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Why must so many businesses look good just for the cameras?

Tomorrow morning in Kenyan newspapers, you will see photos of the following:

People holding a dummy cheque together, and smiling at the camera. People pretending to read their company’s annual report together, for the camera. People wearing ill-fitting helmets while touring a construction site, and pointing upwards for the camera. People sitting in a donated vehicle and pointing at the dashboard, for the camera.

This is because Monday is the day businesses do their ‘pictorials’ – their public relations (PR) exercises to show the world their wonderful activities.

Closely linked to PR is its cousin, CSR – corporate social responsibility. This is where companies make donations, help with needy causes, plant trees, etc. to convince the world they are good people with their hearts in the right place. All with the cameras flashing, of course.

I have two problems with all of this.

First: those business pictures have looked exactly the same since I was a little boy. It’s always cheques being signed or presented, or pretend activities being set up for the cameras. For the love of imagination, can chief executives or PR agencies or photographers not come up with something new? Anything a little fresh, a little different, a little edgy?

Because if businesses present themselves to the world in exactly the tedious, banal and just plain boring way for decades, then what might be going on inside the business? The suspicion grows that their products, their management styles, their employment brands are also exactly the same. Stuck in time. Fossilized.

My second concern is more worrying. Is this all businesses can come up with when they want to communicate the good things they do? What is it with all the fakery – the feel-good donations, the self-conscious posturing, the maintaining of a sparkling public facade? Surely there’s more going on than that? Surely?

The truth is, for way too many companies, the fakery is necessary because they are actually not good businesses. Too many are run purely as personal enrichment vehicles for their owners. Too many regard employees as expendable resources to be exploited and replaced as needed. Too many think customers are just suckers carrying wallets that must be emptied as quickly as possible.

For those kinds of businesses, public displays of generosity or charity become necessary to paper over the cracks. A donation here, a staff visit there, all accompanied by some noble-sounding words should do the trick.

As I write on this page many times, business should be a far bigger deal than that. Corporations can make a great difference to the world. They can make life better for billions through their products. They can provide a lifetime of meaning and purpose to their employees. They can provide customers with everyday experiences filled with warmth and friendliness.

Most choose not to, however. Most choose to be crafty, shrewd and small-hearted. And for them, the flashing cameras are a necessary confidence trick, some smoke and mirrors to hide the ugliness within.

It need not be this way. If businesses wish to last for centuries, and if their promoters wish to do something bigger than just accumulating profits, then they must move away from the cameras and move towards doing things that truly matter, that have meaning.

For that, the first step is to view this world as an arena in which to make a difference, not as a set of resources that must be exploited ruthlessly for personal gain. For most people, sadly, business is just about money, status and power – and it shows. Yet a company’s chairman or chief executive should be no different from a great artist or scientist, the leader of a movement, an upholder of values and standards.

Then, products speak for themselves, employees become ambassadors and customers become evangelists. All of which is worth way more than a few PR pictures.

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