Copyright 2017

THE QUESTION

The King III report is an essential guideline for organisations because it underlines the importance of good corporate governance. “Responsible corporate citizenship implies an essential relationship between the company and the society in which it operates”.

The notion of corporate citizenship is not new, but the King III gives it more credence and concrete expression than ever before, while continually highlighting the unbroken chain that links ethical leadership, company strategy and sustainability.

Discussion on the public relations manager’s critical role as a communication strategist with reference to PRISA’s definition of public relations, with emphasis on the managing of strategic relationships with internal and external stakeholders within the King III framework.

Introduction:

S TshweteThe Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa (PRISA) defines public relations as the management, through communication, of perceptions and strategic relationships between an organisation and its internal and external stakeholders. The King III report (the Report) also places emphasis on boards of organisations delegating to management the duty of proactively building stakeholder relationships for those organisations to citizens in that community. The Report further states that organisations should adopt transparent, honest and effective communication guidelines with internal and external stakeholders.

Immediately these two pieces of documents places the communication strategist at the centre of  building, maintaining relations and communicating with stakeholders or publics. There is a delegated responsibility by corporate governance structures such as board of companies to management levels – of which public relations managers or communication strategists are part of – to formulate stakeholder relations strategies and formulate communication guidelines that are to be used in stakeholder relationships.

Before we deal with the critical role the commutations strategist plays inside organisations and at what level fro them to effectively assemble tools for effective stakeholder management. Secondly we will look at socially responsible ethical and sustainable guidelines, approaches and practices adopted by a communication strategist in their critical role to attain effective stakeholder relations and communication.

The strategic and critical role of communication strategist in building relations with organisational stakeholders:

It is important for organisations to view public relations as a critical component of its strategic management processes and of the subsequent strategic management of public relations (Grunig, 2001). For public relations or communication strategist to contribute effectively in an organisations Grunig (2001) indicates that the strategist should be involved in strategic management and public relations to be managed strategically.

The two assertions above are critical departure points for communication to succeed in dispensing a professional, credible and effective function of communication and stakeholder relations. In most cases public relations is seen as a set of communication tactics supplied by communication technicians. Grunig (2000) attach more substance to public relations by indicating the strategic management of relationships as opposed to operational management of tactics is the key to a communication strategist.

Communication strategists are distinguished from operational managers due to the ‘growing significance of environmental impacts on organisations and the need for top managers to react appropriately them. Managers who manage strategically do so by balancing the mission of the organisation with what the environment will allow or encourage it to do’ (Grunig, 2000). The central function of the communication strategist is to coordinate and formulate strategies by taping into both the internal and external environments with the aim of bringing back valuable information that will make organisations responsive to stakeholder needs and perceptions.

The environment within which an organisation functions is quite critical for the demise or success of that organisation. The systems approach to public relations indicates that organisations are effective when they survive in their environment and successfully bring in resources from the environment necessary to their survival l(Grunig, 2001).

The role of the communication strategists becomes important here in the sense that they scan the environment and be able to bring to the attention of the decision makers in that organisation the crucial information that is not easily accessible to the organisation. The communication strategists become the ears and ayes of the management function in an organisation. The role of the public relations is to provide information about the environment that is difficult for others to attain.

This can only be done by carefully scanning the environment and carefully selection and identification of those parts of the environment that are crucial for organisational survival and success. Put simply; the communication strategist identifies the strategic constituencies or strategic stakeholders within the environment whose opposition or support can threaten the organisations goals or help to attain them. In an organisation the strategic constituencies refer to both internal and external stakeholders.

Communication strategists can begin to identify strategic constituencies by identifying stakeholder categories and then by segmenting members of those categories into active and passive publics. Active publics are most strategic for an organisation (Grunig, 2001). The values reflected by the active publics must be incorporated into organisational goals.

An example would be publics like trade unions during the time of collective bargaining. It helps for the communication strategists to be able to inform the organisation’s bargaining strategy about the trends in the labour market and what the demands are out there so that management can respond appropriately and quickly reach agreement and reduce adversarial negotiations. In this way the communication strategist will helping to build working relationships between management and the trade union movement. This will save the organisation costly strikes.

“When public relations helps the organisation build relationships with strategic constituencies, it saves the organisation money by reducing costs of litigation, pressure campaigns boycotts or lost revenue that result from bad relationships with publics” (Grunig, 2001, p69).

When describing this phenomenon of the company or entity concentrating on the financial environmental and social spheres in corporate governance, in essence the King III report highlights the importance of an annual integrated report in entities that focuses o the aspects as described above. This annual reporting according to the King report focuses on how companies or entities have both positively and negatively affected the economic life of the community in which it operated. “The board should be able to report forward looking information that will enable stakeholders to make informed assessment of the economic value of the company as opposed to its book value” (Kana, p61, 2009).

The importance of strategic constituencies in determining opportunities and threats to organisations cannot be overemphasised. The role of the communication strategist is to make sure that there is adequate and timely tracking and management of issues and accordingly make sure that those issues are incorporated in strategies aimed at realising company goals.

