On the current crisis, institutionalization and regulation…

Would a more ‘institutionalized’ PR function have performed a more useful function of warning and advising financial institutions over the last few years?
I suspect not – because the process of institutionalization would have removed detachment from the PR function.

This comment from Richard Bailey in a recent criticism of the Euprera Congress theme on its website, and even more so if you look at another post by Richard on the same issue on his own blog and please don’t miss David Phillips angry comments there as well as Heather Yaxley’s opinion.

This of course begs a reflection on current global events and their close relationship to our profession.
A daunting task, yet the only alternative would be the three monkeys act (no see, no hear, no speak).

It is interesting, and of course only a pure coincidence, that while these comments were being posted, Jack O’Dwyer published a revealing and definitely unusual piece of news from odwyerprconcerning the totally unrelated Los Angeles subway accident, where a colleague was fired because she found the nerve to tell media what she believed to be the truth and stood by that statement.
A rare event we learned about thanks to her public position.

But I am sure many of us are aware of other similar but unmentionable cases simply because we don’t’ want them public for many good and understandable reasons.
In a way it is similar to the practice of astroturfing in social media: we only learn about the cases someone discovers and decides to reveal. No one can ever even guess how much astroturfing is going on out there…

This said, there is no doubt that many, many, many public relators in these recent years, inside and outside of financial services and banking organizations (but the same would apply also to other industries, including the non profit and public sector ones) have consistently failed to apply the fundamentals of our profession, as much as there is no doubt that, at least some other public relators, have in fact actually applied them… only we are not openly aware of it…

What does this tell us?

To me, it says that today -while everyone and her cousin from every angle of social, political, financial analysis and practice, are frantically rethinking regulatory and licensing mechanisms of their respective activities to be able to better cope with these dramatic twenty first century currents- our own professional public relations community -which has so rapidly, and however critically, expanded its role and function in organizations and overall society over these last years- appears to be, for a significant part, lost in celebrating the, however mini, brighter aspects of its traditional twentieth century practices (they believe) adapted to this century’s new challenges and constraints.

Also for these reasons the coming Euprera congress on Institutionalization should not be frowned upon with scepticism and disdain by critics.

To the contrary it should be seen as an opportunity to voice all the legitimate and justified concerns related to the institutionalization process.

Let us, only to remain on the subject, analyse the regulation issue.
As we all know very well -while the professional community stubbornly refuses to put this item seriously on its agenda- governments, soft and hard local, regional, transnational regulatory authorities, social critics and media in every country are -day in and day out- either calling for the introduction of or actually introducing or modifying existing regulations related to public relations activities in finance, environmental, health, safety, security, consumer, political and public policy influencing sectors.

I am not aware of recent studies or activities concerning this delicate issue and would truly love to hear about them.

The only one I know of is the Global Alliance study of 2003 concerning a comparative analysis of the Uk, Italy and South Africa, and more conversationally, the intense and repeated conversations about regulation in this here blog ..

Is the academic community still chanting the ‘free speech’ argument?
Are professional associations still playing the ostrich game?

If it is true that public relations is achieving increasing responsibility inside organizations of all sorts and in every part of the world, because of its growing impact on the public sphere –and Milano will prove this truth at least in the final plenary debate when Jerry Swerling from the USC Annenberg School of Communication, Ansgar Zerfass from the University of Leipzig and Emanuele Invernizzi from IULM University of Milano will report on their recent research findings– then is it not time for us, in the interest of our stakeholder publics and the public interest, not in our interest ..if not that of improving our own licence to operate and of the organizations we operate for, to actively participate as a professional community to the ongoing regulation process which is going on whether we like it or not?

Your opinions?

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4 Replies to “On the current crisis, institutionalization and regulation…

  1. I never really thought that the list of ingredients, and their calorie and protein content, written on the side of a can of baked beans was the responsibility of a PR person.

    As for the timing of the release of financial news… you have a point in regard to the (infamous) rule FD of the United States government.

    And, yes, there are limits in Canada on what opoliticians can say and do as far as advertising goes on election day. But that’s advertising. A reporter can still interview a politician and broadcast the interview on radio.

    Thansk for the clarification.


  2. Brian,
    I am not sure to have understood your query.
    If you wish examples of the ongoing regulations which constrain our activities, these are normally laws concerning the sectors which I mentioned, and which include do’s and dont’s reflecting organizational communication.
    For example in most financial markets a quoted company is not allowed to distribute privileged information; in many countries food companies need to ensure that specific characteristics of their produce be communicated to consumers; in most countries the communication of political parties is regulated; the same goes for advocacy of special interests to public policy makers or that environmental consequences of organizational manufacturing activities must be communicated to local communities and I could go on and on and on….

    As public relations increases its impact, the public (normally represented by law makers, regulatory and other authorities), also by the way of activist groups, media and other social critics, require more constraints to be put on our varied practices.

