Crisis Management & Media Training @ Oriel

The Plight of Public Relations

(In this ( In this article published in The Financial Express, Khalid Jamal comments on the state of PR industry and its future)

It is a pity that even routine work like making an activity and reporting chart can be projected as the development of a process and a system. The fact that such a thing is also being highlighted through media coverage reflects the shallowness of the prosaic ideas that the public relations (PR) industry has been churning out of lately. Perhaps, this is a logical effect of the long hibernation that the PR industry underwent when it started limiting itself largely to media relations.

The prevailing rot in the field of public relations is the culmination of a much deeper malaise that the industry has encountered following the waning of the magic of 'wide smiles, mighty mouths and shoe shine' on the corporates. These corporates are now increasingly demanding value added work, which goes much beyond column centimeter coverage. It is this demand that has put the PR industry in state of flux - at least in India.

Since the days of Ivy Lee, considered the father of public relations, the industry seems to have made no significant strides to enrich the core of its discipline. After missing out on the worldwide strategic management movement of the 1960s, the industry could not recover completely from the hang up with which it emerged - that of being a peripheral activity and that of never occupying a pride of place on the top agenda of management. On the contrary, other disciplines like marketing, finance and even legal and secretarial services gained more teeth, respectability and pride of position in the scheme of things.

Public relations could not quite bounce back from the beatings that its image had to take when distinguished management thinkers foisted the stereotypes of 'fixers', 'white washers' and of 'people who can generate free editorial coverage' on it.

Though PR has been around for over 50 years in India, unlike other countries where it has been gradually recognized, its full capability is yet to be appreciated here. We still understand contemporary PR as a discipline which can project a rosy picture and carry out an effective white washing job. The confusion is well reflected in the criterion applied by a large number of corporates for recruiting a PR person or a consultancy. The number of journalists the candidate is friendly with becomes the sole criterion rather than any real PR substance.

However, a modest beginning is being made which might herald a windfall for the PR industry as corporates are realizing that today's environment demands a sound PR strategy which is something more than the management of covering events. It is for this reason that one hears complaints of the non-availability of trained and quality PR professionals and consultancies.

However, even this is changing with the last few years seeing the advent of PR consultants. This has given rise to the hope that there may be a chance of seeing some good contribution to the discipline. But the problem nonetheless remains where it has always belonged: the column centimeter coverage syndrome. Most of those who rode piggyback on this coverage syndrome. and hogged the limelight in the industry now realize that the survival rules are changing with the media becoming more savvy. The media is adopting more professional parameters for coverage and this may impose a vulnerable situation where the PR consultants may have to risk being run out of their utility as far as media relations are concerned. Incidentally, the media has become critical of not only such consultancies but also of those clients who fail to regulate their ways of influencing the media.

The coming of multinational corporations and the evolving professional outlook of the Indian industry and its codes - as being developed by the press for self regulation, should make the PR industry do some soul-searching and in the process adopt a more professional attitude and develop real and meaningful processes and systems. The new business realities have definitely thrown challenges for PR professionals and given them an opportunity to show what can be achieved for organizations as more corporates look for newer ways to grapple with the changing business environment. Sadly, we do not seem to come out of the narrow boundaries of functions that we have defined for PR and still feel that the market for PR is opening up in a big way. In reality, the corporates are closely assessing what PR firms can deliver while the professionals bask under a placebo of inevitability brought about by a spurt in demand for PR services.

But who will survive and for how long in the PR business is the question. It will undoubtedly depend on how the professionals overcome the crisis of caliber and salvage the industry from being pushed further down with the image of a smile and shoeshine discipline.

Other Articles

Building Corporate Equity: The Importance Of Being Earnest
(This is the first part of the article on corporate communications written by Khalid Jamal and published in the Hindu BusinessLine)

Cultivating An Image
(This is the 2nd part of the article on corporate communications written by Khalid Jamal and published in the Hindu BusinessLine)

Creating An Identity
(This is the 3rd part of the article on corporate communications written by Khalid Jamal and published in the Hindu BusinessLine)

The Siege Around
(In this two part article published in The Financial Express, Khalid Jamal comments on the current status of corporate
  communications discipline and its future)