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PR for PR

COMMONNESS - Bong R. Osorio - The Philippine Star

There are a number of views and principles that ran parallel among senior PR leaders in the newly institutionalized ASEAN PR Network (APRN), of which I am a member. The most conspicuous are the manifold challenges that face the PR professional in the region today; challenges that put the credibility and integrity of PR on the defensive. In the APRN summit recently held at the London School of PR in Jakarta, Indonesia, the same question resonates: Where exactly is the public relations practice? The collective observations generated from APRN colleagues revealed several commonalities:

PR is a career that hinges largely on “speaking out and speaking true.” The persistent thought that PR is a “dark art, ” while diminished, still remains. It is seen as a deal entered into by PR people with huge “relationship-building funds.” Still others describe it as organized lying, or spin doctoring. These are unmerited and unfair labels indeed and it is up to the industry to correct, if not totally reverse, the impression.

Data on the size or volume of the PR business can’t be accurately sourced. To this day, there are no indicative figures on how much the PR business spends annually, no rankings of multinational or local PR agencies and consultancies, not even the kind of budgets corporate communicators work with to support their deliverables. The Philippines has the most number of PR Associations. There are three active ones: the Public Relations Society of the Philippines (PRSP), International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), and the International PR Association (IPRA), the membership of which includes corporate practitioners and independent, freelance consultants and PR agency people. Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have one each, while the rest still have to create one. Generally, these PR organizations show active presence, aggressively recruiting members and staging events that bring PR professionals together for updates, professional development and social interactions.

There is no letup in the growth of PR as a business. PR multinational companies have established their operations in the region. While they have a token presence in the Philippines, the most visible of which are FleishmanHillard, Havas and Weber Shandwick, they are operating more actively in other progressive ASEAN territories. International advertising agencies with PR services like Ogilvy & Mather, and CAPRI for Campaigns & Grey in the Philippines, compete forcefully with a number of local PR agencies like Full Circle Communications, Perceptions, Inc., Buensalido PR, Larc and Asset, Stratos Inc., GeiserMaclang, Stratworks, Green Bulb, Visions & Expressions, and FuentesManila, among others. Their numbers are increasing in ASEAN countries, which clearly signal the heightened need for the use of PR communications by many companies and individuals.

One-man bands and “lean and mean” PR consultancy groups are mushrooming, too. They offer specialized services and give themselves fancy names or titles like image accelerators, media relation specialists, experience marketers, eventologists, or online PR partners. The USA experience is a benchmark in specialization. The practice has turned area- and target-specific, and the route that PR people take can either be driven by type of issue (environment, family planning), industry (fashion, IT, real estate), policy (health, education), and target public segment (teens, mothers, fathers, geriatrics). Everybody agrees that specialization requires expertise and thorough knowledge of the chosen field.

The lack of qualified professionals continues to hound the PR industry. The practice has expanded from publicity and media relations to strategic communication, which include crisis response planning, advocacy and corporate social responsibility, government relations, community engagement, and experience management. And with its strategic function, PR moves beyond earning space and time, and as more and more PR heads deserve the distinction of getting invited to be part of their company’s executive committee.

Sophisticated PR measurement and evaluation systems are staples. APRN members concur that these tools can demonstrate the substantive contribution of PR in achieving an organization’s short-term and long-term goals.  APRN members concur that everything in PR must be measured —like the way we work with journalists, the way we craft our statements and how they are distributed, the way our news are picked up, and the impact of our campaigns. Many research companies like iSentia offer offline and online performance metrics, and many companies involved in active PR implementations are beginning to see the value of regular and consistent measurement and evaluation programs.

Pushing for a culture of research should be every PR person’s concern. PR professionals count communication and strategy as the most essential skills in their practice. But one cannot put those skills to good use without a foundation of research and information gathering — market and industry research, news tracking, and competitive analysis. PR requires different research methods to make us know our clients better, find our publics more efficiently and choose our communication channels more appropriately.

A good accreditation system can erase competency questions on PR. It calls for the intensification of the value of the Accredited PR (APR), Accredited Business Communicators (ABC) or Certified PR (CPR) title. To eliminate the doubt, it should become mandatory, and appropriate educational qualifications should be secured by practitioners and demanded by employers. Corollary reform in the PR education system could be initiated to teach standards of practice (including ethics) as well as valid and reliable research and evaluation techniques while enforcing professional standards of proficiency in written and verbal communication skills.

PR organizations must establish stronger linkages and collaboration with the academe. Communications programs in universities must adjust their curricula to the demands of the current practice, while PR societies must develop mechanisms that can respond to the expressed needs of the industry. The matching of needs with university offerings may be school-based or off-campus. An example of such partnership is what I witnessed recently, where a fun, playful, flexible and comfy shoe brand distributed locally, sponsored a PR Quest among PR classes at the university where I teach. Four groups, under a student organization, play-acted as PR communication agencies to win the account. They were each given a PR brief and from that brief, worked on what they believe would be a winning proposal. The event uncovered exactly what is happening out in the field to students, who in turn, can echo the lessons to their peers, and more importantly, use the experience as a meaningful preparation for a real, professional PR job.

The competition gave the students more than just the opportunity to present. They went through the entire process of gathering and synthesizing data, understanding their target publics, crafting strategy, brainstorming for creative ideas and putting elements together to form the final output. It gave them a perspective on how dynamic PR is. Looking at the work of the students, the ideas were fantastic and fresh. To a certain extent, some of the ideas forwarded were even fresher than some of those we see in the PR media today.

The creation of a PR board should be marked “urgent.” It can be the arm that will institute development, influence the PR course offerings in schools, establish mechanisms for continuous professional advancement and generate greater respect for the practice. It should stimulate the leaderships of various PR organizations to help chart the course for the practice, such as defining the general principles and ethical standards for the trade and outlining the implementing rules and regulations of the profession. There is no existing PR board or any equivalent body in place in any ASEAN member country. The APRN takes the challenge of spearheading the move to create one.

A “PR for PR” program can bring a more positive face to the profession. A communications campaign on behalf of the PR profession itself could be considered to build a stronger brand character for PR, a program that will tell and sell the story of PR and make the targeted publics appreciate its importance. After all, PR is a business and communication discipline anchored on one universal principle: It should at all times be based on great performance that brings great results.

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