South Africa’s PR industry is not formally regulated at present, but that could soon change. Kavitha Kalicharan, president of the APR-accredited Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa (PRISA) says an industry green paper has been circulated among stakeholders, which just needs consultation with government to convert it into a white paper and thus make it law.
What is uncertain, however, is how long this process will take. “The wheels do turn quite slowly because this is obviously legislation. Where we are currently, is engagement with the various stakeholders, more specifically the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), engaging with the minister [communications minister Ayanda Dlodlo] and getting the minister’s approval and buy-in. This is not a quick process; it is going to be a longer process to achieve that,” Kalicharan explains.
At the same time, PRISA doesn’t want to rush the process because even though it is critical to get the industry regulated, it needs to be thorough. She estimates it should be completed within a year to year-and-a-half.
Ideally, the new regulations should include promotion of the unethical behaviour a PR company or individual has engaged in to make the entire industry aware of what they have done, Kalicharan says. This would maximise the reputational damage to the guilty party. She also wants hefty penalties/fines introduced as a deterrent.
Discipline for PRISA members
When a PR company joins PRISA, a Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, that also applies to employees, binds it. If either an individual or company infringes on this Code or brings the PR industry into disrepute then the individual or company can be suspended or barred from the organisation, similar to what happened to Bell Pottinger with the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA).
“It may seem like the repercussions are not that great,” Kalicharan admits, “however if you look at the current Bell Pottinger saga, the reputational damage that was caused to them when the PRCA handed down the ruling… it was one of the harshest sentences it has passed.” Kalicharan is emphatic that reputational damage far outweighs any form of financial punishment or expulsion when it comes to sanctioning dodgy PR campaigns.
She cites Bell Pottinger as a case study, which the South African PR industry should use as a what-not-to-do lesson, describing how the reputational damage it has taken may lead to it closing its doors. The only positive that can be taken from the saga is how it illustrated the power of public relations.
Discipline for non-PRISA members
In South Africa, a problem could arise when a PR agency is not a member of PRISA as they don’t have to follow the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. PRISA’s membership currently numbers just over 1 000.
Which begs the question, how are these non-member agencies and individuals working for them regulated and disciplined?
Until progress is made on the green paper, Kalicharan says people can approach PRISA with their concerns over non-member PR agencies or individuals who they believe have acted unethically or brought the industry into disrepute. Unfortunately, the only action PRISA can take against non-members is publicising what they have done, leading to reputational damage to them. They can’t take court action and they can’t leverage monetary fines.
Again, Kalicharan stresses a reputational knock has a massive impact. “What we are essentially trying to do is to promote members, individuals, and organisations to operate from an ethical standpoint, that is the ideology that we are pushing, more than anything, operating from an ethical perspective and what not to do.”
Most SA PR agencies self-regulate
Chirene Campbell, managing director of Owlhurst Communications, a non-PRISA member PR agency, confirms that there is no official regulation of South Africa’s PR industry, and believes that there needs to be an industry body that has authority (whether that is PRISA or another) and that encourages all agencies for a nominal fee to become members, sign an industry agreed code of ethics and abide by it.
“As PR practitioners we are heavily reliant on our reputations, so I’d wager that 95% of our agencies do maintain a strong code of ethics, whether through PRISA or self regulated. As an industry we could also put the onus on clients to insist that they only deal with consultancies that have committed to an industry code of ethics, which could deter a lot of the less scrupulous among us.
“Our business is all about reputation at the end of the day so the choice is easy I think – put your head on the block for a quick (big) buck (and hope to get away with it) or be ethical and enjoy long-standing client relationships and a reputation that doesn’t falter over the years. Money is finite but your reputation is immeasurable.”
Misbehaving PR agencies in South Africa
Kalicharan says while there have been some instances of PR agencies in South Africa behaving unethically, including misrepresentation of a client and/or propaganda, there has been nothing like the Bell Pottinger situation which she describes as “on another level” and something that “put the spotlight on public relations”. She adds, “There is good in every situation no matter how bleak it is. It is a way now for us to push forth and actually try and get the industry regulated.”
How to determine if a client is ethical
Some may argue that Bell Pottinger had no idea what it was getting itself into when it took on the Gupta account and had no way of knowing the type of people it would be doing business with before it was too late. Kalicharan advises PR firms to stick to two key principles rooted in PR, research and evaluation. “Research your client well in terms of their background, especially if they are high profile. Do proper research before going ahead… Also look at what has been produced in the media about that organisation or individual.”
Until the PR industry regulation green paper is converted into a white paper and brought into law, it seems that reputation is relied on to keep most PR agencies in line. But be warned that stricter regulation and punishment could soon be on the way.
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