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PR Industry Could Use Own Medicine

REUTERS

If ever a group needed some positive PR right now, it is the public relations industry.

The leaders of the business that invented damage control and a million ways to look better are facing a slumping economy that has cut communications spending. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks left the world’s largest market nervous and fearful.

The U.S.-led military strikes in Afghanistan have inflamed public opinion in many parts of the world, and anti-globalization protests have governments and corporations on the defensive.

“This is the most pivotal moment in the history of public relations,” David Drobis, president of the International Communications Consultancy Organization, said at a public relations conference in San Francisco over the weekend.

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“What we have is a massive communication failure on the part of business and government.”

The conference gathered public relations executives from about 20 countries in an effort to hone new strategies and new messages to respond to a changed world.

The key, many of these self-described “thought leaders” said, is a stronger communications push to emphasize the benefits of an economically and socially integrated world, a global village built on shared brand names and values stretching from Islamabad, Pakistan, to Iowa City, Iowa, and from Burbank to Bombay, India.

The Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon came as the public relations industry--proud specialist in crisis management--was already dealing with a crisis of its own.

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After a three-year boom that saw the U.S. public relations industry balloon in value to $3.9 billion from $1.75 billion at the end of 1997, American firms were looking at their first year of negative growth, slashing staff and shuttering offices as an economic slump wiped out clients and accounts.

“The global communications environment has shifted big time,” said Alan Kelly, chief executive of Applied Communications in San Francisco, where many high-tech companies have disappeared from the map.

Drobis, chairman of Ketchum Public Relations, said the twin crises of the attacks and the anti-globalization movement challenged the industry to persuade the world that Western-style capitalism “works in a moral, and not just a business, context.”

“What’s good for the soul is also good for business,” Drobis said, noting that once-controversial companies such as DuPont Co. and Nike Inc. had successfully promoted themselves through corporate-citizenship campaigns.

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The United States already had taken an initial step to explain its actions to audiences abroad, appointing former advertising executive Charlotte Beers as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and charging her with revitalizing Washington’s propaganda message to the rest of the world.

But what plays well in New York or London will not necessarily play well in New Delhi and Lagos, Nigeria, where suspicions of Western governments and corporate motives still run deep, some public relations professionals said.

“Most of the developing world is still grappling with problems of hunger, illiteracy, disease.... What are the multinationals going to do to help?” said Nn’emeka Maduegbuna, chairman of Corporate & Financial, a Nigerian public relations firm.

“Show me a despot and I’ll show you his multinational friends,” Maduegbuna said. “That’s the image.”

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