I will try to be as sane as possible here, because the last time I got myself into these arguments I ended up losing it. Just the other day Public Relations (PR) practitioners (who incidentally consist of former journalists) had a conversation with journalists about how far PR can go when it comes to brand building.
The media is constantly pressured to compromise its impartiality. For one, there is a relentless need to produce news, sometimes 24 hours a day 7 days a week. In addition, these media houses are owned by mega sized corporate entities that, more than ever, are in the business primarily to generate profit. The press survives by selling airtime and print space to advertisers. These two factors together, in addition to any bias internal to the culture of the media entity itself, leave the media vulnerable to press releases and other prepackaged content put together by private agencies hoping to get the word out about their clients. This is especially so if those clients are willing to underwrite advertising time and space.
People are not stupid. When a television segment on financial matters is sponsored by say Bank X, which is featured in the same program, it makes the media producer for the program lose credibility.
If the media is compromised in terms of its trustworthiness, then the argument of saying that PR builds the brand falls apart. No credibility = no brand. Personally, I would argue that, the role of PR was never really to build a brand in the first place. Rather, it was to do more harm to it. PR is inherently a tool for building a great reputation, “A strong corporate reputation is increasingly a PR responsibility.” The corporate image should be generated through an advertising campaign or a corporate document or the look of an organisation's premises, while the reputation should be built through developing relationships as well as the organisation’s performance. After all PR is more about what others say about you.
What makes a brand?
Just to clarify, reputation – which can loosely be defined as trustworthiness – is not brand. Brand is image, while reputation is reality. What this means is that everybody knows when a brand is fake, or has elements of fakery, while reputation is closer to truth. Therefore, a brand is best conveyed by consistent sales/marketing/advertising "core message," while reputation is best conveyed by transparency.
I concur with the majority that Safaricom is a super brand, but are you sure the reputation is super? Now transparency, which is the real job of a PR professional (though majority of them are not be able to express it in practice); means to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the organisation – and in so doing to portray the organisation as trustworthy. Therefore PR is actually the antithesis of branding, which is to tell a very partial, even propagandistic, truth. Really, branding is pure selling, aimed at owning a single idea in the audience's mind. No matter what is written about them in the newspapers, brands like Safaricom, Zain, Tusker, Kenya Airways and Coca-Cola have little to do with the real world inside their organisations, and much to do with the image they represent to the public.
There is a recent example of a brand, a local private hospital, where although diligently sold to the public, reputation is yet to 'get buyers'. As much as the brand has been in the media as one of the most modern hospitals in town, they are yet to reap from it: simply because the public is still waiting for the reputation to grow. There is one exception. And that is where PR and transparency comes in. As mentioned above, PR uses transparency to build the reputation of a brand; to insulate its image against damaging attacks.
So when, say, Zain embarks on PR-driven corporate citizenship campaigns like "the strongest network in Kenya," the effect is not to build the brand but rather to enhance the company's reputation. Let's face it: Zain doesn’t enroll new subscribers because it is the strongest network in Kenya. The Zain brand is primarily built by all the activities it undertakes to promote this image. Some examples would be its television commercials; one showing a fisherman on the shores of Lake Victoria making a call, another portraying a youthful person pointing at all the towns on the Kenyan map.
Why reputation is crucial
To reiterate: The only reason for reputation-building activities, or PR, is to protect the brand against being damaged by scandals. Local cases of security firm G4S and Nakumatt supermarkets, demonstrated lack of skillfulness in this regard. The companies came out as organisations that don’t take care of the welfare of its employees. As much as the damage of reputation of the two companies has continued, they still remain brands to reckon with.
Thus far, we have established that PR does not build the brand, but rather defends the brand's reputation. But one can go even further than this. To go back to the initial discussion of the media's tarnished objectivity: PR has a new hurdle to face in defending a company's reputation, and that is to actually deliver transparency. It is no longer sufficient for PR to develop and disseminate "white propaganda" (the truth, delivered by a credible source, but emphasising only the positive). Rather, to counter the perceived bias of the media, PR has to deliver objective information about an organisation to the media; even when that information sounds negative. Otherwise, very soon, jaded viewers will discover that that the media has been corrupted by PR messages, and will simply tune out.
And another step further: advertising should not be perceived as a blockage to building a brand. This is because branding is an image-building activity, and advertising is explicitly an image-building technique. The audience expects advertising to try and "sell" to them. Finally from a consumer’s point of view, I think we enjoy the brand-building activities that advertisers create. We like a good advertisement or television commercial, and we enjoy finding out about a product or service that is new and interesting. What we don't like is to be tricked, fooled, or enticed to buy something from a company that is unethical or that doesn't deliver on its promises.