The Future of Public Relations: With Karnvir Mundrey


Karnvir Mundrey, CIO, Atharva Marcom spoke to Francis Ingham, Director General, PRCA.

Karnvir Mundrey: So tell us your journey your PR and your what’s happening at the PRCA and and everything that that has happening.

Francis Ingham: Thank you for inviting me to be here. It’s a pleasure to be talking with you.

I have two principal jobs. I’m the Director General of the PRCA, which was set up 50 years ago and also the Chief Executive Officer for ICCO which was set up 30 years ago. Coincidentally, both on this anniversary.

The PRCA operates predominantly in the UK, but increasingly overseas. We are the largest PR Association in the world. We represent and regulate over 30,000 people in the UK, and we have offices in Dubai and Singapore. We’re about to open in Buenos aires, and we launched PRSA Russia,a couple of weeks ago.

We represent regulate and give guidance and insight to our members via the PRCA services. ICCO is the umbrella body for 41 associations around the world, including in India, and we provide international network of senior level people, again giving glimpse around the world, intelligence and general leading the industry forward, ethically and professionally.

My background is in public relations and politics and public affairs. So I went to university at Oxford, where I did politics, philosophy and economics.  I was the press officer for the Oxford Union, dealing with lots of high profile people from all around the world. And then I went to work for the Conservative Party, as an advisor.

I worked in public first subsequently to that and I’ve been, I’ve been running for the PRCA for 12 years now, and the ICCO for seven at the same time. We have moved the PRCA from being a very niche, tiny organisation to being the world’s largest PR body.

And I announced today at our national conference in London, the intention to expand even further around the world, and push one really important thing – Two years ago we have expelled Bell Pottinger, for it’s unethical behavior – arguably the world’s most famous PR company.

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And on the back of that we’ve grown very strongly and associations around the world have embraced the need to be ethical to have high standards for their members and to enforce those standards, and we push that through PRCA and ICCO. So that’s our big mission really to raise standards around the world and that’s the job. That’s the job that I do.

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Karnvir Mundrey: That’s really interesting. So let’s talk about a bit about ethics. Ethics in PR is something which is really important. It’s something is important but it is probably not as well defined. PR agencies generally are open to doing PR for anyone who pays, who writes the check. So tell us about what do you define as ethics.

Francis Ingham: So, let me say this, I see the global PR industry in the 66 countries in which we operate. And I’m perfectly aware that there are different expectations standards and norms in those different countries, but there are certain core principles are my thing that holds true.

And on the back of our spoken about Bell Pottinger I’ll come back in a moment.

ICCO announced in Helsinki 2017 10 principles as the baseline for which PR practitioners around the world, ought to behave and there are things like

– Tell the truth.

– Think about the public interest.

– Don’t stir  up racial hatred.

– Don’t spread fake news.

– Don’t do astroturfing.

Basic things, that we can all adhere to.  

Now in the UK, we have a really well established code of conduct that we’ve enforced for exactly 50 years. And it has a very rigorous legalistic process for the complaints. And for making public, making public is crucial – The results of those complaints.

A couple of years ago received a complaint from the Democratic Alliance – The main opposition party in South Africa, about the work being undertaken by Bell Pottinger.

It was for work for a very uncontroversial client. Obey Capital. But it was very controversial work. It was a campaign called white minority capital, saying that, essentially, if you were poor, or whatever probably had in South Africa. And if you weren’t white. There was a reason for it, and it was about the control of capital by minority of the country. And in a way, the only way to stop being poor was to take control of that capital. And you can have your views on that, that’s not our concern, but what it did do was to racial hatred tension. And it was a, it’s a terrible example of the power of PR used for ill.

We considered that complaint and expelled Bell Pottinger after a very lengthy and thorough  process. Within one week of expelling them, the company no longer existed. And that to us is the prime example of self regulation working of the industry, having ethics and ethics being global because the work being done was being directed from London. But the work was being delivered in South Africa.

On the back of it. The industry in the UK could have run away, and said we don’t want to be involved in the PRCA – they expel people and when they do bad things happen. Instead (the industry) they came to us.

We’ve grown by at least a third in the last couple of years, partially on the back of expulsion of Bell Pottinger. And I think we’ve helped to set global expectations, and global standards, and my, my message to PR practitioners will be this:  10 years ago, the same piece of work, the same complaint. And I am certain that Bell Pottinger would have survived it. But, social media has changed the whole atmosphere in which will work for the better. And there’s nowhere to hide.

And I’ll say to PR practitioners around the world. Do the right thing, be ethical both because it’s the right thing to do, but also because with no place to hide in your own personal interests to do the right thing.

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Karnvir Mundrey: But how do you decide what is ethical?

Francis Ingham: So, I completely understand that and we’ve always said the PRCA and in ICCO – it is perfectly possible to do to work for controversial causes. And if I look at the PRCA’s membership in the UK – We have Philip Morris International, tobacco Company. And we have the UK Department of Health. One might well say they have slightly conflicting (goals).

And it’s not for us to judge on the promotion or otherwise of smoking. But what we do say is we can have rules about how you promote what is a legal point of view, on both sides.

And that promotion involves a certain core principles, so not stirring up hatred and having regard for the public interest as you justifiably say it. And we would always say that there’s black, there’s white, and there’s a lot of grey.

There is stuff that is clearly wrong. Stuff that is clearly right. And there’s a lot of debatable stuff in the middle.

And that’s the mantra of judgement. I think mature PR associations, the mature associations can take a valid judgement on. And I think that’s the only way you can juggle these conflicting demands and interests.

