New law needed to address unethical conduct involving presentation of half-truths, ‘outlandish’ claims: Institute chief

PETALING JAYA: The Institute of Public Relations Malaysia (IPRM) will gather feedback through several planned stakeholder engagement sessions starting in October, with a view to having Parliament pass a Public Relations Practitioners Act.

IPRM president Jaffri Amin Osman told the Sun that the Act was needed to deter “unethical conduct” by some public relations (PR) practitioners who may embellish the truth, do not provide source identification when making “outlandish” claims and practise deception in their press releases.

“When in place, the Act would ensure every PR professional undergoes a mandatory licencing, registration and accreditation process. The Act would also ensure the profession is practised more systematically with well-trained personnel.”

Jaffri was commenting on recent press releases issued by some PR firms. In one case, a press release claimed that the PR firm’s client is “the world’s largest IT infrastructure services provider”.

However, upon checking, the client only has a 2.4% global share in technology design and architecture. The PR firm later changed its tune and claimed that according to an analyst, its client was ranked “first worldwide by revenue in 2022 for Infrastructure Implementation and as managed services providers”.

In another case, a press release stated that the client company is “the world’s leading human resource, payroll and employee engagement platform”.

When asked if the claim could be independently substantiated, the PR firm instead provided links to other media outlets that published the statement.

While Jaffri stressed that most PR practitioners adhere to the values and ethics of the profession, he attributed the misinformation in some press releases to those who have not yet developed a strong understanding of effective communication strategies.

“Some clients could be unfamiliar with PR best practices, while some PR firms struggle to balance client expectations with ethical and effective communications.”

He said the PR industry is highly competitive and some firms might feel pressured to use aggressive tactics to stand out and secure clients.

However, he stressed that “hard selling” is not considered an effective PR strategy and focusing on ethical and strategic communications will ultimately lead to more successful and sustainable outcomes.

He added that the growing demand for PR professionals has led to a surge in specialisations, such as corporate communications, strategic communications, employee communications, media relations, stakeholder relations and investor relations.

“The PR field also encompasses practices with less positive connotations, such as ‘spin doctoring’ and ‘astroturfing’. These terms, while used variably depending on context, can contribute to a negative perception of the profession as a whole.”

Jaffri called on PR practitioners to adhere to the IPRM code of conduct in practising ethical PR.

“Currently, it is only a guideline and is not enforceable. This is why IPRM is working hard on the Act and wants it to be enacted, so that unverified claims and unethical practices can be legally stopped.”

He said it is organising a conference titled “Ethical and Responsible Communication” on July 16, in collaboration with the Communications Ministry and the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management.

Held in conjunction with World PR Day, which falls on the same date, speakers will make presentations on ethical awareness, digital and social media ethics, corporate ethics in PR, analyses of notable PR ethics cases and best practices, among others.

Jaffri urged online and print editors to watch out for press releases with overly promotional language, sensational claims or insufficient supporting evidence.