Is the PR Industry up to the communications challenge of the new world order?

In the latest Thought Leaders article, Rachel Catanach examines PR in Asia and asks whether the industry can meet the challenges of the post credit crunch era?  

In the lead-up to the G20 Summit, the global financial services industry is debating the implications of new stringent regulations on capital requirements and liquidity restrictions that have been introduced by governments to prevent another catastrophic financial market meltdown.

Are the regulations too tough or not tough enough?  Are the right areas being regulated? Will the regulations meet the demands by the broader public for greater transparency and financial oversight?

These discussions in the corridors of power and in boardrooms across the globe should also make the public relations industry sit up and take stock.  What responsibility do we have to help our financial services clients meet these new demands for transparency?

Do we have the right skills as a profession to navigate the complexities and provide sound, compliant advice to clients?  What standards are in place to assure multinational companies of the integrity of their communications supply chain at a time where content can be distributed globally at the touch of a button?

Transparency core

The demand by the broader public for greater transparency goes to the heart of our business as public relations professionals.  As an industry, we pride ourselves on managing reputations.

We are often responsible for building trust between organizations and their stakeholders.  It is our responsibility, therefore, to make sure we doing enough to respond to the new challenges in a comprehensive way.

The time has come for us to lead by example.  In the new world order, having clear and consistent standards that operate across cultural boundaries has never been more important for our industry.

Arguably, Toyota’s crisis was exacerbated because they did not have globally consistent standards of communication.

We should examine our own standards of transparency and be more proactive in communicating what we stand for as a profession and how we can help our clients meet the new mandates.

Having a strong code of ethics is ever-crucial, particularly in the area of social media, where many of the boundaries of acceptability are still blurred.   This is especially true in China, where the Internet is regarded as the most trusted information channel yet there is a huge variance in how transparent organisations are about the social media strategies they deploy.

Tactical play

According to former CNN reporter and Visiting Fellow, Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University Rebecca MacKinnon, China’s government, for example, deploys an army of 280,000 “astroturfers” to improve China’s online public image by posting positive anonymous comments to blogs, wikis and other public venues.

China’s government is not alone in using this tactic. But as demonstrated by the recent case in the US, where Californian company Reverb Communications was taken to task by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for astroturfing, this sort of behavior is increasingly unacceptable.

Reverb faced charges of deceptive advertising as a direct result of the company’s policy of encouraging its employees to write and post positive reviews of its clients’ games from November 2008 to May 2009. Following the FTC crackdown and subsequent settlement, Reverb agreed to remove all fake app store reviews from iTunes.

While consistent ethical standards in the social media arena are paramount, the demand for transparency by the broader public reaches beyond this.  What really angered many people in the financial crisis was being taken by surprise.  They felt financial institutions failed to adequately explain complex information and package it so it could be understood by CEOs, regulators and “mom and pop” investors alike.

Many financial organizations now realize that if they want the lighter hand of oversight rather than the heavier hand of regulation, the burden of educating their stakeholders and publics about their financial offerings rests squarely with them.

And it is incumbent on communications professionals to facilitate this task – not just in the financial arena but also in many other industries where the sheer volume of information available can obfuscate issues rather than illuminate them.

For public relations and public affairs professionals, this is both an opportunity and a threat.  It’s an opportunity for us to really step up and provide quality communication that has demonstrable business value.

It’s a threat in that if we do not provide the quality communication needed, our role will be usurped by management consultants or professionals such as lawyers who are increasingly adding communications to their list of services>

The onus is on us to up our game.  In addition to media relations specialists and digital strategists, we need content specialists — communicators who are able to synthesize complex issues and then present them in simple yet compelling ways for many different channels and audiences.  We should select and train people on this basis.

At the same time, to ensure quality communication is perceived to have real value, we should continue to educate businesses to measure more than output – the quantity of coverage or the amount of clicks – when judging public relations performance.  More important are the outtakes — what the audience understands and does as a result of the communication – and outcomes – what impact the communication has on the business.

So as 2011 quickly approaches, we should all examine our own standards of transparency and quality. Setting the bar higher will help us as a profession to move up the value chain as trusted advisors who are keeping pace with a new world order led by responsive, responsible communications.

Rachel Catanach is SVP, Senior Partner and General Manager of Fleishman-Hillard Hong Kong and is a board member of the Council of Public Relations Firms of Hong Kong, which is committed to building a stronger public relations industry in Hong Kong through an active accreditation scheme

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