Isn’t it time to regulate the Public Relations Industry?

This is a new age when seemingly innocent editorial can be bought, when advertising can actually masquerade as PR and communication campaigns can be built by twitter bots, hate filled websites, editorials, public rallies and speeches. When India set up the Advertising Standards Council of India in 1985 we were in an innocent era when the only misleading communication could be a piece of advertising. But times have changed and dramatically.  India was ahead of its time in self-regulating the advertising industry and the ASCI has now grown after its efforts have been acclaimed by the Department of Consumer Affairs, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and the Ministry of AYUSH as well as the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. 

However, since the ASCI was first set up 34 years ago, advertising is not the only channel of communication that could mislead consumers.  It is now perhaps time to bring PR and other forms of communication under ASCI because they have the experience, or if necessary set up a different self-regulatory organization that can be self-regulated by the PR/Digital community. 

This is because a number of PR reports can be as misleading as advertising and lead to consumers being misled on a number of subjects from healthcare, investments, education, consumer products and other matters.

Let’s first take a look at healthcare and a report that appeared in the news a while ago on cow urine and other cow products which can be a cure for cancer. 

How PR can affect Healthcare

Source: https://bit.ly/2I4dLuF

If this were an ad it would have probably been deemed misleading because ‘cure’ is a difficult claim to make in healthcare -typically the healthcare industry sticks to terms like ‘care’, ‘disease management’, ‘programme’, ‘treatment’ or other similar words.  After all, cure is a serious claim to make against a rather serious disease, that has evaded the global healthcare industry thus far.  But once this is press report or PR, it can get away with communicating all the hyperboles that would be considered unethical and misleading in the advertising environment.

How PR can affect Consumer Products

Source: https://bit.ly/2KDnYQE

Towards the end of May, most advertising and marketing trade magazines both in India and overseas were flooded with a PR release on the soap Lux.  The content of the release was that Lux had created a soap with a lump to promote breast cancer awareness.  A laudable objective for one of India’s oldest soap brands that has been promoted as the soap of the stars globally since 1929.  

However, inquiries to get a sample of the product failed.  The Indian Cancer Research Society where this soap was supposed to have been first introduced at a breast cancer awareness camp neither replied to messages on twitter or email. Finally, a web chat with the Indian Cancer Research Society revealed that they did not yet have the product in their hands.  This is misleading PR because it is PR for a product that is not yet available to consumers.  

Fake News

In an era of fake news, many people attribute it to one of the evils of social media.  The half-life of a tweet is only a few hours, and news on twitter therefore can die out as quickly as it is spread. However, if the source of  fake news is a daily newspaper then it can get worrying.   

Source :  https://bit.ly/2XEP1ii

This was fake news that there was a fatwa in Saudi Arabia that men can eat their wives if they are hungry. As it so happens it was a piece of dark sarcasm from a Moroccan blogger that caused the misunderstanding.

It does seem as if PR and news can do as much damage as advertising when it comes to mis-leading consumers.  As advertising’s share in the total marketing mix declines steadily, the emphasis on influencing consumers through other communication channels increases proportionately.

The need for PR to be regulated

But it is not only products and services that could be affected by unethical PR.  Bell Pottinger the UK PR firm created damage in South Africa by pursuing a highly toxic narrative, that whites in South Africa had cornered all the resources and wealth, while they deprived blacks of education and jobs. But pursuing this strategy for the Gupta brothers their clients, they managed to earn the friendship of Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa.  Francis Ingham, director general of the PRCA, ( Public Relations and Communications Association )is known to have said in an interview. “The work was on a completely new scale of awfulness. Bell Pottinger may have set back race relations in South Africa by as much as 10 years.” (https://nyti.ms/2EHPfMS)

Or  Burson Marsteller is known to have worked with Facebook to plant negative stories about Google’s Social Circle to discredit it. (https://bit.ly/2EYfgcc)

Unethical PR can therefore affect not just consumers but civilization itself and even capture the state, so powerful is PR as a tool. And most of all it tends to work silently, underground, below the radar and without being obvious like advertisements. 

India is now a mature communications economy that needs to seriously look at regulating PR in every form.

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Prabhakar Mundkur has spent 40 years in advertising and worked in India, Africa and Asia. He is currently Chief Mentor with HGS Interactive a part of HGS in the Hinduja Group. He is on the advisory board of Sol 's Arc (solsarc.org ) an NGO dedicated to special education for intellectually challenged children. He is also a member of Whiteboard ( whiteboardindia.org ) which supports senior management of NGOs in financial management, PR, Communication and HR through pro bono expertise.

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