you, but you can control what you do about it.”
As communicators, what we can control is how we communicate, both internally and externally, in a time of crisis. It is crucial to make sure that we are dealing with accurate information. We have to demonstrate our understanding of the ultimate goal of the communication being delivered — bearing in mind that, when lives are in danger, it is not a time to try to market or sell, but rather a time to reinforce the values that define leading organisations. What is critical is to be able to properly place the ongoing crisis and issue in a greater context, ie what does it mean for globalisation, economic growth and more — and how that plays out as the world works to get through the crisis together.
[The fourth trend is] hyper-personalisation fuelled by data and intelligent technologies.Intelligent technologies (AI, VR, AR), machine learning and data are adding a new dimension to the interchange between PR, brands and their audiences. Consumers have become fluid and want to be valued as individuals. They are looking to brands that they interact with to be truthful and authentic, and to form connections. These connections are fuelling hyper-personalisation.
While some may think of this as more a marketing function, [what] with the changing media landscape, fluid consumers and the increasing demand from clients to build measurability into their PR spend, the use of data and technology in PR is growing at a rapid rate. It requires that PR take the time to learn a lot more about its audiences, considering behaviours, social conversations, channels and platforms to create brand messaging and content that is targeted, packaged and distributed to specific audiences, through preferred channels based on consumption, and the ability to create engagement. In essence, this means that PR cannot function without data as, once data is collected and analysed, the process to segment customers and create targeted journeys becomes an easier one.
Q5: What is your personal recipe for success in a PR career?
LM: Curiosity, foresight, relationships and being an information junkie. That is what I am. I question, interrogate, read and consume a lot of information daily. The key, of course, is to know how to dissect this information/data and know what to do with it, know when to take action and which relationships to leverage to do “magic”. The key to success for your clients if you are a consultant, or your C-Suite if you are in corporate, is knowing that you have the capability to understand consumers, foresee trends, and markets, and are able to translate this into value for the business. When they are not able to make any critical business decisions without consulting you, you know that you have made it.
Q5: You mentor young people in your role. What does this encompass?
LM: PR skills are learnt and refined on the job and there are many elements to it — from client services to media relations, strategy and consultation, amongst others. Often, young people focus on the one area that they really know, which limits growth. I must be honest and say that I only mentor where I see that there is potential. In mentoring, my focus is on honing skills that are currently strong, goal planning for areas of development and coaching, and just loads of preaching about taking one’s career seriously.
Q5: What needs to happen for us to see higher numbers of black female executives in the communications industry?
LM: I have a couple of answers for this question. The first is that it is 2020 — we should not be having this conversation, but our reality is obviously very different. The hardcore facts are that we will see higher numbers of black female executives in the communications, and any other industry for that matter, when transformation transcends from being about meeting the minimum requirements of the BEE scorecard to recognising talent and allowing women the space to lead and have a voice — their own voice — not one that fits the mould of expectations that only allows them to tick boxes.
The second is that black representation does not start at a senior level; in any organisation, it should start with the development of all staff, irrespective of race or gender — many organisations don’t know how to do this but often it has a lot to do with “seeing and hearing” people, listening to their aspirations, mentoring and creating access where most would never have, and allowing people to carve their own paths to senior levels. It requires that the sector understand the true meaning of diversity. Diversity asks us to recognise that we all do not come from the same background, and that each of our backgrounds, if recognised, can create an environment that is fertile for growth.
Within that context, though, I would like to call on black women in the workplace to rise and take it upon themselves to break the “black ceiling”. It is not easy; there are many barriers and often it feels like a losing battle but it is so worth a try. Future generations will thank us for it.
Note: This interview was conducted prior to the coronavirus/covid-19 pandemic being declared as such. Her answers have been updated in light of the crisis.
Carey Finn (@carey_finn) is a writer and editor with over decade and a half of industry experience, having covered everything from ethical sushi in Japan to the technicalities of roofing, agriculture, medical stuff and more. She’s also taught English and journalism, and dabbled in various other communications ventures along the way, including risk reporting. As a contributing writer to MarkLives.com, her regular column “Q5” hones in on strategic insights, analysis and data through punchy interviews with inspiring professionals in diversive fields.