One world, many voices in PR

Toni Muzi Falconi shares his impressions of the first Global Congress for Muslim PR Practitioners

Toni Muzi Falconi (third from right) receives an award for "excellent contributions in the field of public relations serving world communities" at the first Global Congress for Muslim PR

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:

  • Islam
  • 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”:

  1. Branding Feisal and other icons as champions of Islamic moderation.
  2. Arguing the positive health consequences of the Halal food consumption (today an annual $3.2 billion dollars market).
  3. Advocating the convenience of Islamic finance services (i.e., no interest charges).

In closing

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.

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8 Replies to “One world, many voices in PR

  1. Toni,

    Thanks for an interesting post. It is a shame that some readers feel intimidated to leave comments here, as I know we’d love to hear different views. Personally, the more people participating in the conversation, the better as this helps me consider different perspectives and think about my own ideas.

    I also am interested in the generational point you make and wonder if what we need in PR is to include a wider variety of perspectives and opinions in our University syllabi rather than seeking to develop distinct modules. Rather than seeking to reduce PR to commonalities, exploring where there are differences as well as similarities, cultural and religious considerations, gender variation and so on has to offer us a richer body of knowledge on which to base our thinking.

    1. Heather, you raise a topical issue.

      I have always argued that, even taking a very pragmatic and hands-on approach to teaching PR with young practitioners-to-be (in my view there is much too much of this in classrooms everywhere), you can’t help but admit that practising public relations in London is different from practising public relations in Whiltshire, and that the basis of our teaching should rely at least on a couple of central pillars:

      a) nothing is certain and the dynamics of change require a critical, inquisitive and analytical mindset

      b) the approach to practice is by definition global , but in the sense that generic principles stand only if and when specific applications are implemented and vice versa.

      These last twenty-some years have dissipated any ethnocentric myths or stereotypes. In my classes, I usually have participants from various regions of the world and, time and time again, I record values that are–at the same time–widely diversified, yet often coherent.

      When there was the rise of global brands in the eighties and nineties, one could say that corporate narratives created similar values amongst youngsters in most large metropolitan areas.

      At the same time however, time and time again, we have seen that these brand values are, at least for now–as much as they are very important to determine corporate strategies and programs–somewhat superficial and fickle.

      For example: Benetton’s controversial and aggressive narratives regularly create much buzz and are. for this reason. admired by many youngsters all over the world.

      Yet when the discussion emerges on whether the pope kissing the Imam in the mouth is an acceptable visualization of the concept of peace, highly different point of views emerge that relate much more to each participant’s more profoundly structured value base, rather than to the visualization purported by Benetton.

      I have no idea where this will lead us, of course. Not that I am particularly proud of it (I change it very much and update it every time I begin a new course), but to your point you might wish to take a look at the syllabi of the course I gave last summer.

      I am now working on the updated version, as my new class begins in March.

      A very Happy New Year to you!

  2. Toni, I’d be interested in knowing why the younger Muslim PR practitioners object to the concept of:

    – a religious-based PR practitioners’ association
    – Islamic PR becoming a specific curricula subject for Muslim PR students

    Is it because they identify less with the “religious” aspect of being Muslim and more with the inherent cultural values?

    Thanks for the guest post. It sounds like it was a fascinating congress. I hope the second one does happen in 2013, to keep up the momentum.

    1. Dear Judy, you are so kind to ask this question. …

      Some of the youngsters I spoke with in Kuala Lumpur, after having read my comment, sent me messages asking me to elaborate on these issues, but did not really feel up to the psychological challenge of actually doing this in public.

      Mind you, I don’t think it is because they are frightened by what their peers or seniors might say. It is just that the reputation of this blog finishes by intimidating some of the less-certain wishful commenters.

      I have received this type of remark before… as I am sure you have also.

      To your specific question:

      During the conference I tried to get the younger Muslims’ points of view. They argue that, being Muslims, they do not really feel that much different from youngsters with other beliefs. And this fairly resonates with the argument I often use in my global relations and intercultural communication class at NYU: i.e., that younger generations living in large urban centers have more in common today in Rio and Shanghai than they have with their respective elders who live only a few miles away in the country…..

      The real question then becomes, in analogy with the presentation I made in Kuala Lumpur…. readable at the end of the post and related to the debacle of the Dutch and the UK multicultural models:

      “…maybe these are other edifices ready to collapse from unexpected events because of too much attention to spin?”

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