How companies impact governments: Global forces shaping PR

It is often easy to forget the numerous hurdles and factors reshaping the communications landscape this year against the shadow of COVID-19. While PR is known as "public relations", according to Matthias Berninger, SVP public affairs, science and sustainability at Bayer US, the term "PR" should instead be redefined as presence and relevance, more than anything else.

"I believe good PR focuses on the right presence. As for relevance, it is basically how well you are regarded in the different discussions," he said during MARKETING-INTERACTIVE's PR Asia 2020 virtual conference. He added that companies need to find a way to remain relevant in discussions and be an inroad into what is happening globally. Companies often tend to be very present and show up to many events but they may not be relevant to the current discussions or issues happening. On the other hand, there are also companies that are relevant but do not invest much time in being present. "Our job is to balance both presence and relevance; to do the right thing but then also talk about it in the right way," Berninger explained.

When it comes to building presence and relevance, Berninger condensed it into an acronym - ABS. Companies should find ways to communicate that they "acknowledge" their weaknesses and "bust" the myths surrounding the company. Thereafter, they can "surprise" consumers through their actions. According to Berninger, ABS is "a good recipe to move in the right direction". 

In the case of Bayer, Berninger explained that sustainability is a central pillar of its business strategy. Bayer's vision is "Health for all, hunger for none" and it has set measurable sustainability targets. This is done by combining the specific strengths of its crop science, pharmaceuticals, and consumer health divisions to spark a systemic response to the complex challenges Bayer faces.

Last year, the company announced a set of sustainability targets which it aims to achieve by 2030 and this includes being completely carbon neutral in its own operations by 2030, expanding access to everyday health for 100 million individuals in underserved communities, as well as initiating an independent sustainability council which will advise the board of management in all sustainability matters.

In addition to being present and relevant, Berninger said companies cannot ignore the fact, that emotions are also facts. Quoting German chancellor Angela Merkel, Berninger said: "In politics, emotions are facts" and the same can be applied to the business world. "What we often see as practitioners is that businesses find it hard to deal with emotions. We have to do a really good job in explaining to our business leaders that emotions are facts, You can't ignore them when you try to build presence and relevance," he added.

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Morover, Berninger who was previously a member of the German parliament from 1994 to 2007, representing the German Green Party said the relationship between businesses and governments are symbiotic. According to Berninger, if businesses do not do the right thing, "governments will do the wrong thing". During his time in parliament, he dealt with various crises including the mad cow disease in the early 2000s. According to Berninger, governments are usually overwhelmed if businesses do not play ball.

"On the other hand, if governments do the wrong thing, it is most likely that businesses have missed the boat before. From that vantage point, let's do the right thing to always make the job of governments easier," he said. This starts by how companies communicate and act in difficult times. 

While there are tools to solve some of the world's biggest problems, Berninger said companies will have to find a way to carry part of their weight in solving these global challenges. "Hence, I think creating presence and relevance is the key bridge that we need to build for the business community to play a much more decisive role in the fight against some of the global challenges," he added.

Three global forces shaping the world

1. Economic and political power shift

In the last few years, we have seen a power shift from the West to the East, Berninger said. According to him, the world is returning to economic relationships that individuals faced at the beginning of the 19th century. He believes there will be a rebalancing in the world and it is going to be an Asian century, with the two global superpowers eventually being the US and China. 

Based on this, the business community would need to think of ways to entice both countries to collaborate more. This is obviously a stark difference from what has happened over the past few years, with the US taking a tough stance on China as a result of the Trump administration. This has led to the US banning Huawei last year from acquiring US components and technology without government approval, and imposing a tariffs of 15% on Chinese goods including electronics and clothings. Meanwhile, analysts also predicted that Joe Biden will not soften his stance against China when he takes office next year, South China Morning Post reported.

"It is really important that we avoid this world being divided between two superpowers again because that cannot be good for global development and for solving some of our biggest problems," Berninger, who also experienced the Iron Curtain first hand in Germany during the Cold War, said. 

"This power shift we are seeing leads to a strategic rethinking of foreign policies in many countries in the world. That's also true for businesses that need to think of their own foreign policy," he added.

2. Humans are overstepping planetary boundaries

By overstepping planetary boundaries, Berninger said humans are about to "push this world out of its climate comfort zone". The question in this case would be whether companies are able to offer great living conditions for eight billion and even more individuals without overstepping planetary boundaries. This challenge involves the issue of climate change, carbon neutrality and water scarcity. When it comes to climate change, the loss of biodiversity is a big challenge. Hence, Berninger believes it is important for the business community to look at the planetary boundaries and at their initiatives. 

He added that if companies do not find ways to create wealth and use less water and even preserve it, more than half of the world population will face "severe water issues" by 2050. There is also a need to protect biodiversity such as rainforests as they help manage the earth's water cycles. Meanwhile, Bayer has also committed to being carbon neutral by 2030 by working on reducing carbon emissions, and creating new business models and technology that remove carbon out of the atmosphere. 

"These three pillars are crucial for any strategy for governments and businesses. Without carbon reduction, the other two pillars will not work. So carbon reduction is probably the thing we need to focus on most," he added.

3. Bio-revolution

Quoting McKinsey, Berninger said the two industries most disrupted are crop science and pharmaceuticals and bio-revolution is going to help the society bounce back. With bio-revolution, companies can better understand genetics and modify genes compared to the past, he said. Also, by combining AI sensors, blockchain, robotics and all the new technology that is constantly being talked about with the source of life, Berninger said this will lead to huge transformations in about 80 to 90 different industries. 

Join us this 8-11 December as we address the new realities for PR and crisis communicators, explore how brands are dealing with the impact of COVID-19 , and discuss areas of priority for communications. It's an event you would not want to miss out. Register now!

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