Keeping an eye on the issues that will greatly impact '07

One of the valued functions of the Council of Public Relations Firms is keeping our members and the industry informed of the issues that may impact our collective interests.

One of the valued functions of the Council of Public Relations Firms is keeping our members and the industry informed of the issues that may impact our collective interests.

When appropriate, we weigh in with the organization's position. The Council formed an issues monitoring group to help facilitate this process. That group has recently issued the first report of 2007. Here are a few areas we are keeping an eye on:

FTC and communications

Everyone working in PR should be acutely aware that the environment in which we operate today requires maximum transparency and disclosure, particularly when it comes to online communications, where there is a higher and longer-lasting level of scrutiny.

This is a good thing, not only because it is ethical to be transparent, but it is simply good business. Due to a growing democratization of information, our clients will rely on us more than ever to disseminate information in an open and honest way. The consequences of not doing so can be swift, severe, and publicly observed, with a further penalty of an indefinite electronic shelf life.

While the most vigilant watchdogs these days are not government workers, but bloggers and citizen journalists, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) still wields the biggest stick.

In January, the FTC rejected a request from a consumer advocacy group to launch a wholesale investigation of the word-of-mouth marketing industry. Its letter stated that "the FTC staff concludes that it is not necessary to issue guidelines at this time and that the staff will determine on a case-by-case basis whether law enforcement action is appropriate." This letter indicates that the FTC is clearly interested in the transparency of third parties, spokespeople, and front organizations, particularly when there are financial considerations involved.

Government regulation and contracts

Last November's mid-term elections ushered in many new faces, new leadership, and new agendas. With the Democratic Party assuming control of Congress, the potential for more regulation in communications-focused industries most likely increased.

One area we are watching closely is how lawmakers view PR firms' government contracts. After the elections, some of the most vocal critics of this practice have taken over the committee and subcommittee chairs that will set the agendas for communications policy-related hearings and legislation. I firmly believe that PR firms serve a vital function in helping government agencies educate and inform the public. Important work is being done and that should continue.

The FCC continues to investigate VNRs used by news stations. The Radio and Television News Directors Association asked the FCC last October to cease its investigation, while the Center for Media and Democracy is still pushing the FCC for even greater regulation - requiring broadcasters to air a continuous on-screen disclaimer during VNRs. The investigation has not been halted, but it has also not been completed. Most firms, including my own, have cut back on the use of pre-packaged video materials; when used, a sponsor is clearly identified. The Council's position is that VNRs, like print "releases," should be self-policed and include the disclosure of the actual source of the information.

The Council will remain vigilant on the issues front. We will continue to track the issues that affect the PR industry and the clients it serves. I invite all of you to view the full report on www.prfirms.org.

Marcia Silverman is the CEO of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide and is the 2007 chair of the Council of Public Relations Firms.

The Council is dedicated to strengthening the recognition and role of PR firms in corporate strategy, business performance, and social education, serving as an authoritative source of information and expert comment and helping set standards for the PR industry. For more information, call 1-877-PRFIRMS or visit our Web site at
www.prfirms.org.

This column is contributed and paid for by the Council of PR Firms.

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