Blogging from Vilnius on black pr. A really freezing shower for all of us!

The only thing that I regret is not having been able to understand (because of the lack of an english translation) of three and one half presentations (out of nine!) which unfortunately were in the Russian language (the Russian one of course, Belarus, Polish and half of the Latvian one).
However the ones I was able to understand (English, Italian, Lithuanian, Ukrainan and German one) were well worth it.

Here are some tidbits:
Ignas Zokas, Ceo of Spinter polling company from Lithuania opened the session by presenting the results of an April 07 study of that country’s business community (156 telephone interviews) and how they perceive the role of black pr in their country.
36% of the sample indicates that a public relators’ role is to create a positive image of the organization and 33% say it is instead to distribute information to the media.
31% indicate that big companies need pr more than others while 26% say that all organizations need pr.
42% believe the public relators’ most important task is to gain positive coverage while 58% say that it is to gain balanced and correct coverage.
If they had to choose between a public relator who indulges in black pr and one who doesn’t 71% would go for the first and 27% for the second (a bit contradictory with the previous, no?).
35% believe that all public relations agencies indulge in those practices and specifically 50% say that those practices are mostly used to gain direct advantages for their clients, while 47% say that they are used to smear their clients competitors.
A good 33% of the sample say that they have been themselves victims of black pr and the same number believe that in Lithuania the practice is more widespread than elsewhere.
Some optimism in the 32% who say the phenomena in decreasing while 28% insist that it is instead increasing.
Finally 47% believe black pr is not a crime, 40% indicate that it is less serious than bribing a public official while 10% say it is the same.
Refreshing isn’t it….?

Colin Farrington, Ceo of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, presented a paper under the suave title ‘a little more than half way to heaven- extending professionalism in public relations’ and said that public relations is ‘improving reputation by building relationships’ focussing on the importance of life long learning and professional updating. He also announced that the 2008 world pr festival organizaed by the Global Alliance will be held in London from June 23 and 24.
During the final discussion Colin made two important remarks:
a) a lot of what is called black pr is not in itself illegal but it is its opacity (i.e. secretness) which makes it so;
b) the relationship between journalists and public relators (particularly where the public interest is concerned) should not be chummy one by all means. The agendas of the two professionals are often antagonistic and so they should be.

Dmitri Gusev, an important Russian political consultant who reportedly had trouble in getting his visa, spoke through the telephone and reportedly talked about political black pr arguing how black pr is pervasive and is also being used by adversaries of the present leadership from abroad (mostly England).

Inga Latkovska, from Latvia, before she suddenly turned to the Russian language, succeeded in saying that if one cannot define pr (mentioning the more than 300 different definitions…) it is not possible to define black pr..and that was that! She did however say that in her country it was easy to bribe the media.

I presented the Italian situation which I had already attached here this morning in the next to the last post of this blog.

Yaryna Klyuchkovska, from Ukraine, made an excellent presentation talking about the recent smear campaign involving the Alga Group/Telenor case (Telenor went public by exposing documents indicating how Alga Group hired pr agencies to do their dirty work) and said that black pr is a norm.
She estimates that some 50% of the pr spent goes in those practices, without even considering political pr where it certainly much higher.
She explained this by citing the owner of the media political agenda, the economic pressure to raise media revenues (journalists receive from their publishers economic quotas to reach in money raised by private interest for coverage), shortage of professional journalists (most have families, she said) and, more importantly, lack of transparency in the business community.
Success is measured by number of articles, the control of the message and the channel…and insisted that once the ball gets rolling it is very very difficult to break the vicious circle (a sort of addiction?). The major question which always comes up when two public relators meet is…. ‘to pay or not to pay’.

