April 17, 2015
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‘On the record’ for free speech

Lately I’ve noticed how few are the full-throated defenders of democratic rights and a free press. Sometimes it seems that GDP has become the be-all and end-all measuring stick of a country’s development which trumps all other considerations. The sentiment in some markets goes something like this: “as long as the economy keeps growing, we’ll accept limits on expression.” Or maybe not question what I think is the flawed assumption that there is a somehow a positive correlation between restricting free speech and driving economic growth.

That’s the broader context of my outlook concerning what happened this week, when I was approached by journalist Emily Tan (interim editor of PRWeek Asia) to speak about Malaysia’s new ‘sedition’ laws. My own view is that during these transparent times when social technology is ascendant, I think the emphasis should be on communication rather than control, where we start with listening rather than legislation.

Anyway, Emily explained to me that many agency leaders refused to go ‘on the record’ concerning this controversial topic. That motivated me to say something as a named source for her story; she chose to quote me thus:

“I actually don’t believe this legislation will have much of an impact on corporate communications behaviour in Malaysia,” said Bob Pickard, chairman Asia-Pacific of Huntsworth. “The market already has a reputation necessitating calculated restraint in public relations and media relations.”

The new laws, Pickard added, may however adversely impact the nation’s marketing industry. “Our craft is at its best when freedom of expression trumps even well-meaning efforts which may have the consequence of stifling creativity or squelching insights and, in so doing, holding back the development of a country’s marketing services industry. My best communications counsel for both clients and  governments is to proactively engage the online public as a source of new ideas to be openly shared.”

The reluctance of communications industry leaders to stand up and be counted when our profession faces free speech constraints is not ideal. We are, after all, arguably the world’s most influential information workers. I have also noticed a lack of robust public advocacy when the journalism trade is threatened, or when reporters themselves are intimidated through various muzzling maneuvers.

Not all topics require a comment every single time from industry big-wigs. But I do think our top people should step up to the plate on major issues (including ones like climate change which I have blogged about before wearing my corporate communicator hat). That means less running for cover when opportunities arise to speak about the freedom of expression which is our oxygen in public relations.

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