One world, many voices in PR
Toni Muzi Falconi shares his impressions of the first Global Congress for Muslim PR Practitioners
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from December 5 to 7, 20011, 197 Muslim colleagues from 33 countries, plus two non-Muslim Canadians (Jean Valin and Dan Tisch) and one non-Muslim Italian—the author of this guest post—gathered together for the inaugural Global Congress for Muslim Public Relations Practitioners (GCMPRP). Notably, many of the attendees indicated they were regular readers and ardent fans of PR Conversations.
I’m pleased to report the congress comprised three full days of frank, open and critical discussion, both in sessions and in corridors during breakouts. Perhaps no definitive answers to the big issues were determined, but definitely an excellent selection of presentations focused on real areas to tackle, with ongoing work and considered thought for now and in future.
The Voice of Moderation and Harmony
A widespread sense of satisfaction was palpable at the event, having succeeded in what initially appeared to be a difficult journey. The general feeling of success melded with a second, intense sense of responsibility and some apprehension on what the future might hold for the newly created International Association for Muslim Public Relations and Communication Practitioners, reflected in the unanimously approved umbrella conference theme: The Voice of Moderation and Harmony. An explicit invitation to join the new association is extended to interested non-Muslim practitioners—this author has already applied for membership.
Relationship building highlights involved two heroes and a mentor. First the mentor, Malaysian Sri, Dr. Syed Arabi Idid, the highly regarded, mild and friendly, knowledgeable and respected, chair of the organizing committee for the congress.
The two heroes are the amicable and inspiring Imam Feisal Abd Rauf of the Ground Zero Mosque in New York, who has since become a global icon of the Muslim moderation movement. And also Puan Shameem Abd Jalil, the sweet but tough, lovely but firm, highly professional director of communication and business liaison of Public Investment Bank. She was a key organizer of this event, partly as a significant research component towards her doctoral degree on “The Voice of Moderation in Islamic Communication: The Preferred Tone in Islam from the Perspective of Practices in Malaysia.”
And, “without further ado” (as the students who capably performed as MCs for each session were wont to say), here is the beef (i.e., my impressions from the congress):
On the merits of a religious-based PR practitioners’ association
The decision to create a global PR association with a defined religious corollary was openly discussed. Interestingly, some of the more critical remarks regarding the concept came from younger delegates.
Many others argued that the global perception of Muslims was predominantly based on misconceptions and stereotypes perpetuated by the media systems in the western world. As such, it is the “social” responsibility of the large majority of moderate Muslim public relations practitioners, students, teachers and scholars to collaborate on a planned—and acutely aware—effort to re-establish a more balanced perception by the media and other publics. It was thought the likelihood of success would increase by attracting and convincing non-Muslim colleagues from all over the world (from the start) as to the worth of this endeavour.
With this in mind, efforts should focus on bridging the existing knowledge divides between Muslim practitioners, as well as between this group and non-Muslim colleagues. In this way all could support and champion a global effort.
Notable: Similar to how most public relations conferences fixate on why public relations practitioners have such a poor reputation, in this case reputation issues have a double-edged sword: being in PR and being a Muslim. This emphasizes even more the case to undertake what many called a “rebranding effort.” The more aware agreed that, similar to the simple but diffused PR reputation issue, the challenge really lies in day-to-day behaviour—in other words, from PR practitioners and Muslims alike.
Personal reflection: Whilst the vast majority of behaviour by people working in PR justifies the reputation we hold—but rarely grabs media headlines—a small minority of Muslim extremists and their behaviour do make headlines…with devastating consequences.
What’s more, pertaining to the frequent assault on western media, many delegates exchanged “the finger for the moon.” It was back in 1980 that William MacBride wrote for UNESCO his “Many voices one world” report on the role of western media. It has been clear, at least since then, that shooting the messenger is a much easier, yet futile, exercise than crafting a different narrative (discussing the massager…). Or, as some indicated, “conveying a different point of view.” Most of our employers and clients have always voiced the same gripe since I can remember, anyways. But we know all too well that it’s up to us (not to the media) to be more smart, capable and credible.
On the notion that Islamic PR becomes a specific curricula subject for Muslim PR students
Once again, the majority of criticisms to this concept came from the younger participants!
As one scholar at the congress indicated, the course would have three major components:
- human sciences
- public relations and communication
However, as others argued, one wonders how Islamic students could relate intelligently the latter two components to the first (i.e., Islam) if they have not studied the relationships between all religions and public relations (perhaps a boundary-spanning exercise?).
Of course, the relationship between Islam and human sciences and PR and communication is strong and could well become a major component of a global public relations curricula.
Personal reflection: In this case students should study the “sensemaking” of diverse religions, including agnosticism and even atheism, and relate these to historical developments in the public narratives of each faith. Perhaps an interfaith public relations course?
On the idea that Islam needs a “rebranding” exercise
Leaving aside the typical—found in many conferences—divide on the actual appropriateness of the use of the term “rebranding” that emerged in parts of the discussion, one of the two “heroes” of the conference, Feisal Abd Rauf, underlined the dire need for public relations in general, and for Islam public relations in particular, to stick close to advocating moderation, harmony and inclusiveness.
The Ground Zero Mosque case in New York made headlines around the world. At its inception, it was the result of an all-out PR and political attack on Muslims. Yet Feisal succeeded in turning the attack on its heels and attracting solidarity and collaboration from many liberal and lay forces in global society.
Feisal is now a global icon of Islamic moderation. He also noted the Koran refers often to public relations. For example, Arab kings were criticized by the Prophet because they used poets (today’s public relators?) to oversell their activities, instead of promoting a more balanced narrative.
Three initial themes emerged as content for Muslim “rebranding”:
- Branding Feisal and other icons as champions of Islamic moderation.
- Arguing the positive health consequences of the Halal food consumption (today an annual $3.2 billion dollars market).
- Advocating the convenience of Islamic finance services (i.e., no interest charges).
These are my initial impressions from the inaugural Muslim PR Congress. I feel these three themes need a better framing (ideally from other attendees or Muslim PR practitioners, scholars and students), as well as ad hoc PR programs. Additionally, it would be beneficial to identify other coherent themes that emerged from this congress. The comments section here would be a great start—consider yourself invited to engage in some respectful debate.
Here is the text of my presentation at the congress: “Can we support the future of multicultural integration by applying the ‘generic principles and specific applications’ paradigm of public relations?”
I also invite you to read the conference synopsis by Dan Tisch, current chair of the Global Alliance.
The second Muslim PR Congress is planned for 2013; possibly it will be held in Tehran, Iran.