Ten years ago, who would have thought the PR industry would become a place where purpose-led communications are just as important as our ability to manage a crisis head-on? Honestly, I’m not sure I did. We’re still in the business of helping the bottom line, but now there’s a bigger, more purpose-led picture driving many of our communications strategies. More and more, we learn that purpose is critical to a brand’s financial success and long-term relevance.
WE’s South African operation started 10 years ago in Johannesburg, and I’ve been in this business for a while. Like many of us, I’ve been reflecting on the evolution of the marketplace and the industry. So, what’s changed?
The rise of purpose and the purpose leader
Over the past decade, we’ve seen brands live or die by what they stand for — to the point that an overwhelming 73% of global leaders now believe purpose is becoming as important as financial performance. Helping the brands we support tell their stories effectively holds even more weight than it did 10 years ago. Being purpose-driven is now front and centre of what we can do for our clients.
Communications agencies, particularly in Africa, live in the shadow of the Bell Pottinger scandal. Yet, it highlights why the need and rise of purpose-fueled communications has pushed the PR industry to continue to work with those who do what’s right, with core values guiding decisions, not money. And when a client’s purpose isn’t self-evident, authentic or guiding strategy, it’s our responsibility as communications leaders to provide counsel that will make sure it is put front and centre.
In WE’s global Brands in Motion study, 54% of respondents reported they want the brands they support to balance great products with powerful purpose and activism. South African consumers agree. In fact, 90% of respondents to a recent BrandZ survey said they want brands to talk about the ways in which they can be helpful in everyday life. We view it as our own agency purpose to help our clients recognise this as a mandate from the audiences we serve.
Accurate storytelling still has great value
The rhythm of the media landscape and ecosystem has evolved. The media dynamic has shifted as newsrooms shrink and journalists work with broader remits, rather than focusing on a specific beat. However, there will always be a place for accurate storytelling. In fact, in the era of “fake news” and “alternative facts”, we need this now more than ever. When British journalist and long-time editor of the Guardian newspaper Alan Rusbridger spoke at our WE leadership summit, he reinforced the importance of honesty and transparency in the roles of journalists and all communicators today.
Or course, in the past 10 years, we’ve seen how technology has transformed the way we consume information. Media roles and content creation might be evolving, but journalists’ dedication to truth still remains vital. All professional communicators play a key role, as well. This evolution is important as we all embrace a shared responsibility for accuracy, honesty and transparency.
More seats at the networking table
The number of agencies in our industry has grown, but showing up still requires the same grind. Cutting through the noise for smaller and boutique agencies continues to be a challenge. As communications leaders, think about how you’re involving yourself into networking events, judging panels and industry roundtables. Having more seats at the table doesn’t mean it becomes overcrowded. It’s about creating a space to be heard and listening to and learning from the industry peers around you. That’s how the deepest connections are made.
We’ve seen this evolution in South Africa, where sharing opportunities with other agencies is more common than in the rest of the world. This is particularly true where we have non-compete agreements or with someone we know could better meet the task at hand. Although this may differ around the world, sharing insights, tips, and contacts has been a way the industry has evolved in the South African market, tackling issues in common from staff development to managing remote working as we have in the past year.
The PR evolution over the past 10 years has meant communicators are now front and centre when it comes to helping brands project their voices and articulate their ethical responsibilities to their stakeholders. PR agencies need to see themselves as partners to brands on their purpose journeys. Yes, some markets are leading the charge in this domain, whether it’s necessitated through pressures from legislation, as is the case in France, for example, with the PACTE law allowing companies to acquire a “raison d’etre” that clearly articulates their environmental or social mission, or through commitments governments have made, for example, the pledges relating to reductions in carbon emissions, or indeed merely a more aware and demanding consumer base. South Africa still has some way to go, but the opportunity to partner with brands on this journey is indisputable.
With these thoughts in mind, I think of the words UK footballer Marcus Rashford recently shared. He’s been on a mission to help low-income, vulnerable families and children who have been impacted by COVID-19. One thing he said in The Times has stayed with me: “Have I done enough?” As communicators, and as we embrace our roles as purpose partners, we should be asking ourselves the same question. Purpose — in a nutshell — is to be the positive change our audiences demand. This imperative will only grow over the next 10 years as we face significant challenges ahead. The question we need to ask ourselves and of the brands we serve is: “Are we doing enough?”
Sarah Gooding is MD, South Africa at WE Communications. She is responsible for the agency’s internal operations, developing the agency’s brand-based communications, such as crisis and reputation management, and assisting brands with purpose-based storytelling.