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Sun 12 Jun 2005 04:00 AM

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‘PR gets a kicking because it’s not understood’

The Middle East PR Association must use its skills to improve its own image rather than bemoaning the industry’s lack of fans, says Tim Addington.

|~|Worsley,-Stephen_m.jpg|~|Worsley… PRs are seen as smoothing over the bad decisions of their clients.|~|Across the world, public relation professionals rank alongside estate agents and traffic wardens as some of the most disliked and unloved people on the planet. The “black arts”, as PR is sometimes dubbed by outsiders, is viewed with degrees of cynicism, hostility and total distrust by a sceptical public, resentful media and suspicious clients.

In the Middle East, where the PR business is still very much in its infancy, PR practitioners are attempting to portray themselves as professional, competent, street-wise spinners, capable of communicating their clients “messaging” with ease and sophistication.

And while there are undoubtedly some people in the industry that ply their trade with expertise, dedication and skill, they are, unfortunately, few and far between.

Even more frustrating for spinners in Dubai is news that agencies working outside of the Media City free zone are not even recognised by the government as pure PR firms. Instead, PR is lumped under the umbrella of advertising, much to the annoyance of those who are attempting to raise the bar and start PR-ing the PR industry here.

“You could say that people have a bad opinion of PR because they don’t understand it properly. On the other hand, perhaps they understand it only too well. Certainly a lot of the cynicism out there stems from the fact that PR consultants are seen as being responsible for smoothing over the bad decisions and policies of their clients,” says Stephen Worsley, client services director at Polaris Public relations.

“There are lots of examples of this, most in the public domain. The Bush administration’s use of public relations is particularly enlightening. George W. Bush is no Mr Popular, which possibly explains why he spent twice as much on public relations in his first term in office as Clinton, the previous champion of spin,” he continues.

But Dave Robinson, regional director at Gulf Hill & Knowlton, argues that public relations “likeability” is not the issue. “Our job as an industry is not to be liked by anybody other than our clients and the people we work with,” he says.

“PR gets a kicking every now and again by opinion formers because it is not well understood. PR is the smallest, youngest and less well established of all the marketing and communications disciplines around,” Robinson adds.

Robinson claims the “voracious” growth of the advertising industry, which has been going since the end of the 19th century, and PR, which only really started emerging from the shadows in the 1960s, means comparing the two is unfair.

“We don’t enjoy the profile or horsepower that advertising does. In the Middle East, PR has only been going for around 15 years. It is a young industry that is going through teething trouble,” he says.

“There is nothing sinister about the methodology of PR in itself, and I don’t think the regional industry suffers from many of the problems experienced on the international stage. The bad press PR receives locally has more to do with competence issues,” adds Worsley.

“Looking at the world picture, PR has been subject to a democratising process in recent years. It’s not the preserve of governments and corporations any more. The internet has had a lot to do with this, communicating to large audiences is simply a lot easier than it used to be,” he says.

The Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA) was created to bring order, discipline, honesty and credibility to the industry. Its challenge is to change people’s perceptions of PR by using the very techniques and tools that have generated so much mistrust and suspicion of it. MEPRA must come out fighting if it wants to change the perception of the profession, and not remain a PR talking shop, whose members moan that no one loves them.||**||

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