IPRS’ inaugural “Purpose Series” virtual townhall session focused on “How can companies do good and do well at the same time?” in the context of the COVID situation.
The series aims to showcase brands balancing between the two and complements the Institute’s other online forums – the PR Leadership Series and the Meet-the-Media Series.
The forum, moderated by IPRS President, Marcus Loh, featured panellists from social enterprises, viz. Ken Hickson (Sustain Ability Showcase Consultancy Asia Pte Ltd), Sarah Rodriguez (Edible Garden City), and Cheong Su Fen (Preschool Market).
Here are some key takeaways from the 45-minute session:
Can organizations really create social value and economic value? What are some models that have worked in a sustainable way?
Ken: Over the past 10 to 15 years, we have seen the rise of ground-up activities. Many individuals are establishing start-ups that seek to address issues within the energy and food sectors. In addition, some smaller companies that are starting to get involved in doing good. Social enterprises are also coming into their own and providing good examples to businesses everywhere.
How should businesses take the first step towards corporate responsibility?
Ken: In my book, “A Race for Sustainability”, I shared case studies from four areas of sustainability – Energy, Environment, Economy and Ethics. Of these, Ethics is extremely important for businesses in general. John Elkington, a world-renowned authority on corporate responsibility and sustainable capitalism, coined the triple bottom-line of Profit, People, and Planet. I think we must go beyond these to consider the ethical impact of our actions on society. Sustainability isn’t just about the environment or the economy. It is about considering how your actions serve mankind as a whole.
Sarah: The best way is to be your most humble and genuine self. Customers are discerning. They can tell if you are “greenwashing” or if you are not sincere. Therefore, it is important to pick a cause that you genuinely believe in. If you failed, be open and honest about it. There is no perfect solution. Customers will connect with both your successes and failures.
Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, how have social enterprises responded to the challenges?
Su Fen: We experienced a 90% drop in revenue as we were unable to do our usual programmes. Fortunately, we were able to pivot our businesses to working online in a consultancy role, such as research work and curriculum design. During this period, there were times I wanted to give up. However, after realizing that our work does make a difference to our stakeholders and customers, this has helped me to soldier on. We have also developed stronger relationships with our partners by helping each other out through lower fees or donations of resources such as books.
Sarah: While we have experienced challenges, we have also received more support from people who have developed a deeper appreciation for farmers. Social enterprises have a different definition of success compared to commercial enterprises. This has allowed social enterprises to be more adaptable and agile.
How can brands partner with social enterprises to generate greater positive impact on society?
Sarah: Companies should align their CSR with their bottom line to pick the right enterprise, and plan to work with them beyond the current COVID situation. At Edible Garden City, we love working with partners who are able to compensate for areas where we are lacking. For instance, while we tend to appeal to the younger crowd, we also wish to reach out to the older crowd. We would love to work with companies who have this knowledge to help us dip our toes into these new outreach areas.
Su Fen: Like Sarah, I think alignment of social causes is important. We try to ride on our partner’s core competencies. For instance, we would work with catering companies to provide food to needy children or with a book company to distribute books to them.
Ken: Companies should try to identify with projects, communities, causes, and issues which are relatable to their respective industries. For instance, BMW working in areas such as recycling, waste management, and energy efficiency, makes sense. But they also work with other related areas such as traffic management, to ensure that cities are not congested.
It takes some time to see the outcomes of social actions. What are your recommendations on how companies should hold themselves accountable?
Ken: As a judge for sustainability awards in Singapore and the region, I was concerned about what companies were reporting versus what they were actually doing. There was a case where a company in such a competition was still investing in coal-fired energy projects. To me, it felt contrary to the concept of sustainability. It is important that if a company wants to be seen as doing good, it should also be able to show that.
Su Fen: It’s not always easy to measure the effectiveness of the help we had given to underprivileged families and children. Hence, we actively work with charities to follow up with the children under their care, to see how they are progressing over the years. To be honest, we are still learning how to do this better.
Sarah: We are fortunate to work with the Autism Resource Centre, which has provided us with job coaches on-site daily to keep in contact with our colleagues and their families. We worked with them to identify behavioural changes and benchmarks. Companies should collaborate to collate a more holistic view of their social footprints.
What advice would you give to aspirants who are looking to build a communications career in a social enterprise?
Ken: While the communications industry has suffered during the COVID-19 outbreak, the media has played an incredible role in the crisis. The crisis has also shown the critical role for communication. Hence, I tell my mentees to continue honing their communication skills during this period. These skills will put them in a very good position in the months ahead.
Sarah: I’m also a communication graduate. I found that communication skills are very translatable to many industries. Follow your heart and work for a cause that you believe in. You will derive joy from your work.
Su Fen: Social enterprises are not fully understood currently. However, I strongly believe that it will be the way forward in the future. I encourage students to continue to pursue their passions. It will not be easy but communication skills are always needed everywhere.
One common theme that seems to resonate during the discussion today is that we might not be able to do everything alone. Partnerships matter, it is better to cooperate than compete. IPRS has always been a convening body, bringing communities and professionals together. Amid the Covid-19 outbreak, what is the role and relevance of a convening body like IPRS ?
Ken : In my past experience with IPRS, at a time when there weren’t many consultancies in town, the larger ones might have given this a bit of lip service. But when the PRISM Awards started, the consultancies definitely took notice. The awards were a way of encouraging more companies to be involved in the industry and the Institute. We need to look at ways the industry can work with others, and there’s every reason why IPRS should be doing more with other groups. The level of collaboration IPRS is taking now is essential, but we should be careful about the ethical side of things and not overstep our boundaries.
Su Fen : I find IPRS is a good platform that gives practitioners opportunities to collaborate, and to learn and share with each other. It is also a conduit for skills and experience to be imparted to the next generation.
Sarah : I’m very grateful for a platform like this. It is great to learn what is currently going on in the industry. I find it especially helpful as I am in a small team and having more connections with other practitioners will help me generate more ideas and forge new partnerships.