As the geographic reach of Public Relations widens, the impact and power of the discipline is becoming more widely acknowledged. PR has emerged from the shadow of its clients and stands firm as a separate entity, an industry in its own right. With this strength comes accountability, and following in the footsteps of many of its clients, PR agencies are taking on more social responsibility. Building on Ruder·Finn’s strong global heritage in this area, the company’s Beijing office decided last year that it was big enough to help change Chinese society for the better.
Organizations express awareness of the economic, social and environmental worlds around them, both locally and internationally, through acts of corporate social responsibility, or CSR. At one time, CSR was the calling card of the business world’s so-called left wing, but it has evolved to where it is now an integral part of the published accounts of many multinational companies, as well as smaller-sized firms. CSR’s core principles have multiplied and are now a cornerstone of mainstream business, resonating not just in Europe and the U.S., but in Brazil and India and other developing economies. And it is changing still, expanding from manufacturing and retail to other industries, such as media. Where once the goal was simply to mitigate the negative effects of company activities on the environment and society, CSR is increasingly humanizing the business world.
More than simply taking on pro bono clients, as the service industry has done previously, companies, including Ruder·Finn, are helping to shape the goals and the outcome as a partner, from beginning to end, not merely providing a free service.
Sensitive to public perception as part of their general work, PR agencies naturally take special care when choosing which of their own causes to pursue. Thus, when Ruder·Finn Asia was given the chance to get involved in an AIDS event, the decision was a clear “yes.”
The issue of AIDS in China is a extremely difficult one. According to a United Nations report, HIV/AIDS could soon engulf China in a pandemic causing economic and social devastation and unimaginable human misery. In 2001, the U.N. estimated that more than one million people were infected. By 2005, this number is expected to have multiplied to five million. The U.N. report identified as key problems a lack of commitment from higher political echelons, as well as ignorance; the stigma attached with HIV/AIDS is crippling efforts to manage the problem. The majority of the population doesn’t know what AIDS actually is and how it can be transmitted, and the issue is still not a major priority of the top leadership.
HIV infections in China are often clustered— there is a high prevalence in certain groups of people. In 2001, drug users’ sharing of contaminated needles was the most common method of transmission. It also appears that perhaps hundreds of thousands of paid blood donors have contracted HIV from blood-collecting procedures. Blood-product companies take blood from donors and mix the individual portions together before extracting the blood plasma. The remaining blood is then divided and re-injected into the donors. If one donor in the batch has HIV, then it is passed to all the donors. Many donors rest a few days, then donate more blood. This has mostly affected poor farmers in rural central China who have been selling their blood to supplement their income. Though commercial blood donation has been illegal for several years, the blood-product companies have not completely ceased operating.
Recognizing the urgency in raising awareness of the issue and brave enough to bring the controversial taboo out into the open, the Rotary Club of Beijing (Provisional) took the initiative and organized the first AIDS charity event in China in collaboration with a number of well-known Chinese and international organizations. “The Ball: Beijing Rotary for AIDS,” held on March 29, 2003, not only aimed to raise awareness about the issue but also tried to educate people with the basic knowledge and skills for protection from infection and for dealing with people already infected.
Strong though the emotional response to this issue might be, it is still important that companies approach CSR in a way that relates to their own corporate aims. To achieve this, a social audit should be performed. The first step is to be aware of the rationale for engaging in CSR. Then programs should be identified that tie in with this rationale. In the case of Ruder·Finn Asia, it was clear that our expertise in healthcare communication, as well as media and industry contacts in this area, could make a difference and be invaluable in raising awareness (and much needed funds) for the Rotary event.
Having decided to become involved, the next step in the social audit is to determine the objectives and priorities of the involvement. For Ruder·Finn Asia, the main priority lay with thecomplex and highly sensitive media communications surrounding the event; the goal was to raise awareness and leverage the attendance of celebrities and key Chinese government officials in order to initiate an open dialogue in China. Ruder·Finn Asia knew that, given the Ministry of Health’s backing, the topic would be newsworthy. The key was to effectively control and maximize the media coverage. This objective was successfully achieved through use of exclusive media partners and a series of media activities aimed at successive tiers of outlets.
The second important priority for Ruder·Finn Asia was the promotion of the event among pharmaceutical companies in a bid to secure sponsorships and raise funds. Historically, healthcare companies in China have been reluctant to be associated with the highly controversial AIDS/HIV issue for fear of negative publicity or other repercussions. Despite initial reluctance due to the absence of high-level political support, Boehringer Ingelheim was successfully brought on board as the pharmaceutical sponsor.
The AIDS Ball was unique for China, the first event to promote HIV/AIDS awareness in a way that elicited a wide and effective dialogue about the disease among the general public. More than 500 top-level government officials, celebrities and business people attended the black-tie event. A number of international celebrities, including Kofi Annan, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Sharon Stone and Elton John sent messages of support and encouragement. Close to $200,000 was raised by the Ball and through a charity auction, more than any nongovernment charity event ever held in China.
The post-event communications outcome demonstrated how PR can influence attitudes, promote a message and effectively disseminate information. Media coverage of the event was outstanding but, most importantly, media communications opened the door to future ongoing AIDS-related coverage. Furthermore, a strong multiplier effect came from publicity about the ball. The post-event media release was published on numerous websites, including those of NICEF; the American Foundation for AIDS Research; various Rotary clubs; and the World Bank. Ruder·Finn Asia’s work in communicating the ball led to an upsurge in follow-up events associated with HIV/AIDS and the use of funds for specific projects. For example, Miss Universe agreed to visit Beijing last August as a direct result of the ball. It is likely that the first AIDS candlelight vigil will be held in China this year.
After the event, Ruder·Finn Asia evaluated it as to its success from a media communications perspective, as well as to the value it brought from both positioning and CRS perspectives. On the positioning side, following up with key healthcare companies based in China helped. Involvement and follow-up with the government led to higher visibility and further assignments from the Beijing government on tackling SARS communication issues. The firsthand proof that PR could shape attitudes relating to media, government and the public boosted staff morale. And the media recognized that PR consultants were working hand-in-hand with them, the industry, NGOs and the government to make a notable contribution to society—a turnaround from the previously held notion that PR companies use the media merely to push for products. That change in attitude will go a long way in shaping agency-media relationships.
On the government front, U.N. studies have shown that the most successful AIDS projects around the world are the ones that have had highest-level political support. The opposite has also been true. But the successful work undertaken by Ruder·Finn Asia is clearly giving support to China’s governmental commitment and is leading to once-unimaginable results.
For business, socially responsible behavior can help build brand value, foster customer loyalty and aid in attracting and retaining the most able employees. And while CSR offers a new model for building a strong society alongside a strong economy, there is, to be sure, a danger that CSR can be seen as “just another PR exercise,” a way to hide a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Many companies do measure the benefits of their CSR in terms of bankable goodwill. However, to level this criticism at all companies with CSR programs clearly trivializes the genuine and valuable work that many corporations undertake for altruistic reasons. Activities such as Ruder·Finn Asia’s involvement with the AIDS Ball are challenging and risky enough to avoid this tag and resuscitate the real point of CSR. This involvement went far beyond “putting something back” via pro bono service, becoming instead active and equal participation in an ongoing community project of national import that ultimately affected real people in a real situation.