PR industry bodies hit back at fresh criticism

The PR industry is attempting to become a more combative force in the national media as the industry comes under increasingly intense scrutiny over ethical issues.

Ukraine: a protest against the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko
Ukraine: a protest against the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko

The PRCA and the CIPR have both stepped up their engagement with the national press in the past months, as the media spotlight has continued to shine on standards of practice in the UK PR sector since The Independent’s sting operation on Bell Pottinger last December.

The Independent this week continued its critical coverage of the industry, by highlighting Ruder Finn winning work with the Maldives government, despite claims President Moh­amed Nasheed was removed from office by force in a coup d’etat in February.

Following public attacks from pro-democracy group Friends of Maldives, Eva Abdulla, a member of former President Nasheed’s Maldiv­ian Democratic Party, has now written a letter to Ruder Finn – a letter that has also been sent to the agency’s client list.

In it she stated that the agency ‘practices a deeply unethical form of PR’, adding that if it continued to work for the Maldives, the agency ‘would be party to one of the greatest injustices ever inflicted on the people of the Maldives’.

Elsewhere, Burson-Marsteller has been criticised for representing Ukraine’s Party of Regions and arranging int­erviews for government official Renat Kuzmin in London and Europe, amid condemnation of the country’s treatment of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

CIPR director of comms Phil Morgan explained he has stepped up a letter-writing campaign to the nationals to counter what it sees as an inc­rease in misleading stories following the Bell Pottinger sting.

‘The recent coverage has highlighted a lack of understanding about the true nat­ure of PR in the media and the nature of lobbying,’ he said.       

Meanwhile, the PRCA has stepped up its own interaction with the press, and has been holding lunches with national editors in the past month. This follows its app­ointment of ex-national newspaper journalist Katherine Barney to the role of director of comms and policy.

PRCA chief executive Francis Ingham said: ‘I want to say to them if you’ve got a story about PR you can come to us for commentary – we will always give you an answer. Not all PROs are the same, and we want to emphasise the difference between those who are regulated and those who are not.’

CIPR attacks The Observer over ‘sweeping’ article

In its most recent defence of the PR industry, the CIPR has criticised a leading Observer columnist for what it calls ‘sweeping portrayals’.

In a letter sent earlier this month, CIPR chief executive Jane Wilson spoke out against Nick Cohen’s article entitled ‘Beware PR men bearing dictators’ gifts’.

The column looked at comms work done for the Hungarian government. The piece also raised concerns over the influence of PR on journalists, calling the industry ‘a racket’ and UK PROs ‘world leaders in manipulating money and information’.

Wilson criticised these terms as ‘a sweeping portrayal of a profession’ in her letter. She argued that any member of the CIPR that misrepresents their organisation or client ‘can be held to account’.

Wilson said she shared Cohen’s concerns over the dwindling investment in serious journalism, adding ‘it is wrong to infer we benefit from it’.

The correspondence follows another CIPR letter that was sent to The Times over its ‘Cash for Access’ leading article on 26 March.

In it, Wilson attacked the conflation between what The Times called ‘the murky world of party funding and the even murkier world of lobbying’ as being ‘unfairly sweeping’.

How I see it

James Gurling, director, Hanover Communications
For those of us following best practice there’s not much to worry about but there’s probably a higher degree of caution in the industry. A new business opportunity could be a journalist phoning up pretending to be someone they’re not, so an agency might follow a bit more of a formulaic line. Sometimes clients might think you’re less interested in working for them than you are.

Scott Wilson, CEO, Cohn & Wolfe
It’s not had much impact on me and my business at all, because of the type of clients we handle. Consumer marcoms clients these days are more about the rise of digital, word of mouth and direct to consumer, so we swim in different channels.

In numbers

£7.5bn  The amount the PR industry contributes to the UK economy*
Meetings held by the PRCA with national editors in the past month**
£93k  Believed monthly value of Ruder Finn’s tourism brief with the Maldives***
Years former Ukrainian PM Yulia Tymoshenko was jailed for****

Source: *The 2011 PRWeek/PRCA Census; **PRCA CEO Francis Ingham; ***PRWeek, 27 April;  **** The Guardian

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