Many may argue that there can be no ethics in this profession because the practice itself is akin to manipulation and propaganda. A belief among many in the media is that the term ‘public relations ethics’ is an oxymoron: Either an unreal possibility, or smoke and mirrors to hide deception
The media in Sri Lanka both print, electronic and even the internet is being well regulated. The words regulation and media at first sight may seem like acronyms, since free media may sometimes be perceived as unregulated to the uninitiated. But to insiders, it is well-known that there are many rules, regulations and norms that apply. Journalists cannot write stories without proper sourcing, checking and being mindful of defamation laws or even rules and regulations that are indigenous to the country.
The Sri Lanka Press Institute talks about self-regulation and has a set of rules that its members have to follow such as giving aggrieved parties the right to reply. However, within the ambit of the media, lurking in the penumbra of its influence lies a fairly camouflaged animal that has a great impact on the media. This writer is talking about the public relations profession which although a significant contributor to the media is not yet a body which acts within a set of rules and regulations or for that matter, any accepted norms.
Amateurish industry approach
If one asks any senior journalist in a local news room of their opinion about Sri Lanka’s public relations people, nine out of ten would have a very low opinion for people doing this job. This is not surprising, since a large part of the public relations industry, which deals with the corporate sector in Sri Lanka, has a very amateurish approach. This may sound harsh and unfair but it is unfortunately the fact.
There are many issues - for a start, editors complain that the PR people who call them are inexperienced. For example, they ask them to publish various stories but most often cannot explain the story to the editor with any clarity – sometimes they do not have any idea as to what is said in the press release. Public relations companies are determined to get anything published without considering whether it is of any value to the target readership of the newspaper they are wooing.
What does not seem to be understood is that there is a big difference between advertising and public relations. Today, due to public relations professionals not properly managing the needs of their clients and explaining to them what is and isn’t possible in PR, there are situations that build up where clients actually believe that they can use precious editorial space in the same manner they would utilize advertising space.
Competitors battle with each other by looking at who can capture the largest amount of column centimeters and believe that their marketing strategies are on track by merely looking at what size of article has been printed about them.
There may be many ways to debate the differences in advertising and PR but this writer would like to take this path i.e.: Advertising is about top of the mind recall whereas PR is more about managing perception. This may sound rather simplistic and I am sure advertising and PR gurus might challenge this statement - as certainly there are areas that overlap in advertising and public relations and this grey area can cause confusion for one profession to look like the other and vice versa.
However, for the sake of this argument we need to define some clear boundaries. An advertisement is paid space whereas most PR pitches in the media is not paid for. What needs to be clearly understood is that PR is a necessary component of the free media space - it helps to balance out the media equation where the other side of the story is managed in order to maintain fair, accurate and balanced reportage. But the question is whether here in Sri Lanka it has any professional standing – are public relations companies pumping the media with worthless material which adds no value to the media who they depend on? In other words, are the PR people killing the goose that lays the golden egg?
Time for self-regulation
If this be the case, isn’t it time for some self-regulation in this industry? Does the industry need some guiding principles, a list of dos and don’ts? It is probably time even for the Sri Lanka Press Institute to look at encouraging this industry to follow some rules. After all, the PR industry can be called an auxiliary arm of the media, considering the large quantities of material that is churned out by PR companies which ultimately end up in the media space.
Many may argue that there can be no ethics in this profession because the practice itself is akin to manipulation and propaganda. A belief among many in the media is that the term ‘public relations ethics’ is an oxymoron: Either an unreal possibility, or smoke and mirrors to hide deception.
But it need not be so if individual companies and their PR firms can be educated on the dos and don’ts of operating within the media. The Sri Lanka Press Institute in collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce has already started to educate corporate communications people on the subject, but what about PR professionals? They seem to be in limbo with not much idea of how the media views them or what they have to do in order to give a better service to their client as well as add value to the media they deal with. The PR industry needs to get their act together fast. If this is not done, they would stop being of any value to the media in Sri Lanka.