Opinion: Changing media landscapes and the role of PR ethics

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OF all the collaborative professions in the world, the public relations (PR) and media relationship is arguably the most powerful in its ability to influence society, writes Nitin Mantri.

People turn to the media for credible information on everything from the weather to the world economy. And often, we – PR practitioners – are the source the media turns to for information. So, it’s only natural the media and the PR industry are held to exacting standards of integrity. 

In recent times, there has been an erosion of trust in the media, especially with the proliferation of social media channels and online sources of news.

The surge in misinformation, triggered by unregulated sources, has tarnished the media’s credibility. This was most evident during the Covid-19 outbreak. In fact, the pandemic situation that shook the world is now being viewed not just as a public health disaster but also a ‘fake news’ crisis. The World Health Organisation (WHO) coined the term ‘infodemic’ to describe the overabundance of false and misleading news, images and videos about the origin, symptoms, management, and impact of the disease.

This is where PR practitioners can play a significant role in restoring people’s faith in authentic news outlets. 

  • We need to set the bar high for ourselves by being scrupulous about the facts of any story that we promote. 
  • We must facilitate access, for the media, to trustworthy sources. 
  • We must work only with knowledgeable and recognised subject matter experts to collate fact-based, unbiased information for journalists and their audiences. 
  • Everything published must be attributed to a credible source. For this, we must consider investing in fact-checking tools and technology like AI to track fake news to enable due diligence.
  • When we share a client’s story with the media, we must ensure that we, and our client, is sure of the authenticity and the impact of the information being shared. 
  • We must take it upon ourselves to maintain the highest level of integrity. 
  • We must make it non-negotiable to do fact-checks on information we are sharing and to vet public statements. 
  • We must remind our clients that new age media allows for scrutiny and scathing critique. Hence, there can be no compromise on honesty.
  • We must hold both clients and journalists accountable for information being shared with their audience.

Curators with compassion

The Covid-19 outbreak saw PR firms worldwide emerging as the go-to integrators of credible information. At the same time, it became increasingly important, given the circumstances, to curate content that was meaningful, sensitive, and timely. This value addition must continue. 

Story pitches must be thoughtful and relevant to avoid adding to the clutter of fluff pieces around subjects that need handling with care. We must train to recognise and develop stories that really deserve telling and help the media tell it in a way that can impact the lives of those consuming it.  

In the context of the pandemic, for example, sharing leads to stories on vaccine safety and informative interviews with experts, health workers, and government officials can help alleviate people’s fears and inform positive health-related decisions.  

There are several examples of informed media messaging contributing to successful health campaigns. A World Health Organisation (WHO) publication cites the success of diphtheria immunisation programmes in Russia in the mid-1990s. There had been a significant drop in the uptake of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine after the first round of doses. Communication interventions emphasised the need for second and third doses following major outbreaks. After two months, various media were cited, by one-third of the vaccinated population of Novgorod city, as one of the means through which they learned about the need for additional doses of the vaccine. In Voronezh, higher exposure to media messages correlated with higher coverage rates for the same communication intervention period. 

This just goes to show the difference we, the communicators, can make by working together with the media to take the right kind of information to the public.

In conclusion, I’d like to recall what writer Ayn Rand once said, “Integrity is the ability to stand by an idea.” We are in the business of ideas and as we work with our stakeholders to bring these ideas to life, we must insist on doing so ethically with integrity and truth.

NITIN Mantri is the group CEO of Avian WE and the president of International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO). He was the president of the Public Relations Consultants Association of India (PRCAI) for five years from 2015 to 2020. Nitin and his business partner also founded Chase India, now a subsidiary of Avian WE, in 2011 to work on public policy mandates for Indian and multinational companies. Nitin received the Global PR Leader of the Year’ award at the 2015 ICCO Global Awards.