Thursday, July 16, 2020

Talking sense into business

One thing that Kabelo Binns takes great exception to is being referred to as a “spin doctor”. He sees the description as one of the lingering misperceptions about public relations as a profession. In his view, it’s one of the manifestations of a lack of understanding and appreciation of the profession.

“Spin is an unfortunate term,” Binns says. “It suggests a cloak and dagger profession. Unfortunately, the name has stuck. I find it an insult to be called a spin-doctor. I wouldn’t like to be called that because it sends the wrong connotations; it suggests that we are not professional. If a client asked me to tell an untrue, I wouldn’t. In fact, I would remove them from my client list. I must say for people who are tasked with communicating for organizations, we, as a profession, have not done a great job about ourselves.”

There is a history to it. The early people to use persuasive skills to change people’s perceptions used such skills to misinform. Among these was the Nazi’s propagandist-in-chief, Josef Goebbels. Binns owns up to this past, which he calls “the unfortunate roots of modern-day PR”.

One of the not more than five chartered public relations practitioners in Botswana, Binns runs a Gaborone-based PR outfit called Hotwire, which has been in operation for two years. The market has been receptive to the initiative, managing to attract clients both in Botswana and South Africa ÔÇô an indication that businesses are realizing, that there is more to building better relationships with and communicating with clients than ÔÇô for instance ÔÇô flighting ads and running promotions.
Binns’ outfit specializes in the development, management and maintenance of business relationships.

“Modern business is based on information. Relationships, in business today, are what differentiates those that will succeed from those that are doomed to fail…[and as] a professional PR firm, we employ only the best that Botswana has to offer in our field,” he says.

Of course, there are still some company executives who are clueless about the services offered by a PR firm. To break down and simplify his company’s intervention, the former head of corporate communications at Debswana Diamond Company usually engages potential client in a small exercise. Do they, he would ask, go out and purchase product “X” only by seeing its advert in the media? The answer is usually “no”. This demonstrates, he wraps up, that there is more to our purchasing habits than we think. For example, the consumer wants to know if they can trust the company selling a product, and who the people behind the product are.

He makes an observation about Batswana consumers: They are fickle, which makes brand loyalty difficult to maintain.

“There are few people who will say they will only use brand X and not brand Y. Batswana are aware of the options in the market. They are very sophisticated consumers. They read all the newspapers, they compare companies, and they know the rumours… A lot of businesses coming to Botswana don’t realise this. It’s very difficult to bamboozle Batswana. I have found that even a lot of advertising agencies have missed this fact too. You see, you can build brands and brand awareness, but this does not guarantee brand loyalty. I believe that Hotwire’s understanding of this simple fact has enabled our company to grow as it has. We firmly believe that there is more value in spending your money in PR than previously realised. Companies used to think of PR people as the party guys. The practice in many local companies has been that, ‘let’s get someone with a nice personality to be our PR guy’. They didn’t get a person trained in PR. People didn’t take it seriously. They didn’t realise that you needed someone who understands the science behind PR, because it is a science,” he says.

The general misunderstanding of PR as a profession, Binns points out, results in discord between qualified PR practitioners and people who are coming into PR from backgrounds of marketing, advertising or journalism.

“The danger is you may appoint someone a communications manager, while he’s in fact more suited to be a marketing manager,” he says.
To answer the question about where the industry is headed, Binns repeats ÔÇô almost word for word ÔÇô an earlier statement that modern business is based on information. It’s his way of demonstrating the central role, in any business, of timely information dissemination to customers.

“Our profession is centred around getting information out to the right people at the right time in the right way. Worldwide, PR is gaining more steam. The world is taking it seriously. In the UK, they have only been offering degrees in PR for the past 10 ÔÇô 15 years. However, today one is seeing PR courses and degrees being offered all over the world,” he says.

He believes the strides in information technology offer an indication of the likely future trends in the industry, and it’s all going towards speedier turnaround of information due to advancement of the electronic media. The tell-tales are there for all to see: availability of press releases, FAQs (frequently asked questions), and newsletters on websites of even the most obscure organisation. He argues that it’s not even about cost considerations, but rather the speed at which organisations and companies want to communicate information to the world as it becomes available. He predicts that one of the casualties of the e-society’s evolution is the newspaper, as we know it today.

“The day of paper coming to an end is drawing closer and closer. People are reading online versions of newspapers because it’s quicker and often more convenient,” he says. “We watch CNN and BBC 24 hours a day because we are information hungry. Ten years ago, local conversations would have been limited to what’s happening in Botswana and South Africa. These days, conversations span from Saddam’s hanging, to a scandal in the House of Commons, to Dick Cheney. We are more internationally aware, and it’s getting better all the time. It’s good for development because where we are weak, we can learn from elsewhere; where we are strong we can acknowledge that we are. The demand for information is irresistible; we’re constantly craving for data. This is an exciting time for people in communications and journalism,” he says.

He has had many young people walk up to him for advice on what is needed to enter PR. Most have been surprised that he didn’t mention the academic qualifications ahead of everything. It boils down to the nature of the profession; it’s a passion industry.

“This is a field that requires very long hours that are not necessarily 730am to 430pm. We work around the clock to ensure that our clients have their information ready for dissemination at the right time. Anyone keen on going into PR as a profession must be prepared to burn the midnight oil,” he says.

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