Somali businesses have played and continue to play a major role in the country’s recovery. The Somali private sector is one of the few beacons that still shine despite a devastating civil war which scarred an entire nation and its population. Despite the rampant poverty in Somalia, and amidst the perennial security challenge, Somali corporations and entrepreneurs have invested in and manage what is considered to be the most affordable and reliable internet service in the Horn of Africa. Throughout the civil war, and to this very day, the Somali private sector has been supporting the state in providing essential public services like education, remittances, banking, healthcare and electricity. The concept of Public-Private Partnership has been alive in Somalia since the collapse of the Somali central government in 1991, and will only become more relevant given the fragility of the slowly recovering Somali state. Moreover, we are missing an opportunity to highlight one of our greatest success stories; while the world grapples with how to engage the private sector to support the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we are already a world leader in this approach.
What is corporate communication?
Corporate communications is vital for all businesses to thrive because it is the way businesses communicate with their diverse audiences, which include staff (often across multiple global offices), customers, media, government (s) and other partners including charities. Corporate communications are often written, visual and spoken but all serve a common purpose: to communicate, strengthen and protect the business brand. In this sense, brands are like living organisms as they represent and inspire and they must be nurtured to grow. Therefore, it is important for Somali businesses to stay up to date with modern communication trends and to continue engaging all stakeholders to build brand value and loyalty.
Unfortunately, business leaders I have engaged in Somalia always refer to the past to explain their current approach to corporate communications. Many are reluctant to make large-scale investment in strategic communications, which includes Public Relations, Marketing and branding. Most speak of how the company was established and how, through hard work it grew and prospered. Whilst it is important to remember our roots, living in the past is not a strategy for sustainable business growth.
Purposeful Partner for progress
Businesses must have a purpose. They must also have meaning, a vision and a mission that inspires their shareholders and customers. Indeed, businesses are corporate citizens and interwoven with the daily lives of the Somali people who are their customers, shareholders and, even more importantly, wider stakeholders. Businesses enable but are also enabled by their governments and customers, and in return some in Somalia do give back to society in meaningful ways. Whether the business contributions are sufficient or not is another debate, but what is abundantly clear is that their impact on society is terribly misunderstood because of poor corporate communications.
For too long, Somali businesses communications have focused on the transactional elements of their business. Speed, quality of service, trust, local connections and global reach were prioritized, especially, by the telecommunications and remittances sector. Private sector public service providers, like health and educational companies, focus on simply getting customers through the door. The few (and they are only a few) which do invest in “strategic” corporate communications engage in small-scale radio, TV and outdoor billboard advertising. The brand narratives and key messaging are sadly transactional and incoherent. This is especially the case in radio and TV advertising campaigns, which are largely unstructured and drag on for far too long. More damagingly, the target audience is targeted not through effective data and research analysis, but through stereotypes like stay-at-home wives and breadwinning husbands. Advertisements are also often misleading, promoting “perfect” products and services that change lives immediately. As such, most Somali corporate communications is not fit for purpose, as they fail to sell their ‘why’ and ‘so what’ to customers.
Corporate communications should be the tip of the spear in presenting and showcasing the values of a company. Corporate Social Responsibility, which is essential for society and businesses, will be ineffective even if done well and with the greatest sincerity if the communications is not effective and well targeted at the right audiences and stakeholders. The short-sighted transactional product- and service-focused corporate communications which just say “buy, buy and buy more!” must be replaced with ones focused on the impact of the company.
Somalia is among the poorest countries in the world. Despite the prevalent national pride and bravado, this is a fact. The need for services, humanitarian assistance and social innovation to overcome the myriad of developmental challenges, at both individual and societal levels, is great. The devastating health and socio-economic impact of COVID-19 on the Somali population only exacerbates this. Through their services, products and philanthropy, many Somali companies, especially the larger ones, are directly contributing to Somalia’s sustainable development and COVID-19 response. However, no one knows because they have not communicated it well. Instead of the impact of their company on the Somali people’s progress and development, the dominant narrative of Somali companies in society and across the world is one of them as greedy, monopolistic, uncaring and only focused on getting more money out of customers while delivering poor services. This is a tragedy because as a result of poor corporate communications, the public-private understanding that forms the necessary partnership for strong economies, is reduced to mistrust on the part of the people and their government. This is does not inspire customer confidence, build brand loyalty and, ultimately, opens the door to future competitors to exploit this trust deficit.
Somali corporations of means are not many. Yet, they provide essential public services that enable Somalis to progress in their lives. As Somalia stabilizes, competition will hopefully increase and many companies with enormous national market shares today will be challenged to aggressively compete for customers because they did not market their impact in Somali society when they had the chance. Somali companies that provide electricity, water, education, remittances, foods, security and access to finance are all directly contributing to Somalia’s achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Alongside their services, they are also paying taxes and creating jobs. This is a wonderful story of impact and responsibility for them to share with the Somali people and the world. But when and how will they?