Copyright 2018

Opinion piece: Thabisile Phumo

The public relations industry in South Africa is facing a tough battle, to retain the credibility of an industry that since the 1900s has been the engine behind personalities and organisations. Through its machinery, it has driven headlines, built and restored reputations and managed crises at different levels. Part of the battle is the need to reflect on how public relations is practiced or how it should be practiced.

The recent media reports around the London-based agency Bell Pottinger calls to question a lot of issues around ethics and in particular how Public Relations is conducted in South Africa.

The use of global agencies to deal with major client issues is not new. It is the need for any agency local or global, to recognise that the profession requires us to represent the best interested of the client guided by the local context and a solid Code of Ethics.The Code of Ethics guide the way we conduct ourselves to ensure that we act in the interest of the client within the framework of the law, are transparent and recognise our responsibility towards our client and the public we seek to influence.

It is important to note that we are operating in a complex and diverse environment that requires creative solutions. The creativity needs to recognise that any approach should be built on trust. This is important because Public Relations is not only influenced by the events happening around it but the Public Relations Professionals also influence the environment they operate in. Clients advised by public relations agencies do not only state the required outcomes but are advised and guided by the Public Relations Professional, their ‘trusted advisers’ and together they design the communication approach, messages and agree on appropriate communication channels.

This sounds like a straight forward, relatively simple sharing of information, building relationships, building or repairing reputations and providing media with opportunities to interpret the information according to their needs and the citizens to create their own meaning from what they read, hear or see. But it is not that simple!

Cornerstones of professional public relations practice focus on building long term, trusting relationships, making ethical decisions based on ‘humble intelligence’ which include a wide range of interacting, collaborative sources (Willis, 2016), developing clear messages which is widely distributed enabling society to develop their own meaning, influencing key stakeholders to form associations working towards beneficial practices for all. 

Partnerships with media should aim to build trust, ensure transparent news sourcingwith the public relations professional having the responsibility to “at all times deal fairly and honestly with our clients, employers (past and present), with colleagues, media and the public” (PRISA’s Code of Ethics). Sound and trusting relationships between the media and public relations practitioners have often been strained to say the least with snide comments uttered by both parties belittling the credibility of the other.  This is not a conducive state of affairs and should be avoided at all cost.  Both professions add value and working together has been proven to benefit professionals and society alike.

Reflecting on the influence these professions have on society is lacking, especially within the South African context. Serving society is at the heart of both professions, the one in providing information and the other in building trusting relationships. The interest of society, the ordinary person in the street, should be a constant reminder and motivating factor in every decision, message and campaign.  Collectively building a national pride in a deeply divided society will not happen without concerted efforts by key influencers such as the media and Public Relations Practitioners.

While not all practitioners or agencies are members of the Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa, we invite every professional to consider subscribing to our Code of Ethics, which serve as a guide for professional conduct as that in the long run will ensure that our profession remains credible and recognised as a strategic partner to both individuals and organisations that they serve.

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