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Saturday, June 03, 2017

Public Relations in Governance

Governance and Government:
According to UNESCAP (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific), Governance is "the process of decision-making and the process by which decisions are implemented or not implemented". Simply put, governance is what the government does. On the other hand, Good Governance means the processes implemented by organization or institution to produce favorable results to meet the needs of its stakeholders, while making the best use of resources – human, technological, financial, natural and environmental – at its disposal.
The basic purpose of governance are – maintaining order in the society, ensuring prosperity for the people, avoiding conflicts among or with the people and managing crisis or disaster. While accountability is key tenet of Good Governance; the major elements of good governance are transparency, consensus, people’s participation and responsiveness. Consensus is also important for avoiding conflicts and waste of resources.
Thus, two preconditions for Good Governance are that people must participate in government’s activities and accept its decisions. However, people’s opinions often and generally remain divided on any major government decisions without the much-needed consensus. Therefore, favorable opinion formation plays crucial role in governance. Romans even said that the voice of people is the voice of God (vox populi, vox dei). In our modern participatory democracy too, people or citizens, in fact, play the central role. 
Public Relations for public:
The later part of Industrial Revolution in the West had seen increasing need for market exploitation. Mobilization of people’s opinion for political or religious causes, influencing people’s minds for selling product and such other needs saw growth of a creed called the Publicists.
There had been innumerous attempts to define Public Relations since Ivy Ledbetter Lee, an American publicity expert, first coined the term in 1897. Lee, who started his career as a Publicity Manager in 1903, later worked for the Rockefeller family and the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1905, he established a public relations firm – Parker & Lee - mainly catering to publicity needs. The public relations that Lee practiced was honest communication based on the Publicity Model. Lee believed - good public relations was not possible without good performance. For him, Public Relations is a communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationship between organization and their publics (the target audience).
According to Lee, a PR practitioner essentially was a liaison man between the organization and its publics. While the PR man will try to build goodwill for the organization, the organization in turn would continuously reinvent itself and adopt better ethical and humane practices. The theoretical essence of all government PR even today is the same – that the government will act for the benefit of the citizen and the PR man will ensure generation of enough goodwill so that the citizen would support the government. 
Public Relations for propaganda:
However, Edward Luis James Barneys added a new twist to the concept of PR in the 1920s when he said that PR is the attempt by information, persuasion and adjustment to engineer public support for an activity, cause, movement or institution. Ethics and honesty in communication took a backseat for Barneys, who was an Austrian – American and is widely regarded as “the father of Public Relations”. The definition of Public Relations given by Barney in his book “Crystallizing Public Opinion” was published in 1923.
Unlike Lee, Barneys was a crafty propagandist well versed in media handling who believed that people’s opinion can and need be influenced for generating goodwill. Legends goes that Barneys convinced Thomas Masaryk, the founder of modern Czechoslovakia, to delay announcement of the country’s independence by a day for better press coverage. He would go to any length to influence people’s opinion favorably for the organization. When the American Tobacco Company asked him to promote smoking among women to increase sale of its Lucky Strike brand, he readily agreed and staged a series of events to make American women believe that smoking in public was symbolic to freedom for women. In one such event called “Light Up, America”, he arranged for many famous women to publicly light up a Lucky Strike all across America at the same time. In another event, he made some women light up cigarettes in New York’s Easter Sunday parade making the cigarettes their “Torches of Freedom”.
We find parallels of Barneys PR in modern day governments and politics, when events are staged to catch public attention. Easy-to-remember slogans like “Parivartan” (Change), “Make America Great Again” etc. are coined to create stereotype and thus crystalize public opinion.      
Why do government need Public Relations?
We can find many examples of Governments communicating with people throughout the history of mankind.  The people holding power by virtue of being in the government needs people’s participation and support for continuation in power. Even governments enjoying absolute majority last for only five years in our country and would need people’s goodwill to return to power. On the other hand, the importance of people’s participation was aptly exemplified by the less than partial success of the First Five-year plan when the large number of government schemes for boosting agricultural production found no takers. The polio-eradication plan of the government would have been a failure without people’s participation.
Government also needs to build up consensus on vexed issues for smooth implementation of necessary but unpopular decisions. The introduction of Goods and Service Tax (GST) in place of a plethora of State and Central Taxes would not have been possible without a consensus. Government also needs to avoid conflicts. Doing away with government subsidy for domestic LPG or recent de-monetization would not have been possible without communication efforts for avoiding conflicts. Building Big Dams for hydroelectricity is currently testing government’s communication efforts in avoiding conflicts. The communication skills of PR professional can immensely help government to achieve these objectives.   
How Public Relations is practiced in government?
Starting with Lee and Barneys, PR practices had remained more or less same through the two World Wars till 1990s.  Since then, however, PR has developed immensely to become a major profession and academic discipline.  The government has limited need for specialized communication skills, as the purpose of PR in government is limited to getting publicity, running propaganda and occasional consensus building. Politicians who head governments are already adept in such communications inherent in political campaigns. These politicians, when they head governments, become the government spokespersons and set the basic goal for government public relations to keep the public sphere favourable. The government PR thus, serves the need of the political masters.
To achieve this most PR people in government do publicity – both earned and paid for (i.e. advertising). The mainstay of earned publicity campaign for government still is the press releases and press conferences. Occasionally, media professional are coerced or motivated to carry government publicity materials. Events, exhibition, rally etc. serve the purpose of government propaganda. The tools employed by government for consensus building are workshops, conferences, round-table discussions, negotiations etc.
While using these tools of public relations in government, tradition plays the most important role. Majority of government PR people who head the public relations department are on the job learners. For them public relations is what they practice. Precedents and common sense are two most prevalent guides for these PR practitioners. Media personnel are heavily dependent on government PR people for information. A fact amplified by relative lack of news on Saturdays and Sundays when government departments remain close. These media people provide the much-needed earned publicity and hence are great friends of government PR professionals. Moreover, government is the single big revenue provider for the media industry in our country.

Thus, it is smooth sailing for government PR so far. While public relations as a profession and as an academic discipline is developing tremendously throughout the world, government PR in India is still confined to the above mentioned few functions. However, given the potential of PR, it could play a very significant role in good governance, which unfortunately is being denied to it.

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