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Karnvir Mundrey: So let me touch upon another probably topical as well as difficult subject and the subject of privacy. And, you know, it’s been in the news all over you have the, you know, everyday is the Facebook’s and the Googles and the collection of data. And, you know, everything in PR kind of depends on data and collection of data. I mean, the more we know about our target audience, the more we are good at influencing the target audience. So, where does, where does this entire debate, go in your perspective in terms of in terms of securing data in terms of securing people’s information, but at the same time we need that information.

Francis Ingham: I make two distinctions.We are very clear that the future of the PR industry in the UK and around the world is about data driven insight. But that data needs to be anonymized. And you’ve had the case of Cambridge Analytica and others, where it hasn’t been anonymized. And that’s the key issue.

Karnvir Mundrey: Is anonymized another debatable term?

Francis Ingham: It could be. But I think securing data that aggregates blogs and where you can say, this is how we target different sectors of, of people without knowing specifically who those people are that’s absolutely fine. Having the personal data for people and how they personally operate, and then targetting them is a different matter now. I completely accept that Amazon knows a very great deal about my personal tastes and my life. I opt in to that. I could opt out of it at any point where like, I know that. I know that Vodafone knows exactly where I go and where I am.

I think there was a justifiable saying so long as they are regulated and kept within boundaries. The temptation for commercial benefit to go over those boundaries, is clear. And that’s where first of all self regulation works, or no in fact that’s what personal morality works in the company level, and at the personal level, then where self regulation works and if that fails that’s why government stepped in and that’s perfectly understandable and take into a broader distinction as well though so our PR code says, Be truthful, but also observe confidences.

And there is another, lets be honest about this an inherent conflict in those two competing requirements so if your client, you happen to know, is gay. But pretends to be straight, or if they have mental health illness but say they don’t that you have those two competing priorities.

And that’s where we would say, Look person morality. And then, self regulation and organisations that can go low is competing priorities have a role to play, and when I, when I lecturing universities and I’ve lectured at the on a regular basis. The University of Westminster, and the American University in London and elsewhere. I always say to students of PR who are going to be the going to be the, the big people or industry in the years to come – These are matters of judgement. These are the grey areas. And this is why you have to give serious thought to morality to ethics and to professional standards, so that you can make those judgments.

Karnvir Mundrey: So what would you your two minute suggestion to the hundreds of people or thousands of people who would watch this and try to, you know, learn about the principles of PR. What would you tell them?

Watch the interview.

Francis Ingham: I’d say, Be true to yourself. I’ll say, in, in every instance of ethical choice. I’ve seen the 12 years of the PRCA, and it comes down to, people knowing they’re doing the wrong thing, knowing they’re  making the wrong choice. And they can only make the right choice by giving things proper thought ahead of it, but I think generally people who transgress our codes or other people’s codes, or who wreck people’s lives and do some knowing the making the wrong choice. So I’ll say make the right one.

Karnvir Mundrey: I think people always from their heart know whether they’re doing the right thing or not. I mean the heart always knows kind of thing.

Francis Ingham: I cannot believe for example without putting two other people looking at it, and seeing the content that has been driven by their company’s work and seeing the consequences. I can’t believe they would have looked at it and thought, this is cool. I really believe they must have thought –  this is

terrible.And it’s when he gets to the “But” moment that you will to say to yourself. Let’s pause.

Let’s think about Can I can I look myself in the mirror. If I do this thing, and I think by and large, if you pause look in the mirror, you’re going to say no when you can do the right thing, not the wrong thing.

Karnvir Mundrey: What’s your prediction for the next 10 years of public relations?

Francis Ingham: I first began the membership body in the UK PR 15 years ago. And my then  boss said he didn’t think the internet was here to stay. And you know that might gives the perspective, I suppose I disagreed with him I’m happy to say it’s hard to say where it’s going, but what I do know is that, I think, artificial intelligence is a big thing we don’t know how it’s gonna play out. You know we speak with agents even house leaders all around the world about AI, and they’re saying that it’s gonna be epic really important, very powerful. And then we say in what way, and they don’t really know.

And that’s the reality.

You know most people don’t really know what the big changes ahead of them are after all do they? Not just now but historically.

But the four big trends we see in the industry are these:

  1. Chief execs are investing more in corporate reputation. So they see the failure of big companies because of their reputation crashing often on social media. So then rest in mourning.

  2. The second one is marketing spend continues to move from advertising towards PR because we are more agile. We can tell a story better than others.

  3. We see PR agency is offering a different range, a broad range of services than they have done previously.

  4. And we see the growth of digital.

    And I think digital skills are pervasive massively important the future of the industry of the economy globally. And the data we run with eco every year says PR people are investing in them. They’re making that shift. The big challenge they face is attracting talented people who have those skills, and the problem they face if I might say so as a, you know, as a comment is that the people at the top, probably, including myself, often don’t know what they’re looking for. in the people that recruiting they don’t understand the skills that are needed. So that’s the big challenge the bosses have to be almost as versatile in digital as a people they’re hiring.

And that’s a challenge for the future.

Karnvir Mundrey: I think you’re leading it absolutely from the front with the PRCA and you know it’s it’s absolutely amazing what your organisation has been able to do in this very confused and and challenging, a way of PR so thank you so much for, for giving us your time.

Francis Ingham: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to speak. It was a pleasure..

Karnvir Mundrey is the Chief Ideation Officer at Atharva Marcom – one of India’s leading public relations & communication firms. Francis Ingham is the Director General at the PRCA.

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