The good performance of some entities and states sometimes remains unacknowledged and unappreciated. One reason could be that their message might have never reached opinion leaders and effective circles, whose opinions and views masses generally follow, due to the selective news techniques deployed by the media.
The selection of the right media and techniques is crucial for the penetration of messages into target groups. Identification of the problem that one wishes to address is the basic and prime job of a public relations practitioner. But, in societies like ours, most leaders do not seem to be clear about the discipline of public relations and also the techniques and tools that qualified and experienced PR practitioners use to accomplish their goals. The fact remains that like the discipline of health, engineering, education etc, public relations is also an ancient discipline. However, authorities in Pakistan have yet to officially recognise and define public relations as a profession, frame its code of ethical conduct and set up a regulatory body, as was done by the West in the last century.
In other words, a foundation for this discipline has yet to be laid down in Pakistan. For want of this, some people have fanciful ideas about PR, believing it to be a service that uses gimmicks to achieve its goals. Some of them cannot even distinguish between PR and its tools like advertising. A case in point is imposition of “General Sales Tax on 12 (new) services” through Finance Bill 2018-19. These include public relations services.
Public relations (PR) is an ancient art or craft, which has been used throughout the ages by successful rulers like Cyrus, Julius Caesar, Asoka and mighty Moghuls, for fostering harmonious relations or motivating and winning over the public.
The basic job of PR is to foster mutual understanding between an organisation and its “publics,” both internal and external. The internal publics include an organisation’s employees, executives, management, shareholders and the external publics include the community, consumers, suppliers, prospective employees, mass media, legislators, regulatory agencies, financial community and opinion leaders. The governments, autonomous bodies, private concerns all need PR to build up and to sustain their image.
The challenge that public relations officers (PROs) face is to find ways to disseminate cost-effective messages that can be easily understood by the people and are also effective at the same time. These days, there is a wide spectrum of media that can be used by the PROs for interaction with the people. In addition to talk shows, panel discussions, seminars, workshops, theatre and puppet shows, billboards, banners, direct mail, conferences, exhibitions, lobbying, sponsorships, literary/cultural/sports activities, awards, competitions, utilities, PROs may use the print media, the electronic media and modern media for the dissemination of messages. Furthermore, there are scores of techniques in which these media channels can be used by the PROs for interaction with the people. For instance, organisations may like to interact with the print media through press releases, letters to the editor, feature articles, backgrounders, fact sheets, house journals, personal interaction with editors and reporters, press conferences, interviews, facility visits, newspaper supplements, dispatch of information materials, etc.
To achieve their objectives, both within and outside the organisations, PR practitioners use various tools and media channels keeping in view the demographic and geographic characteristics of their stakeholders, i.e. publics. The word “publics” refers to people keeping whose loyalties and support is of vital interest to an entity. Advertising, in all its forms and contents, is one of the commonly used tools of PROs.
In modern times, the need of public relations is associated with the democratic societies, growth in trade and industry and the accompanying competition. In a democratic system, those in power cannot ignore public opinion and in a free society every organisation has to care for its publics. Support of the masses can be enlisted only by influencing the “publics” and moulding their opinion and behaviour favourably through persuasive communication. This is a challenging job because public opinion is not monolithic; and the interests, desires, attitudes and behaviour of the people play a great role in the formation of their opinions.
On the basis of their interests, desires, attitudes and goals in life as well as common demographic and geographic characteristics, we can divide the population into various segments. As the population consists of many “publics” and their interests, desires, attitudes and goals in life differ and hence, there are misunderstandings and antagonism. Consequently, time after time, agitations, demonstrations, crisis or conflicts keep surfacing in societies where leaders fail to communicate effectively and neglect to foster good relations with the public.
PR is essential to keep the process of communication and understanding between an organisation and its publics smooth. It is said that strong democracy requires strong connection between state institutions and citizens in an organized and cooperative way. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, according to historian Mubarak Ali, lack of any attempt, during our history’s first phase (1947-1970), “to understand the aspirations of the provinces and the hopes and ambitions of ethnic and religious minorities, their history and culture” has “created a sense of deprivation and mistrust of democratic institutions.” Resultantly, “the provincial identities have overpowered the national one,” ensuing in “political conflict between the centre and the provinces,” thereby “undermining national identity and causing political instability, insecurity and chaos…The breaking of relationship between the people and the State and decaying moral values.” Consequently, we witness strikes, and reliance on foreign experts in crises situations. In the West, when confronted with a crisis situation, organisations would normally call their PR experts to defuse the situation.
In short, public relations is deeply linked with the deliverance of services in keeping with the wishes of people. Pakistan needs to have the core values of this people-friendly paradigm inculcated in the country’s system, following the precedents of the developed countries where it has been officially defined and its ethical parameters notified through official gazettes. For instance, the official notification issued by the French Ministry of Information, on October 23, 1964, appeared in the official gazette – Journal Official de la Republic Francaise – on November 1, 1964; while the government of the Britain defined it in 1969. Most developed countries, including the US, and the Internal Public Relations Association (based at The Hague) have well-defined Codes of Ethics and the PR practitioners have to adhere to those codes of ethics. This brings to the fore the need for setting-up a PR regulatory body and also a registration agency for the registration of qualified PROs and for ensuring that only registered PROs are allowed to practice PR, adhering to the ethical code of conduct. This means that we have yet to make a beginning for laying the foundation of a PR discipline in the country.
In most countries of the world, the nomenclature “public relations” is no longer used now. Instead, governments call their PR set-ups as Public Affairs. A country’s embassies abroad may call it public diplomacy. Likewise, commercial organisations may call it corporate communication, designating its staff on the basis of the jobs being actually performed by them. Furthermore, these days commercial organisations allocate a percentage of their profits on public welfare (CSR) programmes and get tax rebates on the money spent on CSR activities.
Persons engaged in PR practice play a dual role. On one level, they serve as counsellors and advisors to the management. On another level, they often function as communication experts, using a tool bag of communication techniques to tell people about actions, decisions and plans of the management that they represent. PR also serves as a means for the public to have its desires and interests felt by the institutions in the society. It interprets and speaks for the public to otherwise unresponsive organisations, as well as speaking for those organisations to the public.
Although in Pakistan almost all national organisations have their own PR departments, but it is practiced only in a few. Furthermore, in this country PROs remain engaged in publicity only because leaders and heads of organisations are happy to find them being mentioned by the media channels occasionally.
As PR has neither been officially defined in Pakistan nor its Code of Ethics framed or the framework to implement that code notified so far, this profession is highly misunderstood in this country where, we find only a few individuals practicing it in keeping with the rules that govern this discipline. One should not, therefore, be surprised if people continue to express their frustrations and anger through strikes, lock-outs, demonstrations, sit-ins etcetera, which disturb civil activities, entail a heavy burden on the exchequer and sometimes even prove fatal.
The authorities may set-up a committee of experts to prepare drafts of an official definition for PR, its code of ethics and the rules and objectives of a PR Council. When ready, those drafts may be placed before the appropriate authorities for consideration. Furthermore, GST may be imposed on well-defined services of PR only because use of undefined term like ‘public relations services’ may be interpreted by different people in various ways, opening floodgates for corruption and litigation.
The writer is ex-DGPR Senate of Pakistan and author of the book Public Relations in Pakistan: Potential and Prospects.