Consumers are judging the content of our character as much as the content and quality of our products”, says Coca-Cola chairman and chief executive Muhtar Kent. Coca-Cola has recognised that PR professionals need the authority to navigate a business through the current climate, where opinions are formed and shared every second on social media.
Other businesses are also realising this. PR heavyweights are being brought in from government, high-profile media backgrounds and the marketing department to help companies engage with consumers instead of simply pushing out messages.
Joel Morris, communications and public affairs director at Coca-Cola, sits on the leadership team in the UK business, alongside a legal and finance representative, a customer director and a marketing director.
Communications has been given a place on the team because it is considered an essential function to drive the business forward.
It’s vital that business leaders recognise the value and scope of PR, says Morris: “It’s hugely important for FMCG companies because consumers have a choice that they can exercise every time they make a purchase. You need to ensure that consumers understand your brand and your corporate values, and PR can help you to do that.”
An Integrated Marketing Communications team brings together people from multiple disciplines, including PR, digital and experiential, to ensure that all departments are consulted throughout the campaign development process.
Social media has changed the role of the PR function in developing campaigns at Coke, adds Morris, because it’s no longer about putting out a message; it’s about developing a campaign that consumers can engage with.
“There was a time when PR was just about amplifying a marketing campaign, but that’s no longer the case. Sometimes now, PR will lead a campaign. Social media has changed our role,” he says.
PR also plays a big part in communicating the corporate social responsibility that Coke puts at the centre of its business. As an Olympic sponsor, it is looking at opportunities to amplify this agenda. (See case study, page 34).
Moving PR beyond the confines of the press office is vital if it is to lead companies through such fundamental issues as corporate social responsibility and reputation, says Gavin Houlgate, EMA director of communications at KPMG, who has responsibility for corporate issues and strategy.
He adds: “Some PR people are very much seen as a press function, answering the phone on a very reactive basis. I think that’s quite a limited view of PR.
“PR is one of the greatest forms of communication. It’s a lot better value for money, in my view, than marketing,” he says.
PR is backed at the highest levels at KPMG, says Houlgate, who was a broadcast journalist for many years. He works directly with KPMG chairman John Griffith-Jones to develop a communications strategy that explains to stakeholders what the business stands for and maintains its reputation as a trusted accountancy firm.
PR is not seen by his bosses as merely a mouthpiece for its activities but as a vital tool to boost the firm’s bottom line, adds Houlgate: “We’re here to win market share – when developing our communications, we have to keep that in mind. There needs to be a return for the business in some shape or form.”
Being more focused on the business side of running a university has driven King’s College London to create a strategic communications role. Public engagement director Christopher Coe took up the role last year, following 12 years as director of communications.
The introduction of tuition fees has resulted in the university becoming more business-like as students are increasingly considered as customers, who decide where to invest in their education.
Coe explains: “In recent times, there has been much more interest in showing that universities are good value for money to the taxpayer. This is promoted in part by the fees debate and the understanding that we were moving into a world that is customer focused.”
The Queen has just opened a King’s College public engagement space in the east wing of Somerset House, focusing on cultural engagement, while the university is considering opening a science gallery at its Guy’s campus.
“These are important initiatives that will give a real opportunity for King’s to engage with the public in the arts and sciences,” says Coe.
Developing relationships and engaging with the public and key stakeholders is vital to maintain the university’s profile and help reach its £500m fundraising goal.
Engagement is also a core part of Kerry O’Callaghan’s role at GSK. She heads the new global brand communications team at the pharmaceuticals company.
While the company takes on agency support, such as Virgo Health, for launches including the weight-loss drug Alli, engaging its own staff is the responsibility of an in-house team, led by former product marketer O’Callaghan.
This year’s Olympic sponsorship is the first time there has been a focus on the GSK corporate brand, enabling the business to communicate the brand to key stakeholders.
But a large part of the Olympic partnership is engaging staff at all levels, says O’Callaghan: “Having a highly motivated workforce is crucial for any business, so the focus of our attention has been on internal engagement.”
All the tickets allocated to the tier-three partner will go to employees awarded for going ‘above and beyond’ in the workplace and community.
O’Callaghan says: “We have some amazing stories that we’re using to share back into the business. We’re using the assets we have to inspire employees.”
Storytelling is central to the campaigning strategy at WWF. Head of campaigns Colin Butfield, who says he sits halfway between the science and the PR, says being able to take “the science part” and develop campaigns that speak to the public, governments and business enables the charity to create high levels of engagement.
