Towards the end of last year the PR industry in Belarus achieved a new level of recognition when it was added to an official government list as a "recognised trade".
The former Soviet republic, often described as Europe’s last dictatorship, is a country in which the influence of government looms large, with many companies still state-run.
At government-owned firms only professions on this list are allowed, meaning a PR professional previously could not officially describe themselves as such and had to make do with titles relating to marketing.
Natalia Gromadskikh, director of PR agency Institute of Public Relations (IPR) and an initiator of the drive to have PR added to the list, explains there is a cultural importance to the profession being officially verified: "When students graduated from university they couldn’t get work in PR and were losing their identity as PR specialists."
This was just part of ongoing work to boost understanding of PR among Belarusian business leaders by IPR, the country’s oldest PR agency and one of the first to be founded in the former Soviet Union 20 years ago.
Despite its name, IPR is an agency rather than an association, but it is heavily involved in efforts to promote the industry.
Gromadskikh also teaches PR on MBA courses at Belarusian State University and emphasises the importance of university education. Belarusian State University has the only dedicated PR department, with some other universities teaching it as part of courses on advertising or marketing.
ARS Communications managing partner Roman Kostitsin, who is also a professor at Belarusian State University, adds that graduates from the course form the core of his staff and links between business and education are the best way to achieve growth.
Kostitsin estimates there are only five specialist PR agencies in the country, but he says a number of advertising agencies also offer PR, such as BBDO and TBWA.
The same cannot be said of global PR groups. ARS has a partnership with Ketchum’s Russian affiliate Ketchum Maslov to help its clients who have a presence in the Belarus market. It also has a similar partnership with FTI Consulting, although it is yet to work on any projects with the group. Kostitsin attributes this to a low level of investment activity in Belarus.
Both Kostitsin and Gromadskikh also recall a move by Grayling to establish a presence in the country about three years ago that was then abandoned. Grayling declined to comment on this.
Recognition of PR among business leaders is mixed, with understanding lacking in many smaller local or state-owned companies. Kostitsin explains most of his clients are foreign companies that do not need to have it explained to them why investing in PR is important. While his work with Belarusian companies has grown in the past three to four years, it still only makes up ten to 12 per cent of revenues, he says.
Firms operating in competitive markets such as mobile operators, alcohol brands and IT tend to invest more in PR, according to Gromadskikh, who also estimates about 20 per cent of companies are government owned.
However, Irina Kiptikova, corporate communications manager at IT company IBA Group, says PR is generally lumped in with advertising: "Jobs and agencies often combine advertising, PR and marketing."
IBA has a presence on social media outlets including Facebook and Russian site VK, and Kiptikova suggests the concrete results that social media can provide are helping businesses further understand the value of PR.
PR in Belarus may be in its early stages compared to other Eastern European markets, but increasing recognition looks likely to encourage continued growth.