By EMMANUEL OGBONNAYA
The Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID) a private sector-led organisation was established to assist the government combat the pandemic in the country.
Whether situated in the past or present, Nigerians have been the focus of the participating entities in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the disease broke out in the country at a time when even great nations were overwhelmed by its devastating effects, corporate Nigeria under the umbrella of CACOVID was anticipatory and participatory.
Then, the federal government’s concern was flattening the curve and managing the growing cases with its limited medical and financial resources, which were compounded by the lockdown.
Instead of the usual crave for profit maximation from such incidents, the major industrial and corporate giants opted for what public affairs commentators described as a national philanthropy by contributing billions of naira in cash, food palliatives and medical materials.
In the court of public opinion, these are acts of corporate social responsibility (CSR), exemplify the ‘R’ in CSR.
CACOVID, according to the analysts, acted responsibly by showing empathy and acting swiftly to help suppress the pandemic and the sudden hardships the ensuing lockdown brought on the people.
Fast-forward to the present, in the fight against the dreaded virus, medical scientists have successfully engineered vaccines to deal with the virus and again CACOVID has put on the mantra of responsibility in making moves to secure these vaccines for Nigerians.
Noteworthy is the fact that members of CACOVID are working to save a country that has provided for them and enabled them to thrive as is evident in their bottom-lines, therefore giving back cannot be a burden too much for them to bear, or an opportunity for unnecessary showmanship in these sobering times, when mankind has lost millions of lives to the pandemic.
The recent media squabble between BUA Group, a member of the CACOVID and the leadership of the coalition on the purchase of one million doses of Astrazeneca vaccines at the cost of N1.3bn, raises the question of corporate social responsibility being a genuine act of responsibility or a marketing stunt?
As Gaurav Dwivedi, CEO of MyGov, the Indian government’s innovative citizen engagement platform, said at the CSR Leadership Conference in Delhi “CSR is not PR, you do good because you want to do good, CSR has to be a part of one’s business.”
The role of public relations (PR) in this process is to ensure that customers, along with internal and external stakeholders are aware of the organisation’s commitment and efforts.
But that can only happen if a PR strategy comes after the CSR initiative. As Matthew Rochte from Opportunity Sustainability explains it: “PR can be both a blessing and a curse to CSR. It is a matter of which comes first and what the intention is.” The most important element of this statement is “which comes first”.
Now that weeks have elapsed since the vaccines’ promised delivery date, it appears a better decision for BUA would have been not to have rushed off a press release the next day, on its contribution to the purchase of the vaccines, until all the vaccines have been purchased. It should have allowed CACOVID in its usual responsible manner to release the information to the general public as was intended with due credits given to contributors in their independent capacities.
The chairman of BUA Group, Alhaji Abdul Samad Rabiu’s positive action to kick-off the vaccine purchase as a member of CACOVID was done obviously in the light of shared responsibility and capacity within the group.
However, the unsavvy publicity that followed is one of the reasons some see the relationship between CSR and PR as nothing but a tool, a marketing trick, so to speak, for an organisation’s self-promotion. A relationship that has attracted heated debates among public relations practitioners.
The way forward, lies in how to communicate those CSR efforts, with a strong leaning on the ‘R’, as intrinsic motivation for CSR is not for showmanship or playing to the gallery.
Apparently PR should also give companies a voice to inform and inspire people about their CSR efforts.
Done successfully, PR is the vehicle that enlightens and shares with the world the progress made by companies who are successfully embracing the strategic and integrated nature of CSR.
But that can only happen if the actual initiative comes first, from design to implementation, and responsible PR only follows it as a strategy to communicate it.
Done in the opposite order, CSR becomes nothing but a marketing tool, used solely for improving the company’s bottom line and capable of leaving corporate leadership reputation in tatters.
As the coalition strives to support government in securing COVID-19 vaccines for Nigerians, it is important for them to live and act by their motto: ‘Staying alive together’ as this connotes a communal spirit, that should instil in everyone a sense of oneness and humility.
For a company like BUA, this CSR publicity misstep could be misread as efforts to whitewash a not too impressive image as one of three anchors of the National Sugar Master Plan, where it is a distant way from meeting up with the performance of the other players and the expectations of the Nigerian Sugar Development Council, despite substantial government support and backing, to the tune of N170 billion in production quota and tariff concessions (import waivers) for the three companies.