For any business, organisation or even some individuals to survive in today’s cut-throat competition for limited resources and increasingly demanding clients, one of the major requirements has become creating and projecting a credible and positive image to the public, and specifically to those you regularly interact with.
Consequently, Public Relations (PR) is now a rule rather than the exception in any focused organisation’s communication mix. PR in Kenya is still an emerging profession compared to the more established professions like law, medicine and engineering. Communication analysts are of the view that the industry is currently challenged by lack of strategic positioning, sterility at the corporate board level and, lack of universal standards and ethics.
Before the advent of PR departments and agencies slightly over a decade ago, the PR function in companies was attached to the human resource, marketing or administration departments. Chief executive officers usually viewed PR as a necessary evil, an extra cost of little impact in the overall performance of the company (read bottom-line). Therefore, PR ended up playing a superficial role in the corporate scheme of things.
Rightfully or wrongfully, PR executives were perceived as people who undeservedly earned high salaries simply for posing! The hapless practitioners’ role was to make their companies “look good”. Many journalists also viewed this emerging corporate breed as busybodies who kept calling newsrooms inviting them for this or that product or service launch. During such events, the PR person acted as an usher, trying hard to put on a smile and engaging the guests in chit-chat, especially when the function was running late.
The trauma for journalists would not end there. At the end of the event, the PR executives would give them a press release extolling the virtues of the event. Oftentimes, this was meant to be broadcast and published in the media, exactly as drafted by the PR executive.
It got worse. Some PR executives would dictate to journalists the kind of page and position they wanted their stories to appear. A PR executive would say something like, “This is a very important milestone. Make sure we get the story or photo on the front page”.
Essentially, the PR arena today is still work in progress. Many companies have decided to delegate the work of hassling journalists to the increasing number of PR agencies. Although PR is now more or less standard corporate practice, and has been given fully fledged status, it is still primarily based on the premise of a positive visual appeal in the public’s eye, and getting rave reviews in the media.
Similarly, many clients are still ignorant of PR’s real mandate and have not changed from dictating the kind of media visibility they want for their activities, no matter how mundane, stereotypical or negligible these are in the business environment. Long live the business pictorials of our print media!
The media have had to play along with this publicity charade because they know where their bread is buttered. That is, before an agency or company advertises in a certain print or electronic medium, they ask themselves how “supportive” the media house has been of their company or products.
To be effective, PR should be seen as the science of informing and educating the different publics in the marketplace about an organisation’s modus operandi. For instance, companies dealing with fast moving consumer goods need to keep reassuring their customers and stakeholders that their practices are above board and they are not compromising on legal, social, environmental or other corporate governance issues in the pursuit of insatiable revenue.
According to scholar Ernest Greenwood, an occupation attains professional status when it has a systematic theory, professional authority, a sanction of the community, a regulatory code of ethics and a professional culture.
But to give credit where it is due, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The industry umbrella body, the Public Relations Society of Kenya, has realised the undoing of these retrogressive practices and are trying hard to develop various academic and professional courses for PR practitioners. PR is being offered from certificate to postgraduate level.
To attain professional status and demand greater rewards, PR practitioners must strive to acquire a high level of technical complexity and intellectual sophistication by continuous and rigorous professional and skills training. Practitioners must leverage PR as a credible profession offering unique services to diverse sections of society.
The aim is to entrench best practices in the industry through the application of research, case studies and wider knowledge of the science of communication in developing and implementing enlightened and credible PR programmes and strategies.
The writer is a communications consultant and public policy analyst. [email protected]