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All PR is not bad PR

It's often a struggle for public relations (PR) consultants to explain the work they do, not because of the vagueness of their job but the diversity of the roles they play. Sharif D Rangnekar writes.

india Updated: May 21, 2011 17:12 IST
Sharif D Rangnekar

It's often a struggle for public relations (PR) consultants to explain the work they do, not because of the vagueness of their job but the diversity of the roles they play. While PR consultants build and protect images and reputations of companies and other institutions, the role of PR extends to outreach, advocacy and creating a share of voice for organisations. The end results are often aimed at changing mindsets that is not too different from advertising or the media.

Still, as a result of these diverse functions, a PR consultant may not necessarily be a lobbyist and vice-versa. The same could be said for an agency — not all agencies have public affairs departments providing advocacy as a service. More importantly what needs to be understood is that advocacy or lobbying helps in maintaining plurality. The problem, though, is whether the means for obtaining a share of voice or a say in public policy is through ethical ways or clandestine illegal ones. There can't be any two views on clandestine activities as is the case with any industry.

What is often forgotten is the role that lobbying or advocacy plays in any democracy. Its success lies in the ability to influence, to be heard and, at times, change the way people think. Advocacy brings about change, often with positive outcomes. The liberalisation process that India has seen, for instance, is a result of public debates that lobbies have been part of. India may never have seen the opening up of the insurance, pharmaceutical, defence, telecom and the media sectors had it not been for lobbying and public debate that resulted from it. The role of a lobbyist is similar to that of a tourist guide who draws up the things to do or avoid during a visit to a place. The unknown commodity for many companies is the corridors of the government and the maze of legislation.

Does the lobbyist need to be checked? Of course he does. But how he needs to be checked needs to be discussed. The Public Relations Consultants Association of India (PRCAI) has a set of guidelines on standards and ethics (not all agencies or lobbyist have signed on to the association). These range from how agencies work with clients to media transparency norms clearly defining the line for the ethical and unethical. They also include a significant principle of respect towards the tax-payers' money when conducting work for the government. The PRCAI has no power to penalise. Self-regulation works well and the current case involving Vaishnavi Corporation is an aberration, but one that can't be ignored.

There is a view that the US Lobbying Disclosures Act (LDA) is something that India needs to look at. The Act largely aims to recognise the lobbying business with disclosures on meetings or 'contacts' (the word used in the law) being recorded in a register. Even a phone call is considered a contact although collection of information from a government servant isn't necessarily a contact as it isn't technically 'lobbying' for a specific purpose. The law also penalises for knowing and failing to comply with the Act. All this sounds good, but lobbying in the US has grown murkier despite the law.

What needs to be explained is that lobbying is not an activity undertaken alone by PR agencies. There are lawyers, former bureaucrats, former journalists, corporate affairs heads, industry associations and many others who also play that role. Lobbying — or even PR — doesn't exist on its own. Public policy is normally debated and discussed by the media, the political spectrum, government, think-tanks and industry associations. They influence the final outcome and lobbyists often have to reach out to each of them to get their clients views across.

So what is required is an all-inclusive approach to lobbying — a stronger application of ethics across politics, media and government. Self regulation among the media, parliamentarians and bureaucrats has to be stronger and available for public scrutiny. The same for the PR world.

Sharif D Rangnekar is president, Public Relations Consultants Association of India. The views expressed by the author are personal.