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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Consumer Rights

The other day I was invited to deliver a lecture on Consumer Rights and Awareness with a perspective from the Railways. The lecture was, in fact, supposed to be a paper in a seminar organised by the journalism department of an university. The broader theme of the seminar was "Mass Communication as a Medium for Generating Consumer Awareness". I was not given a clue to the theme of the seminar and therefore when I arrived to deliver the lecture, I was surprised as well as embarrassed. Surprised, as it would have been much easier for me to deliberate on the theme of the seminar and embarrassed as I had not prepared in the line of the theme of the seminar.

Consumer Rights is not something I had ever bothered about. Of course, the attempt by shop-owners to take me for a ride often irritates me. But, I was never serious about doing something about them or for my right right as a consumer. And consumer right is not something that Railways probably bother either. There was nothing on the subject the Railways had to offer and the railway people themselves were not sure about the mechanism of ensuring consumers' rights.

So, when I was requested to speak on the subject, I had to start from scrape. I did a search on the subject, read a few books on Railway Rules and Acts and came up with a 2000 words write-up on the subject based on my understanding. The exercise was immensely beneficial for me as this was one area I never intended to explore.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Public Relations - New Approach

Most Public Relations practitioners are actually ‘improvised practitioners’ (Michel Dumas) – people who practice public relations without theoretical knowledge of what they practice or why practice what they did. They have no idea of why public relations is important for an organization either. Public Relations is an occupation defined more by its technique than by theory. Most Public Relations people are masters of techniques of handling media, staging special events and lobbying. Most of their efforts at communicating are through mass media and they believe that they could affect large numbers of people through publicity. The organizations that employ them also believe that they could get people’s support by creating a good image in the media. Thus, for most of us in the field, Public Relations is what public relations practitioners do.

However, with the advent of new theories of mass media and increased realization that people exercise greater control over how they use media then the media exercising control over the behaviour of the people, the concept of public relations is also getting an overhaul. It is now understood that media cannot create ‘image’ – good or bad. Images are what people think, and most people think independent of media. So, people will construct a good image if the organization behaves well i.e. in ways that people want it to behave. If the organization fails to address the interest of the public there will be opinion against it and the image of the organization will tarnish. Gone are the days when a lie could be passed on as truth in the Goebel’s way.

From the beginning of 1900s to the 1930s the concept of “public responsibility” of enterprises was developed. Corporations are responsible not only for profits of their owners but also for the improvement of society. The problem first emerged in United States during the time of companies merging into bigger companies. Managers of railway companies had to persuade the Public that these mergers were in public interest. Public interest led to Public Relations and public responsibility. Frederick named this concept CRS1 – Corporate Social Responsibility.

In the 1970s, a new approach to the question of the public responsibility of companies began to develop which was called Corporate Social Responsiveness – CRS2. There is an importance difference between these two concepts. While CRS1 still question whether companies have any responsibilities except those to owners, CRS2 works on the assumption that this question has been answered in the positive and works on the “how”. The transition from CRS1 to CRS2 also corresponds to the time of clarification of the expression “public relations”. Jefkins says, “public relations is a constantly misunderstood expression. A simple explanation is offered by reversing the word to say ‘relations with the public’”. White says, “Public Relations is, quite literally, about the relationship between organization and various public”. Berneys said, “Public Relations means exactly what it says, relations of an organization, individual, idea, whatever, with the publics on which it depends for its existence”.

However, Public Relations is essentially a communication process and its importance is growing with the realization of the importance of information in economic theories of decision making. Let us go back into economic theories to some extant. We may recall that Classical Microeconomic theories treated information as a given, not as a variable, by assuming that consumers and entrepreneurs possessed perfect knowledge and given perfect knowledge consumers made choices that maximize their satisfaction (utility) or entrepreneurs maximise profit. Beginning with Knight, neoclassical economists started questioning the assumption of perfect knowledge. Knight concluded that since perfect knowledge does not exist, Perfect Competition also does not exist. He said most economic decisions are made under conditions of risk and uncertainty. Simon postulated that economic decision makers, in the absence of perfect knowledge, make the best decision they can with the information they have (bounded rationality). In other words, limited information and knowledge limits the rationality of decision making. It is in the quest of rational decision making for maximizing profit and satisfaction that information and knowledge assumed such an important position in today’s world. This also explains the importance of Public Relations for the corporations. For the modern day corporations, Public Relations is the management of Trust in conditions of opportunism and bounded rationality; it is the art of creation of consent. At the macro level, organizations need public relations because their behaviours affect publics and the behaviour of publics affects them.