Putting purpose back into public relations

Sponsorship of events like the Invictus Games prove that purpose doesn't have to feel inauthentic, argues Zeno Group's Margaret Key.

In case you hadn’t heard amongst the baby fever, the main reason the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are in Australia is for the 2018 Invictus Games, which are taking place this week in Sydney. The Invictus Games are a prime example of where companies are reaching beyond ‘a vision’ and reaching into their pockets to make a real difference.

With around 6,000 service personnel leaving the Australian Defence Force and returning to civilian life each year, the physical and mental well-being of veterans and their experience transitioning out of the military is a matter of wider importance for both our society and our economy.

Where old CSR initiatives may have called for some corporate money to be allocated in an exercise of box-ticking, we are now seeing business big and small willing to roll their sleeves up and get to work alongside not-for-profits for a greater good.

In the case of Invictus Games, we are seeing brands like Sage and Westpac leading the way. And not just putting up cash for a PR opportunity, but committing to supporting military veterans through mentoring schemes, employment opportunities, or even simply raising awareness of the fantastic charities that already work in this space.

Of course it is a great look for a brand to be involved in something like the Invictus Games, but that doesn’t mean it’s the whole point of getting involved in the first place. The most effective PR campaigns are those matched to existing efforts, rather than the other way round.

Increasingly, we’re seeing large brands running their corporate philanthropy through internally aligned foundations. Those with a genuine desire to make a difference are then able to embed their foundations’ work throughout the wider business, as self-evident values.

There is a clear and important distinction to make between businesses with flashy websites proclaiming ‘impact and influence’ or ‘multi-stakeholder engagement’ as important themes to their central purpose, and those turning advocacy into real action.

And away from the world of shareholders and financial targets, a new breed of business is springing up. Social enterprises that have been built in the ‘era of purpose’, and in which there is no distinction between financial and social drivers. Take Melbourne’s Who Gives a Crap toilet paper: a brand that puts half of all its profits towards community toilet and sanitation projects in the developing world.

This mix of profit and charity is as old as time, and it works. Monasteries started microbreweries and organic food markets to fund good causes long before the hipsters of Newtown and Brunswick hit on the idea.

But among all these fantastic and genuinely driven businesses striving to do something good, give something back; among all these large corporates that are self-aware and understand their responsibilities as more than just profit machines; among all the authenticity, we find the chancers and the ‘advocates’. Those for whom ‘purpose’ is nothing more than a must-have accessory in their marketing arsenal.

There are so many businesses on the purpose bandwagon that there’s no chance of forward progress. The marketing and PR industries are also to blame. Who among us can resist the temptation of a flashy new ‘purpose’ to take to market? Something to set our clients apart from competitors in the absence of anything tangible.

But ask yourself: are my clients practicing what they preach? They say ‘caring’, but do they say ‘doing’? And if they are ‘doing’, would they still do so if they knew no one would find out?

It should be our duty as communication consultants in all of this to push our clients beyond a mission statement and into authentic philanthropy. Let us stop talking about good intentions and start making a difference, with our clients and as an industry. If there was ever a communications discipline that has enabled and will continue to support businesses in their community-first efforts, it is public relations.

Margaret Key is CEO Asia Pacific at Zeno Group.


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