A recent campaign asked people to take action to prevent a third oil platform being built off the coast of Russia, where the western gray whale goes to feed. But the message was complex and to use logical arguments might not have achieved the impact required to make a real difference, says Butfield. Instead, using PR in a strategic way provoked a stronger reaction.
He says: “Sometimes you need to get people to sit up and pay attention. The route we wanted to take was to get employees at the banks that fund the project to really take notice.
“We hoped staff would ask their bosses what they were doing about saving the last of the western gray whales, which would give us further traction to present the scientific evidence.”
A model whale floating down the Thames and a spoof paper called The Daily Whale, which was distributed outside banks, were among the tactics used. Finding effective ways to tell the story meant the campaign was “greater than the sum of its parts”, adds Butfield.
Charities and campaigning groups face enormous competition when it comes to persuading the public, businesses and the government to listen to their agenda and take the desired action.
Butfield argues: “If we can’t reach and inspire an awful lot of people, we’re just never going to change anything. We are always going to be able to reach a hardcore of environmental activists.”
To make a real difference, believes Butfield, the charity needs to use PR in a strategic way, adding: “You need communications experience and you need to understand those different channels that make people want to look at something.”
This use of communications as an agent of change at the heart of organisations may well be predictive of which businesses are likely to succeed and build strong relationships with their customers in 2012.
Case study: Coca-Cola
Coca-Cola’s Olympic partnership is a perfect opportunity to highlight the company’s sustainability agenda.
The games’ organising committee, Locog, wants to make 2012 the greenest games ever, while Coke wants to demonstrate that CSR is at the heart of its business.
The PR department is helping to amplify this, and in some cases is leading campaigns that demonstrate Coke’s commitment.
Along with the rest of the business, it consults Coke’s CSR bible, which has been developed with leadership backing to focus on the community, health and the environment. This agenda is given priority when developing campaigns.
One initiative that highlighted both the Olympic partnership and Coke’s commitment to CSR was the PR-led Future Flames campaign. Launched last June, it is encouraging youth participation in the games by searching for teenagers with inspiring stories to carry the Olympic torch.
Another PR-led campaign focuses on Coca-Cola’s partnership with StreetGames, a charity that takes sport to some of the poorest areas in the UK.
As well as allocating torch-bearer places to inspiring StreetGames participants, it is offering work experience opportunities to 45 young people, “giving them a great Olympic experience and a chance to gain an insight into the business”, explains Joel Morris, public affairs and corporate communications director at Coca-Cola.
In addition to its community focused campaigns, the PR team wants to communicate how Coke is working with Locog to fulfil its ‘zero waste to landfill’ commitment.
Coca-Cola Enterprises’ investment in a new recycling plant, where plastic collected from the Olympic venue will be recycled within six weeks – the fastest the company has ever managed this process – is something the PR team aims to communicate because it will change how the business operates.
Morris says: “We’re using the Olympics as a catalyst to accelerate our UK sustainability plan – to go further, faster than we would have been able to do otherwise.”
Fraser Hardie, senior partner, Blue Rubicon
In a world where consumers expect greater dialogue and transparency in real time, brands are recognising the need to loosen their traditional view of control. That throws a more intense spotlight on strategy. It means brands and their owners need absolute clarity on their strategic positioning and narrative to create the frame for relevance through deeper engagement, which grows affinity and trust.
Campaigns need to be underpinned with compelling audience insights and investment in strategy. It requires a new strategic approach to evolve from a push model of communication to engagement.
Who is best placed to do that thinking? In my view, top drawer PR people, because they have the skills to create winning narratives. They are comfortable with strategy and narrative development. They can fuse the strengths of communications strategy (PR and advertising) with the approaches of political strategy.
They understand how to earn the right to speak. They evolve and deliver accurate messages through earned media and the channels where true engagement is possible. They should also understand the need to create new structures and governance to allow more intuitive decision-making.
Forging collaborations and managing a different balance of power in the agency mix will be important too. The most powerful ideas will only emerge if brands and companies are agnostic about where they come from. That means reshaping spend, rather than allowing a traditional view of marcomms budgets to shape outcomes at the outset. Without that discipline, every pound spent will return less.
Ideas and campaigns will look different. The strongest brands will have a strong set of values and will be prepared to operate on the agendas that really matter to people. They will be driven by the world as it is, rather than how they would like it to be, and they will focus sharply on increasing their value in society as well as market segments.
There’s nothing ne w in that thought; what is interesting, though, is that brand management is dividing. There are those actively creating a new model, while others invest in what they know to have worked before. The latter believe they are reducing risk when, actually, they may just be increasing it.