It is essential to emphasise that the work performed by CSI departments in South Africa is impressive, yet unrecognised by the general public as well as the broader stakeholder ecosystem. It is amazing to me that someone who contributes only a small portion of your CSI budget receives so much mileage and all the credit over someone who spends so much more and actually creates more impact. What must be understood is that ineffective public relations (PR) is to blame.
If you read the biography of Thomas Edison, the man credited with inventing the lightbulb, you may be surprised to discover that another man was instrumental in the invention of the lightbulb. I presume that Elon Musk’s Tesla name is derived from Nikola Tesla. Nikola Tesla’s contribution to the light bulb industry was significant, but he was largely unrecognised and to some, he remains unrecognised despite the fact that he contributed significantly to the development of the light bulb. Why? Because of ineffective public relations.
Similarly, effective Corporate Social Investment (CSI) requires collaboration with professionals who understand the nuances of CSI terminology for successful communication. These professionals must be intimately acquainted with the terminology of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), social equity, inclusion with all its nuances, black governance, Triple P, Public Private Partnership, African Agenda, and National Agenda at a cellular level.
CSI is continually adapting to societal and economic changes. Therefore, the key to unlocking the maximum potential of CSI initiatives is effective communication and storytelling. Unfortunately, many CSI executives feel underappreciated for their significant contributions, and there is a disconnect between accomplishments and public perception. The majority of agencies are oblivious to news agencies serving the CSI space. Even if they are knowledgeable about Trialogue, Social TV, or CSR News, their ability to tell CSI stories pales in comparison to those who have a comprehensive understanding of the distinctive language of social development and responsibility.
I am sure we all know that PR agencies have historically shaped the public image and message dissemination of organisations. However, within the field of CSI, their limitations become obvious. Frequently, these agencies lack a comprehensive understanding of the refinement of social development and responsibility, which hinders the communication of CSI initiatives’ true essence and impact. In addition, the bureaucratic nature of PR agencies causes communication delays and inefficiencies.
To overcome these obstacles, a transformative strategy is required: replacing external CSI PR agencies with external or internal communication teams versed in social development and CSI. These teams have an innate comprehension of social impact terminology and can construct messages that resonate with both internal, external stakeholders and the general public.
A major African corporate delegated its communication arm to our team, and we collaborated with their internal communications unit as evidence of the success of this strategy. This alliance aligned communication strategies with social development objectives, resulting in remarkable growth within the CSI division. In just under 24 months, the budget increased from ZAR 34 million to ZAR 75 million, demonstrating the potential of this paradigm shift.
What’s the solution?
Ten Considerations for Building a Successful CSI Public Relations and Or Communications Team
- Define Clear Objectives and Strategies: Your public relations and communications objectives should align with your corporate social responsibility strategy. Determine the key messages, the intended audience, and the desired outcomes. Your strategy should include both proactive and reactive communication plans, as well as protocols for crisis management.
- Cross-functional Collaboration
CSR initiatives frequently involve multiple departments, such as marketing, legal, sustainability, and operations. Develop channels of communication and a culture of collaboration with these teams.
- Diverse Skill Set
A well-rounded CSR PR and Communications team should possess a variety of skills, including media relations, content creation, social media management, event planning, and crisis communications. Diverse abilities and experiences contribute to innovative thinking.
- Leadership and Reporting Structure:
For accountability and decision-making, a defined leadership hierarchy within this team is essential. Establishing reporting lines will facilitate effective communication between the PR team and CSR leadership.
- Digital Expertise
Online platforms and social media are effective instruments for disseminating CSR messages. Having team members who are proficient in digital marketing, search engine optimisation, and social media administration will increase the impact of CSR initiatives.
- Engaging Stakeholders:
Your PR and Communications team must excel at engaging stakeholders by establishing and maintaining relationships with investors, local communities, NGOs, and government agencies. Effective messaging and communication are essential.
- Metrics and Evaluation:
Determine relevant Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to measure the impact of your PR and communications efforts. Regularly evaluate the performance of your team against these metrics and modify your strategies as necessary.
- Continuous Learning
Encourage your team to remain current on industry trends, and provide funding for them to attend seminars, conferences, and training sessions. This ensures that your CSR PR team continues to be adaptable and able to implement new strategies and technologies.
- Crisis Preparedness
Develop a comprehensive crisis communication plan that specifies procedures for dealing with emergencies, negative publicity, and contentious issues. A well-prepared team can help navigate difficult situations while protecting the company’s reputation.
- Flexibility and Adaptability:
Your PR and Communications team should be flexible and adaptable, able to pivot strategies in order to remain effective and pertinent.
CSI departments must re-evaluate their communication strategies. The adoption of dedicated external communication teams fluent in CSI terminology, as opposed to traditional PR agencies entrenched in jargon, empowers organisations to realise the full potential of their social development efforts. This change enables a more nuanced, effective, and adaptable method of communicating CSI narratives. This change ultimately results in greater recognition, increased social impact, and a more prosperous collective future.
Developing an effective Public Relations and Communications team within a Corporate Social Responsibility Business Unit necessitates cautious planning, diverse skill sets, and a strategic mindset. By defining clear objectives, fostering cross-functional collaboration, and embracing digital expertise, your CSR PR team can effectively communicate the company’s commitment to social responsibility, while nurturing strong relationships with stakeholders and enhancing the organization’s reputation.