Accuracy, transparency and open exchange of ideas key to a strong and ethical PR industry

The PR industry is evolving but must demonstrate to the public that it is a positive force for truth, accuracy and the free and open exchange of ideas in a changing media landscape. That was the key takeaway from the opening session of the In2 Innovation Summit MENA, held in Renaissance Downtown Hotel, Dubai, today.

Hosted by the region’s leading public relations agency, ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller, the panel, titled PR & The New Trust Equation, gathered experts from the fields of communications and the media from the region.

Introducing the session, moderator Sunil John, founder & CEO of ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller, warned that that the media landscape was at a tipping point, with the rise of fake news and algorithm-driven content creating echo chambers and threatening to further erode trust between the public and media, governments and organisations. “Big tech is not neutral,” he said. “Some people are comparing its influence to ‘big tobacco’ of old. Do we need regulation to deal with that? That is one of the big questions of the day.”

Asked “who is more trusted? PR or news media?” panelist Brian Lott, Head of Corporate Communications, Mubadala, said that despite the rise of fake news, he thought the public still believed in media more than PR, adding that communications had a big role to play in rebuilding trust. “Our challenge is to drive people to more authentic and truthful content,” he said. “People want truth … they want reality, not unreality. And PR has always communicated that reality in an interesting and compelling way. With advertising being viewed more skeptically, we have an opportunity to take advantage of that.”
Faisal J Abbas, Editor-in-Chief of Arab News, warned that new media platforms were undermining the legitimacy and reputation of traditional media. “My question from this region is, why is it you are tolerating terror propaganda on these outlets? The reality is children are being radicalised, they are being sent to fight in Syria,” he said. “With the great reach and impact that social media has, there must be a great responsibility.” But he warned that the role of censor or regulator should not be played by government, and that the platforms themselves should better police their content.

Valerie Tan, Vice President Public Relations, Social Media, Internal Communications, at Emirates, said media had much more to lose in the current debate. “People have always understood that PR and advertising has an agenda … now they realise that news outlets come with an agenda, too.”

Paul Holmes, Chair & Founder, The Holmes Report, warned that the biggest danger came not from fake news itself but from attacks on legitimate news stories. “There's a concerted effort to portray legitimate journalism as fake news,” he said. “This is a huge problem for the media and for us in PR, undermining the credibility of both.” He added that PR practitioners have “a moral obligation not to pollute those channels, social and mainstream, with our own fake news”. 

Switching towards the PR industry’s own reputation, John cited the demise of Bell Pottinger, the British PR firm that went into administration following a much cricticised and racially charged campaign in South Africa. He asked whether PR firms had a moral choice to make over which clients they represent. “Many agencies were involved in so-called ‘dark arts and spin’ ... two phrases I hate,” he said. “But in Bell Pottinger’s case, their downfall came from within – they were expelled from the industry body PRCA for bringing the industry into disrepute.”

Holmes said that Lord Bell, the former chairman of Bell Pottinger, had “a view of PR being untenable in the modern world.” He added: “The divide between what is good PR and what is moral and ethical is, today, for the most part invisible. They are congruent in a way they never were 30 years ago. Ethics has to be at the heart of what we want to do. It’s possible to do honorable work for bad companies. Equally it’s possible to do dishonorable work for good companies.”

Abbas, however, criticised the industry for “being on the defensive” over the allegations of ‘spin’.  “We need to agree that perhaps most of the world looks at the PR industry as lobbyists,” he said. “You are hired on behalf of client, not the people, and you are paid to do a particular job, and they want value for money.”

Tan said that PR was still struggling to shake off its negative reputation. “PR has some way to go to convince we are not ‘spin doctors’. People know PR comes with an agenda, but it shouldn’t be a negative, it’s actually very helpful,” she said. John added there was a responsibility for PR professionals and media to ensure a free and honest exchange of ideas.

Holmes insisted that the industry was not just about maximising profit but also about relationship building and emotional intelligence, something John agreed with, saying: “Reputation is the most precious commodity in the world we live in today and as PR professionals, it’s important we protect that for our clients and our brands.”

Returning to media, and media literacy, the panellists agreed more needed to be done in educating the public on how to separate good news from bad, before Abbas wrapped up the session with a plea for the industry to not lose sight of values. “If you want the truth, read the media; if you want the exposure, work with bloggers and influencers.”