In essence once you take cognisance of the environment over and above your bottom-line like finical profits. The one other thing in the continuum of sustainability that is necessary in stakeholder engagement and management in the South African context is for communication strategist and organisations to be sensitive and incorporate into their value system the issue of transformation

The public relations community in South Africa is currently undergoing transformation owing to the historical facts of injustices and inequalities underpinned by the then Apartheid regime in South Africa. The communication fraternity, inclusive of marketing, advertising and communication branches have committed to recognising the skewed and unequal sector when it comes to the historically disadvantaged communities and emerging businesses in our society. Every communication strategist within entities and consultancies as well as government have committed to the upliftment and continued skilling of everyone involved in the communication fraternity.

The following excerpt is taken from PRISA commitment to transformation in the Public Relations industry:

Transformation is the implementation of fundamental changes to the way we do things to become and remain a successful organisation. The availability of various talent, competencies and cultural backgrounds among members of the Institute will enhance performance and stature. Therefore, PRISA is committed to a process of transformation that will accelerate opportunities for diversity and growth and will make its membership representative of the South African population at all levels."

Flowing from this acknowledgement by the sector, and contained in the Value Statement of the Marketing, Advertising and Communication Charter (MAC) of the sector; every communication strategists should be aware and embrace. It contain societal values relating to, democratic ideal, corporate citizenship and responsibility:

The South African society is characterised by high rates of illiteracy, diverse cultures, disabilities, gender inequalities. Based on these circumstances and upon observing the constitution of the country, the communication strategist in their engagement with stakeholders and communities to always encourage tolerance of all human beings by another. The message of tolerance and unity in diversity should the mirror of the soul of the nation that communication strategist as ambassadors should live by. This is not only noble but an altruistic call to communication strategist to heed to a higher call of being ambassadors of unity in diversity, a trait that is only unique to South Africa and not elsewhere in the world.

Respect and human dignity is also at core of the Value Statement as enshrined in the MAC. The vulnerable groups in our stakeholder groups are also taken into consideration in various engagements that communication strategists and consultants have with them. This bears a particular reference to being sensitive not to engender stereotypes when creating messages in platforms like adverts and other communication material. We all know that women are usually depicted as sex symbols I order to sell various products and services. Others will portray and make amusements of women gender in order to create adverts.

The communication fraternity in South Africa “recognise that the consumer is at the core of our business. Recognising that the industry serves business in its endeavour to create wealth, we shall ensure that the requirement and sensitivities of the consumer are placed at the centre of all our creativity and planning. The industry recognises the difficulty of escaping the stereotyping of any group.

Where this has to be resorted to, the industry shall take particular care not to stereotype or use humour in a manner to target groups mentioned above” (Marketing, Advertising and Communications Charter). This Charter lays grounds for the communication strategist to be central in being proponents of transformation in the South African context. When communication strategists dispense with their duties as communication professionals they are guided by the Value statement to be considerate and exercise empathy with the poor, vulnerable groups and historically disadvantaged.

The King III also report also makes it an obligation that organisations are good corporate citizens. This notion good corporate citizenship in King III also bodes well with the emphasis by PRISA on adherence of professional standards and code of good ethics by communication strategist in organisations/establishments or consultants. Ethics become the core values that need to be espoused by communication strategists.

In essence this article is going to unpack the critical role of communication strategists within businesses or organisations and outside pertaining to communication consultants and their role in building and maintaining the noble link between the organisation and its stakeholders by fostering responsible, sustainable ethical and transformational imperatives.

Responsible and ethical communication:

Public Relations profession and those that practice it in the form of communication strategists have long emphasised the importance of the practice of social and ethical dimensions. “Public relations are essentially a process of restoring a sense of community. This process of developing ‘community’ applies to corporations and to various organisations and is value driven.

In their quest to build mutual relationships communication between stakeholders, communities and organisations and foster common values and interests, public relations become a ‘values driven management of relationships Tilson (2009). The communication strategist in the South African context is argued to be embedded in the following scenario.

King III states that leadership in organisations, including directors, boards and committees, management broadly including public relations managers, will have to review the corporate values that drive their behaviour to ensure that they and the organisation reflect societal norms. To this effect PRISA in its code of ethics and principles does acknowledge that in serving the interest of the public and its clients dedicates itself to better communication, mutual understanding among diverse individuals in the South African society and that it supports equal opportunities and life long professional development among its body of consultants and public relations practitioners among them whom are communication strategists discussed in this article.

Conclusion:

Communication and public relations strategist perform vital functions in organisations as they bring in information that is meant to make the organisation adapt to internal and external environments. Organisations and entities survive through good relations with their stakeholders and cents through honest and ethical information. Credibility of the leadership in the eyes of the stakeholders relies on the information as dispensed by the communication strategist. Communication strategist functions touch virtually every aspect of the organisation from Governance structures, employees, operating environment, return on investments and the international environment. Hence the saying that communication strategists are Chief Executive Officers in waiting.

References:

Phumo, A (2016). Business Acumen – PR as a Strategic Business Function [Presentation]

Kana, S (2009). King’s Counsel. Understanding and unlocking the benefits of sound corporate governance [Presentation]

Grunig, J (2000). Public Relations in Strategic Management and Strategic Management of Public Relations: theory and evidence from the IABC Excellence project

Tilson, D (2009). Public Relations and the common good: A higher calling for the profession

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