Need for transparency boosts PR's import

Coverage of the Pentagon's purported placement of articles in the Iraqi press continues the dialogue which erupted earlier this year about the use of PR by both the government and other entities.

Coverage of the Pentagon's purported placement of articles in the Iraqi press continues the dialogue which erupted earlier this year about the use of PR by both the government and other entities.

Recent stories in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other media outlets accuse the government and one of its consultant firms of paying journalists in Iraq to write articles favoring the administration's position in their country.

This coverage underscores the imperative for us, as agencies, to be clear about the role of PR in serving public and private sector clients and in furthering the public discourse that our clients engage in. It also emphasizes what is critical to the success of PR in achieving organizational objectives: transparency.

PR is designed to build relationships between an organization and its most critical audiences. As with any credible and trusted relationship, whether personal or professional, the ability to influence is based on being transparent about who you are and what you stand for. Much of what we do relies on an editorial system in which journalists need to be free to write and make editorial decisions that are not influenced by political and business interests.

In much of the recent coverage, PR is used to describe practices that we would more often associate with advertising or other forms of communications for which organizations pay to place messages. Obviously, that's misleading and requires that we not only correct these misinterpretations, but that we also reinforce our practices in ensuring the transparency that is so critical to our clients' success.

Earlier this year, the Council of PR Firms released a Statement of Principles. These tenets aren't new, but writing them was a way to codify the expected best practices in the working relations among clients, firms, and the channels of communications we tap, especially the media.

The tenets reinforce the overriding principle that openness and transparency serve the public interest and are necessary for accomplishing one's communications goals. The professionalism and objectivity of PR firms help clients engage in that discourse, as clients turn to us for counsel and assistance to pursue their organizational goals in educating or persuading audiences that matter most. To date, the Statement has been downloaded more than 6,000 times from the Council's website.

Three principles, in particular, are key to this transparency. First is the highest possible standards for ethical behavior. Second is accuracy of information. Third is disclosure.

While there may be different points of view represented, we are committed to factual accuracy. Our clients and the public are best served when audiences receiving information - and the channels that convey it, such as the media or the internet - know the source and can trust it, whether that source is a PR pro, a spokesperson associated with the organization, or a PR firm representing the client. Thus, when we engage with journalists or other organizations, we disclose whom we represent. Our bias in counseling clients is toward disclosure, which we feel is an appropriate and effective communication tool. These principles are essential for the public discourse that helps people make informed decisions in a complex world.

Along with the Statement of Principles, the Council, through its affiliation in the International Communications Consultancy Organization, the international forum for country trade associations to discuss practice guidelines, adopted the IPRA Charter on Media Transparency this year, which states: "Editorial appears as a result of the editorial judgment of the journalists involved, and not as a result of any payment in cash or in kind, or barter by a third party. Editorial which appears as a result of a payment in cash or in kind, or barter by a third party, will be clearly identified as advertising or a paid promotion."

Council members embrace our responsibilities to be the stewards of open, transparent dialogue. While the Council represents the US PR agency business, we support reliable, consistent standards around the world. The issue of transparency is of global importance as we seek to develop trusted relationships around the world.

PR, not simply through media relations, but also employee and community relations, advocacy, and reputation management, has a more vital role than ever. Let's respect the channels and work to keep them pristine.

Helen Ostrowksi is CEO of Porter Novelli and chair of the Council of PR Firms.

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