November 2015 saw the first World Conference on Public Relations in Emerging Economies. The Public Relations Society of Kenya – a member of the Global Alliance – had invited the professional community and around 400 delegates gathered in Nairobi, mainly from Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Regional leaders (like Esther Cobbah, AmithPrabhu, and Alex Malouf) mixed with global voices (like Paul Holmes and Lord Chadlington) and functional experts (like Moses Alobo, Michal Wronski and QureishNoordin).
Having heard all speakers and discussed with most delegates, I detected two competing narratives for our industry: On the one hand, we need more joint standards across markets, especially for education, for good practices and for measurement; on the other hand, we need to celebrate differences between markets and learn from them. That these two narratives compete is not worrisome. Instead, their friction allows our industry to reflect, improve and stop counting on just ‘more PR for PR’, that most tiresome of clichés.
How did our industry improve in Nairobi? Firstly, delegates identified how and where joint standards could help, especially when an industry is coping with fast growth (its own and that of its clients): There were numerous calls for governments to get involved in the legislation, regulation and certification of public relations, even though governments were otherwise expected to get out of the way of business and entrepreneurs. There were also appeals to educators to better collaborate across cultures and develop an international public relations curriculum for the 21st century.
Secondly, delegates discovered unique professional progress made in emerging economies, e.g. sophisticated health communication, innovative use of mobile communication technology, and impactful nation building campaigns. I was particularly impressed with many examples of how to respect and engage local communities, involving them in action pacts between business, governments and people.
Of course, there were ‘if only-sighs’ in Nairobi, too. Mostly: “if only organizational leaders would understand PR better”. But also: “if only we could see a lion in the game park tonight”. The big cats remained elusive. But those delegates who stopped searching for them ultimately discovered other creatures, big and small, right before their eyes.
We must continue the discovery of our joint standards and our differences, big and small. The World Public Relations Forum will be the next occasion to do so. Please join us in Toronto and let’s keep discussing ‘Communication Across Cultures’.