Nurturing communities

A personal reflection on why, out of the entire organisation, it is the communications function that is best positioned to engage with communities in action

When I began my career in the late 90s, I had a very interesting stint in the development sector. I must admit, a business school degree followed by a corporate job did pamper me quite a bit at the start of my career. But then I decided to work on a project funded by official development assistance and the British Council to drive a reproductive healthcare project in regional areas of India.

My job was to review and redesign the communication module for the project (particularly for the leaders and trainers), align to government priorities and measure the impact of the redesigned module. I opted to spend a few months at the project area in remote parts of India. After spending some time with the local community, I presented a project plan that went beyond communication. While most of that time was a learning experience for me, one thing clearly stood out: no amount of learning is enough until it is in action, in person or on the job. Especially when it relates to communities or deals with human interaction.

Finding solutions

A lot of what I am as a communicator today stems from my earlier experience on the ground. My respect for the development sector, the role of the government in leading social change and the voice of an empowered community grew immensely. I learnt to ask the right and maybe uncomfortable questions, which today comes in handy when I deal with my leaders. The right questions always help us arrive at the solutions.

While all other aspects of such development projects, whether it is micro financing or land issues or vocational training, can be crafted based on secondary information, communications strategy asks for much more. This aspect is based on an understanding of the project centred on what is evident and what lies beyond. I draw an analogy to what us communicators do these days. Community engagement continues to be our core, even today as we move towards virtual or online or digital communities. And each of these communities need unique communication plans. It cannot be cut and paste.

"Community engagement continues to be our core, even today as we move towards virtual or online or digital communities."

During one of my later jobs, I got to be part of a meeting with a doctor who worked for youth with disabilities and convinced me to employ a few of these bright youngsters in the company I worked in. This turned out to be one of those projects that pushed me out of my comfort zone. I am proud that we did manage to sensitise, build awareness and convince senior management to eventually employ these youngsters. A lot of it was not just communication but also navigating the system and aligning to the vision of the organisation. Pushing boundaries and leading change on things that matter is what I took from this.

Taking responsibility

Today, I am convinced that communications as a function is best positioned to drive such initiatives, whether it is in the social context or organisational. Not because we are experts in social inclusion (though we are definitely more conscious) but because we can connect the dots within the organisation and outside of it. Strong persuasion skills, risk assessing ability, knowing what makes a good story and that a good story starts with good intent are a few drivers that work in our favour. That is maybe one of many reasons why communicators get the added responsibility of leading citizenship or corporate responsibility campaigns. This has happened repeatedly in my career. I have come to believe that communications and citizenship are best when they go hand in hand.

Like in every other country, wealth creation and skill building continues to be a major focus of the national agenda in India. And for a company like GE, we ensure that we remain committed to this agenda and continuously communicate this. Recently we launched a joint programme with Tata Trusts on skilling of healthcare technicians in India. While the two brands needed no introduction, the intent and outcome of this initiative had to be elaborated. For such interventions, relevant story telling was critical and hence we launched a plan, which had an integrated communications approach. On ground launch, media, social and community participation. And it becomes imperative that such initiatives reflect genuineness of purpose – this is where communications comes into play.

Even today, I spend a considerable amount time in studying and nurturing community relationships – be it employees, influencers, partners, suppliers, government, innovators, technologists or others. Communication these days is about inclusion of all these stakeholders. These communities form the collective voice of any brand and add trust and credibility to it. The DNA of any brand is best seen in how it engages with communities in action.  

"The DNA of any brand is best seen in how it engages with communities in action."

Having said that, how many communicators invest time in developing these communities? And most importantly, are we effectively leveraging these stakeholders to tell stories that make an impact? As communicators, we must realise that who else but us we are indeed best suited to identify and drive these credible voices. Who else?

Tata Trusts: The leaders of the two organisations on stage while announcing the partnership project. Banmali Agrawala, President and CEO, GE South Asia; Ratan Tata, Chairman of Tata Trusts; Terri Bresenham, President and CEO, Sustainable Healthcare Solutions, GE Healthcare; and R Venkataramanan (Venkat), Managing Trustee of Tata Trusts / Image: GE

No ordinary day – A diary entry shared with my communications team

It is not very often that we have a day that is fulfilling, inspiring and also motivates us. Today was one such day for me…

I spent the first half of the day at Bhamchandra High School of Vasuli village near Pune, where we have one of our brilliant GE factories. We were there to inaugurate the recently constructed science labs (as part of our community initiative) and to hand over bicycles to around 68 female students. While we are all talking about empowering women in developing economies like ours, this project clearly shows how community efforts can be channelled to build an impactful and sustainable ecosystem in the areas we operate.

This school, which started in 1990 with around 25 students and two rooms, was an initiative of a few village elders, who still are the school trustees. In fact, each of them today had a bright turban tied to their heads as they saw their dream come true!! Today, this government school with 1200 students talked a lot about infrastructure, separate science labs (physics, chemistry and biology) and a computer centre. You can now hear the bubbling female students (more than 50 per cent), motivated teachers, proud parents and supportive male students. In fact, one of the boys actually showed off the cycle that his sister got!

We all should be proud that GE's support in setting the science lab has resulted in the government approving senior classes (until 12th class) in this school. This has benefitted the community, particularly the girls around the area whose parents would earlier shy away from sending their daughters to high schools. The same parents today proudly send their girls to this school. The workshops for teachers and students by the GE volunteers team has also developed interest in science and technology.

Building of additional classrooms has reduced the long two shift classes to a single productive school timing, thereby encouraging more female students to attend. Apart from the classrooms, the support in sanitation and other facilities is attracting the local students to a safe, dignified and well equipped school. Today there are 25 girls out of 40 students in 11th class.  In fact, the three toppers of class 10 (all girls) quietly cherish dreams of making it to professional courses in science.

It is not just about constructing classrooms but the creation of a sustainable community that makes this project interesting. This school initiative has resulted in encouraging community partners, inspiring parents, motivating senior class teachers, facilitating administrative processes and most importantly cherishing the dreams of these girl students.

What is also worth mentioning is the strong relationship that the GE team, particularly our colleagues in the factory share with the school, students, administration and local community. And this will go a long way.

I would encourage each one of you to spend some time chatting with these students in your next visit to Chakan. And see for yourself the value our jobs can create!!

As for me, it was yet another inspiring and a proud day. These are times that I love the work I do.

Rachana Panda

Rachana Panda has been chief communications officer and citizenship leader at GE South Asia since 2012. Her role comprises advising the leadership team on all facets of communications, which includes employee engagement and external communications. She also leads the brand, advertising and digital communications team in the region. Additionally, Rachana is responsible for the strategy of the CSR programme for GE and is a member of the CII National Advisory Committee for CSR. Rachana was listed as one of the top ten women corporate communicators by Reputation Today in 2016.