    Normally professional associations, who claim to represent us, should be very much aware that these things are going on and should be active in making sure that new and old regulations be coherent, balanced, practical and most of all harmonised amongts different countries.
    In fact, they should themselves be proactive in advocating better and more effective regulation.
    This fails to happen most of the time.
    Have I clarified?

    a short reply: I don’t care what they call it, we all agree what we are talking about and I am happy to let everyone grind one’s own semantic axe.
    We are talking about a function residing in all sorts of organizations (clearly the video interview of Sriramesh is just one basic misunderstanding: he has yet to realize that the term corporate comes from the latin corpus which means organization: private, social, private….)which is mandated to improve communication and relationship with the organization’s publics.
    This function, contrary to ten years ago, is now increasingly powerful, reports more and more frequently to top management and less and less frequently to other functions such as marketing, hr or legal…and thus, for the good and the bad, is being institutionalized (as both Richard and David would say…..:)).
    The role of a responsible professional community, I contend, is to analyse this issue, evaluate the pros and the cons and endeavour to elaborate cautions, indicators and best practices to make sure the process proceeds in a way which is satisfactory for all stakeholders.

    I hope that Milano will be a starting point and I hope we can avoid all the undesirable consequences of a process which is proceeding disregarding our opinions and views.

    I insist that we do not need to either find a common definition, nor a common name, nor a consensus based platform: we only need to observe what is happening in the market, take this into consideration and act consequently…

  3. Toni,

    I would say yes,regulation is required but you can’t have adequate regulation before first determining what it is you are regulating, on what scale and why. That has not yet happened. The recent definition signposted by Jean Valin on Heather’s Radical PR post seems, once again, to be based primarily on a Western view of public relations and its associated literature. Meanwhile, over at the Euprera site, Krishnamurthy Sriramesh’s video interview of definitions casts another light on the debate.

    There is much mention and discussion on all the Euprera videos on the ‘name game’ – communication v. public relations – but as David Phillips says so wonderfully over at Richard’s blog, ‘corporate communication is to public relations as tennis balls are to Wimbledon’.

    ‘Institutionalization’ of public relations is, as I said before on your original Euprera post, being looked at against old rules of play, so I don’t believe that it would have had any real impact on the erupting financial institutions simply because its purpose is undefined, its reputation undermined and understanding as to what public relations achieves is so minimal in the wider community that the majority would be unlikely to recognise its involvement in the first place. Additionally, any positive impact it might have had would have been claimed by other disciplines currently lining themselves up to govern the roles that we undertake. During the mainstream media coverage I haven’t seen any public relations experts being quizzed on their view of the situation – plenty of financials, politicians and journalists at this end, but not one practitioner.

    Richard raises the question ‘Where is PR’ rather than ‘What is PR’. I would add ‘When is PR ever going to get its act together?’

    David Phillips had much to say on Richard’s blog and thank you for that signpost – but on the question you raise Toni, of regulation, I would quote David below (and I hope he and Richard will forgive me for doing so) as I think it is directly relevant to your post:

    “The firm (which, I contend, is the nexus of relationships), will always be better off with good public relations and it starts with answering your question ‘where is PR’.
    It should be quaking in its boots. It should be anticipating the enquiry into its failures that prompted the Credit Crunch and financial sector melt-down and its consequences.
    It should be concerned that the role of its institutions will be subject to academic scrutiny over standards.
    It should be examining how future generations of practitioners do not lead us to such a pass.
    Unless we see such investigation then perhaps in answering ‘Where is PR’ the repost will be ‘no one cares.'”

    I couldn’t agree more. If practitioners were licensed – and had this had been done years ago when first mooted – then such an investigation could be undertaken, the truths outed and improvements made.

    Sadly, what would happen, as we stand today, if such an investigation began? Naff all – with even fewer people inclined to utter David’s suggested repost of ‘who cares’, than even he might have considered.

    Personally, I very much doubt that a powerful function such as public relations will ever be completely woven into the fabric of the organisation (which is what I believe is under discussion with this notion of institutionalization) without some form of license to operate. I don’t however, see this happening any time soon. The added difficulty, should public relations be consigned to the ‘bedlam’ that I associate with institutionalization (I explained why elsewhere), is that the practitioner will become constrained and unable to advocate ‘within’ the organisation on behalf of the public – so the publics’ interests may not be adequately served. The practitioner in O’Dwyer would not have therefore spoken out. Society at large would not be better off.

    The cold comfort in all this is that the keen-eyed already recognise the value and form of public relations when building and sustaining the relationships they need to operate. They don’t pussy-foot around calling it anything other than public relations so will carry on as usual, be they corporate, government, not for profit or activist group. They will quietly get on with the job and be better organisations for it, as will their results and the communities with whom they intersect.

    The rest – well, they will probably hide parts of the dismembered body of public relations in other departments, call them yet another name at the slightest hint of criticism, keep the focus on the tools alone and provide us with case study after case study of bad practice, which should give future conferences (legal, accounting and HR of course) something to chew on.

  4. Can you clarify the following, please?: >governments, soft and hard local, regional, transnational regulatory authorities, social critics and media in every country are -day in and day out- either calling for the introduction of or actually introducing or modifying existing regulations related to public relations activities in finance, environmental, health, safety, security, consumer, political and public policy influencing sectors. ” and have this decision enforced in a court?

    Seems unreasonable to me.


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