But the most interesting presentation was that of Thorsten Lutzler of the DPRG, the German public relations association.
He began by saying that it is not true that black pr is practiced in eastern Europe and that in western Europe this does not happen.
He went on to show that 54% of the german public believes that pr is propaganda and that another 59% believe that pr and advertising are the same thing.
From 1 to 5, the public trusts pr consultants at 2.8 (journalists instead trust us at 2.5!) slightly higher than advertising people and politicians (2.4).
Journalists say we are truthful only at 2.1, responsible towards society and honest at 2.3.
The only characteristic which journalists attribute us with more than a 4 mark (4.4) is…..loyalty!!!
Thorsten then went on to describe various recent cases of black pr in his country, including the millionaire lobbyist which was found having the same bank account of the defence minister, media coverage for money, television soap opera producers paid by companies to plug their products, paid blogging practices, and questioned whether certain related marketing tactics were not also to be considered as black pr.
But possibly the most interesting part of his presentation was when he indicated the new policy of his association to go out in public and denounce every bad practice. In 2006 there were 28 council decisions, 24 of which ended with public reprehensions…. which is more than all the previous 20 years of the association’s history!
I will only add that when Jean Valin put together in 2002 the base study amongst 20 associations from around the world concerning the preparation of the Global Alliance’s ethic protocol which was approved in Rome in 2003, it emerged that a total of 16 cases had been investigated by the 20 associations in the last five years and that most of these cases involved feuds between professionals and had nothing to do with their practices towards their influential publics!!

This is it, my friends, from Vilnius, Lithuania. I would very much like to comment, but I am somewhat speechless if not on one issue: it is only professional associations who can turn this thing around !
The German case is exceptionally interesting and a model for all!!!
I am of course eager to receive your reaction to this freezing shower and on how we should (how can we not?) proceed with this discussion.

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10 Replies to “Blogging from Vilnius on black pr. A really freezing shower for all of us!

  1. I took notes as the presenter was speaking. Later on I spoke with him and he gave me his business card but have not yet got around to contacting him for further info. You might wish to contact him directly at Spinter. This note however brings up the issue of the real validity of these researches on vaguely defined concepts, such as that of black pr. To correctly interpret those answers one would need reassurance that the interviewees were supplied with a clear definition of waht they were being asked to express opinions on… Yes, I agree. Maybe Spinter’s ceo, if he reads this, would like to comment.

  2. tony,
    have you more detailed information about the Spinter research?
    How do the respondents understand the concept of black pr? If that would be clear, I guess there could be a much more interesting discussion on that (NB! LT media entitled the conference of European Political Consultants Association 2006 as a reunion of black pr technologists:)

    Furthermore, the concept of black PR in LT is strongly bound with political PR. And here lie a lot of expectations of market participats (i.e. research respondents): from lobby (in the best case)or even corruptive activities (in the worst), without acknowledging the risk of illegal state surveillance upon these black technologists.

  3. Thanks for the education, Markus. Probably I should have qualified my statement a bit more (“North American” or “English speaking”)

    The Canadian Public Relations Society does have some minimum requirements, too. From its website:

    “Membership is voluntary and is restricted to individuals (not firms) who are engaged in the practice of public relations on behalf of business and industrial concerns, consulting firms, trade and professional associations, governments, educational institutions, health and welfare organizations, and other similar endeavors.

    Eligibility requirements are fully described in Part 4 of the Society’s Bylaws. To be eligible for membership in the Canadian Public Relations Society, applicants must devote most of their work for/pay time to the practice of public relations, have a degree in public relations, or be a career teacher or administrator engaged in public relations/communications education at an accredited post-secondary institution.”

    Interestingly, when I was doing my research on Charles Tisdall, I learned that in the “good old days” the boys club voted on whether someone could be admitted to membership in CPRS or not. Something Charles apparently worked to change.

    Finally Markus, any association that has you as a member is obviously a force to be reckoned with…. 😉

  4. Judy,
    it takes a little bit more than a few bucks and a formal pious lip service to some code of ethics to become a member of PRVA (Austrian PR Association). Of course you have to pay a membership fee and you have to agree to adhere to a code (Code of Athens it is at the moment) and some other regulations as explained in detail in the PRVA statutes. But besides that, to become a regular member (there are other forms of membership) you have to prove your professional qualification (by appropriate education and 3 years of practical experience).
    Okay, you were talking about MAJOR pr associations :-))

  5. In order to have carriage for the conduct of its members, doesn’t a “professional” association have to take direct responsibility for all aspects of training (at the front end, as well as continuing professional development) of its members? (i.e., body of knowledge, responsibilities to the public, ethical aspects, etc.)

    I don’t know of any major public relations-related association that insists on approving that each member has attained a body of knowledge (i.e., been “certified”) prior to the granting of membership. (In most cases you pay your membership fee and tick-off a box saying you read the code of ethics and agree to adhere to it.)

    Ergo, the credibility and argument for carriage of “policing” the individuals on what is right or wrong regarding practice is weaker.

    “As you weren’t the body to train me–note, not test me on my existing skill set and knowledge–why would you be the watchdog to say what I’m doing is wrong and that my membership is in jeopardy?”

