'Dangerous Comms Act': Government regulation of PR industry would be unworkable

Chris Scott, PR Week

"Why is PR obsessed with being a profession?" ran a recent debate on Twitter, together with a discussion of the requirements of achieving formally recognised status.
This came just days after the Digital Media Culture and Sport Select Committee delivered a vision of what becoming a profession might look like as a footnote to the Facebook bashing in their report into ‘fake news’.

Deep within the recommendations by the Committee lurks three ideas for governance in the PR and strategic communications industry: "That PR and strategic communications companies are audited, possibly by an independent body, to ensure that their campaigns do not conflict with the UK national interest and security concerns and…the imposition of legitimate sanctions", "new [statutory] regulations that curb bad behaviour in this Industry" and the creation of "a public record of all campaigns that they work on, both at home and abroad".

In a Parliament seemingly only capable of devoting attention to the ‘B’ word and internecine division, it is not clear who would have the time or inclination to work on these recommendations.

Resistance would be likely – the third recommendation alone reads like the mutant offspring of the UK Lobbying Register with the US Foreign Agents Registration Act and a general catch-all that all strategic comms activity anywhere in the world should be thrown into.

Lawyers often cite the Dangerous Dogs Act as an exemplar of rushed legislation motivated by a short-term panic to be seen to do something, and there is more than a scent of the same motive here.

The questions to be resolved are nebulous – which activities should be captured in a sprawling marcomms world? How would work "abroad" be captured without extra-territorial overreach? And do we really want to invest taxpayer money auditing consumer PR arms of agencies to ensure that product launches are not affronting the national interest?

For all the regulation we do face, these requirements, it should be added, do not apply to the professions, including my own.

It is easy to dismiss the work of the Select Committee as a knee-jerk reaction to a particular set of facts that offend its political sensibilities without any serious evidence about, or analysis of, the PR industry at large or the implications of the recommendations it makes.

Easy, but not necessarily wrong.

But more to the point – what would the comms industry gain from being a regulated profession?

Here there is perhaps a kernel of utility from the Report.

As lawyers, we know that there are basic standards we are all held to, and those who breach them are cast out from the profession, legally prevented from practising, protecting the integrity of the rest.

The power of being a regulated profession lies in that assurance to the buyer and the exclusion of rogue actors.

Before embarking on a Dangerous Comms Act, that is the issue that should be considered, rather than one extreme case study.

Chris Scott is the founder of Himsworth Scott
uploaded: Tue, Apr 2 2019
modified: Tue, Dec 30 1969