PR Congress (26-12-08)

Can public relation professionals play a role in building a harmonious society in a globalisation era? This was the question at the top of my mind when I registered for the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) 17th Congress in Beijing. The theme of the congress was “Public Relations Build a Harmonious Society in a Globalisation Era.” But not much justice was done to the congress theme.

As all the public relations professionals, who participate in such conferences, are either employees of an organisation directly or belong to PR consultancies, we fail to break the corporate shell in which we work or for which we work. The discussion and conference papers are thus within the corporate PR sphere. So it was all about creating harmonious relations between the businesses and their stakeholders. I guess senior PR practitioners who were at the congress did not want to be ambitious to expand the discussion beyond the area which they know well and are able to influence. On the other hand the fact is that most of the conflict points which are obstacles in the way of ‘building a harmonious society’ are of political and economic nature.

The emphasis of most speakers was on the role of public relations professionals in helping the corporate world to improve communications with their stakeholder. I have always been of the view that PR professionals should establish a two-way communications between their clients/companies and the stakeholders. Mark the emphasis on two way communications.

The corporate world or for that matter any organisation should listen to their stakeholders and refrain from monologue. In today’s world when the need for good governance and transparency is of primary importance, dialogue is important. The prevailing financial crises which have sent all the developed economies reeling down to recession have further strengthened the need for transparency. And how do you achieve this objective: one by communicating openly and honestly with the stakeholder; and two by listening to the voices of all the stakeholders and addressing their genuine concerns.

The cost of ignoring this and under-mining the need of expanding the scope of work of public relations can result in damaging the reputation of a corporation. Even many governments refuse to recognise the importance of the real role of their PR experts.

Octogenarian PR Guru Harold Burson defined the role of PR professionals at the IPRA Congress rightly: “The chief public relation officer has four roles: corporate sensor, corporate conscience, corporate communicator and corporate monitor. As corporate sensor and corporate conscience, he she contributes to and participates in the decision-making process. It is his/her job to anticipate changes in the social environment and make sure the corporation’s response meets public expectations. In the roles of corporate communicators and corporate monitor, he/she speaks for the corporation both truthfully and timely and makes certain the corporation is delivering on its promises.”

The problem is that there is very little understanding about this composite role of the PR not only in the corporate world, but also with most governments. As Harold puts it “PR is often enlisted after the strategy has been developed by others in the organisation perceived to be more knowledgeable about business than we in public relations. Often regarded as communicators than policy advisers, we increasingly find ourselves serving as ‘arms and legs’ rather than using our brain power.”

My personal experience of 20 years in this field tells me that each word is true. In Pakistan there is very little understanding about the four roles PR should perform as defined by Harold. When I opened up Pakistan’s first PR consultancy the good thing was that most CEO’s of the companies used to take personal interest. For example, one leading multinational oil company’s Deputy CEO used to have weekly meetings to brief me about the major policy decisions being taken and seek advice from a PR perspective. Once a month I was required to brief the CEO about the business and political environment. In crisis situations the company position was decided in consultation with PR advisers. At times PR advice over-ruled the CEO’s stance at the board room. Only a handful of companies follow this practice now. This practice continued for many years, till the PR management was relegated to the middle ranking managers, who were only interested in media relations. Sometimes I see corporate arrogance ignore the new kids on the block – the civil society – although they have become extremely influential and affect the corporate reputation across the globe.

Many global corporations value the importance of managing their reputation. In today’s Thomas Friedman’s ‘flat world’ it is becoming all the more necessary. The question CEO’s have to ask themselves is who is managing their and the company’s reputation? And what are the stakeholders’ expectations? Reputation is important as the ‘third bottom line’ and it does affect the business. So somebody has to wear the PR hat at the decision making level. Those who manage business on a day-today basis often miss the PR implications of a decision for the company’s reputation.

The same is true about governments. Once two of Musharraf’s government ministers asked me that why perception about the government was not good? I told them one because perceptions are proportionately linked with the behaviour; and two decisions that lead to behaviour are taken giving least consideration to the public perception. Then I asked who is responsible for the behaviour, they smiled and said Sheikh Rashid. Now when I hear him on various TV channels he is often found complaining that his advice was ignored. The same is perhaps happening to my one time colleague Sherry Rehman. I hear grumbling from some top people in the government that she is not managing the media well. I think she has been assigned the role of spokesperson which she is doing well. But as a perception manager, as discussed above she cannot deliver if the behaviour of the government falters.

So whether it is at the corporate or the government level, reputation management is a too serious and important thing to be ignored. It has to be based on truth and right behaviour. All spin-doctors ultimately have to eat humble pie, when they try to cover up the mistakes of the companies or governments they work for. PR without ethics is deception; leading professionals agree and such shenanigans violate this principle. ( Blog: )

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