    I concur that the German model is indeed moving this accountability and “professionalism” forward and I look forward to hearing more information.

  6. This takes us back to some of the earlier posts of tonisblog. Who does the association represent?
    Its members? The profession?
    And… according to this which are the consequences?
    Let me explain:
    °if I decide that my association represents its members, then I will be stimulated to do everything possible to make sure that its members behave differently from the rest of the professional community in order to gain that competitive advantage….but, in this case, there is no way I can coherently pretend to represent the profession per se (legal recognition etc…);
    °if, instead, I decide to represent the profession as such, then I will be stimulated to be as big as possible in order to gain public legitimacy by numbers, and also to investigate, speak out etc,etc, on issues of public concern….including increasing manifestations of black pr.
    As far as I know very few associations, if any, have debated this issue at lenghth and decided a policy.
    We tend to remain always on both sides of the fence (the interest group and the club) and show one side of our face according to a situational interest.
    This is both hoghly debatable management practice as well as a good dose of cinicism…but that is reality.
    So? Where do we go from here?
    I am anxious to receive from Germany answers to the many questions I raised with my deutsche friends and will relate the answers as I receive them… but in principle I would refrain from seeking any public notoriety and keep our private clubs just that, until we cannot find the internal consensus and the external support to also operate as (or vocally and publicly support other bodies in being…) watchdogs of professional practice.
    There are many ways of doing this and not necessarily do they all imply being sued for slander…which is the mighty-phantom scare-flag which big associations always wave at critics who ask questions.
    That is why the german case is so interesting.
    As for me, I would very much hope that both volunteers and managers of professional associations be stripped of all alibis, appear naked, and seriously argue with their members what they are truly after…which cannot reasonably be everything.
    I also hope that Margaretha Sjoberg from Sweden and president of Cerp will pick this issue up again as she recently did and stimulate open and public debate amongst our professional associations.
    Also I dare dream that the Global Alliance might maybe decide to stick its head out of the sand for a moment for a good breath of fresh air…

  7. Good Point Markus. That is the global problem with justice and most associations lack the means to conduct investigations to gather those proofs.

    It would be interesting to know how the German Association managed to do it.

    However, I notice that in a small country like Portugal or Austria we have the problem of close relations and personal relations becoming more important than relationships based on professional standards. That’s what I was trying to bring about.

    João Duarte

  8. Is it really that professional associations are “afraid to expose” cases of black pr? Most cases of malpractice are based on a mutual agreement of non-disclosure of the accomplices, so it’s more a lack of evidence than the associations’ reluctance to take action.
    Everbody knows it, many do it – but the hands of the associations are tied because they have no proof. (As the proverb goes: Where there’s smoke there’s … pollution 😉 But we’d need more than just smoke, we’d need hard facts.)

  9. Toni,

    Impressive data and above all, impressive reality. I’m sure we are all aware of the cultural differences (some of them have been mentioned in Tonisblog) that make it normal (in countries like e.g. China ) for Journalists to accept bribery in order to go to press conferences. But I totally agree that black PR is not a problem only in Eastern europe.

    As for Portugal, I can say that the logic of the PR market is mostly based on mid-level professionals with only Journalism studies and entry-level professionals with different backgrounds (including PR and Communication). This kind of structure seems not the ideal one to avoid black practices, most of them performed by ex-journalists working on the “other side of the fence”. Bottom line is that the existence of the so called black pr practices (although not proofed and most of all, not assumed by any of the important actors of the field, except maybe some academics) is unquestionable, at least from what we hear and what we see in the news.

    I totally agree with you that this is the kind of sindrome that exists in many countries: professional associations are “affraid” to expose (or even to privately deal with) bad cases. The curious thing is that this is a stigma that, as PR practitioners, we constantly counsel our clients to avoid. We insist that “the first step to deal with a problem is to acknowledge it” while we keep running away from our own problems. In fact, this explains why so many PR Agencies and Associations fail to have a PR Department while trying to make others believe in the power of PR.

    João Duarte

  10. I don’t have an answer right now for the question how we should proceed with this discussion but it definitely is something that has to be dealt with on the level of professional associations.
    Btw. it is one of the topics that the Austrian association (PRVA) has put on its priority list. I did a podcast interview about questions of ethics with the new president of PRVA today. URL is: (german only, sorry, but if you understand German it’s worth listening to).

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