COMMENT: PLATFORM; Strict regulation isn’t a practical option for PR

The nature of the PR industry demands a flexible approach to self- regulation, says Andrew Chevis

The nature of the PR industry demands a flexible approach to self-

regulation, says Andrew Chevis

The recent debacle over Carlsberg-Tetley’s Thickhead promotion has

prompted calls from predictable quarters to ‘regulate’ PR activity. How

strongly should PR be regulated?

If PR is defined as the means by which a company or individual

communicates chosen messages about a product or issue to a particular

audience, then attempts to regulate it on a statutory basis will be

doomed. It is precisely because PR consists of communications methods

using an infinite variety of tools that legislators will never be able

to impose workable statutory regulation - that works both for those it

is intended to protect and those whose activities it regulates.

Most industries, especially those whose products or activities have in

the past been badly promoted or sold by certain companies, are keen to

demonstrate publicly that the consumer will be protected from bad

products or salesmanship. The same can apply to protection from bad PR,

since in many cases grievances arise not because the product is wrong

but because it has been promoted in the wrong way. Timeshare is one


Industries apply this self-regulation by way of codes of practice or

conduct or sets of guidelines, usually incorporating some form of

complaints procedure. These codes should always be possible to set a

framework within which PR activity complies wit the relevant code or


Self-regulation varies from industry to industry with differing degrees

of success. Those sold the ‘wrong’ pension in the 1980s may be sceptical

of self-regulation, as will those boycotting beef. But in neither of

these cases would statutory regulation have necessarily prevented the

wrongs. What is happening now in both financial service and agriculture

is that self-regulation is being reassessed and, where appropriate,

strengthened in favour of the consumer.

The balance that must be struck in self-regulation is between protecting

the consumer and permitting the legitimate free flow of competition and

innovation. Those who claim that industries should not regulate

themselves forget that self-regulation must stand the test of public

scrutiny. Scrutiny which is rightly amplified by the press, by consumer

groups, by government and often by the courts.

This scrutiny does not stop when the headlines over a dodgy air travel

promotion or a tabloid victim’s suicide have subsided. It is a constant

dynamic which demands companies to reappraise the value of self-

regulation in their sector. A simple test over whether the balance is

right is to measure the extent of support for the provisions of a code

or set of guidelines among both the industry’s members and consumer

groups. If there are criticisms on either side, evidence to support

changes to those provisions should be provided.

PR in any sector should comply with the provisions set by self-

regulation within an industry, even if specific PR activity is not

covered by the letter of the relevant code or guidelines. PR should

always be a free spirit, but tempered by the need for compliance with

industry self-regulation. PR companies working for such industries take


Andrew Chevis is director of public affairs for the Portman Group

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