Statutory regulation of PR is neither desirable nor practical

Way back in the early 1990's I reported a story for BBC's 'India Business Report' on  GV Ramakrishna's tenure as chairman of the 'Securities and Exchange Board of India' (SEBI). I still recall how the late MG Damani ( later BSE president), then an influential broker at the 'Bombay Stock Exchange' nearly apoplectic with rage about GV Ramakrishna's ban on 'forward' trading also called 'Badla'.

"Why did he give such a ridiculous order", Damani screamed at the camera.

Regulation always draws a strong reaction. 

With over 25 regulatory bodies in India overseeing everything from telecom to film, there is now a call for regulating the PR business in this Adage article.  Enough has been said about this article and its failure to draw a distinction between news shared by the media and that actually pitched by PR. But, It's actually a sign of the growing influence of PR in setting narratives in the social media age that such a shout out took place at all. 

But the fact is that much of the 'spin doctoring' that PR gets such a bad rap for is currently being done on a mass scale by political parties, their troll armies and political consultants in India. This was seen happening at an unprecedented scale by parties such as the BJP in the recently concluded general elections in India.  Much of the slanted content was pushed by political " volunteers" via WhatsApp and paid advertisements on channels such as Facebook. Pure play PR had little to do with it.

The statutory regulation of the PR business in India is neither desirable nor practical. Nor does any clear cut government ministry exist at the moment for it to fall under. Self-regulation is a different matter though, and we can study the successes and failures of other closely allied sectors such as the mainstream media on how that can be done.

The PR business is heavily dependent on how the media business conducts itself. In that sense, it makes more sense for it to understand how the mainstream media regulates itself, rather than come under the 'Advertising Standards Council of India' as the Adage article last week suggested.

The mainstream media in India 

The mainstream print media in India is regulated by the Press Council of India a statutory body whose chairman is picked by the 'Speaker' of the Lok Sabha( Lower House). It has the power to give direction and conduct investigations into violations of its code of conduct. It cannot, however, take away a licence, fine or even compel newspapers to comply with its guidelines.

For television the  Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC), an independent self-regulatory body looks at content for non-news general entertainment channels set up by the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) in June 2011. The Ministry of I&B refers complaints received/generated by it to the Council and the BCCC reports back on action taken.

Similarly the NBA, self regulates for news content. An inter-ministerial committee of the Ministry of I & B also looks at news content and stop news telecasts as it did for NDTV India for a day for its reports on the Pathankot terror strikes in Jammu and Kashmir.

Self Regulation in PR

The PR business in India adheres to the Helsinki Code of Conduct that was adopted by the PRCAI, but much like the Press Council, this does not have any legal sanction.

But most PR firms and professionals I know would adhere to a strong code of conduct and values. The problem lies with the outliers who have a pay per coverage model, which is often a hidden paid media transaction. This severely commoditises the PR business and lowers the value of PR. Here, I draw a distinction between this type of paid coverage and legitimately earned media and transparent paid media content. 

How should the PR business then regulate itself? If the PR business doesn't do this strongly now;  as the impact of perception is measured in greater detail, statutory regulation may be forced upon it by a government which has already shown itself to be sensitive to how content plays out.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Transparency, Transparency, Transparency: This is the best way to ensure credible and legitimate content goes out and is seen as such by consumers. Branded content should be marked clearly. Here the mainstream media and influencers also need to agree to do that. A report on the 'Future of Voice and its implications for News'  released by Reuters this week, shows that consumers are returning to trusted news brands to access credible news. This is good news for PR practitioners and boosts the business case for transparent and credible content.
    Source: Reuters Institute's Digital News Report 2019 on Voice
  • Data is a great hedge against fake brand content: The more the PR business adopts data, the more it will be able to call out fake brand news and ensure the consumer is getting the correct news. Organisations such as Cloudsek do brand scans using AI and weed out fake news including malicious websites and apps masquerading as legitimate brand content platforms.
  • Content Stylebook: Internationally several companies have a very detailed content stylebook including what words can be used to refer for diverse populations. Communication teams for firms such as Microsoft in India used to study the AP stylebook for reference. Given the vast diversity of caste, class and religion in India, it would be useful to have such a compendium which can then be adapted by different firms. 

 At PRmoment India events, PR practitioners have often said that they consider it very important to be the moral centre of the organisation and to have a very strong conviction about the values of an organisation. 

As the PR business becomes more important in the future, and is the one function that has a 360 view of an entire organisation, India's PR professionals are more than aware of their responsibility.

Paarul Chand is editor, PRmoment India