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Public relations, public diplomacy and rebranding Islam

December 9, 2011

 

This week’s visit to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, brought me to a career highlight: the opportunity to take part in the First Global Congress of Muslim Public Relations Practitioners.

 

In accepting the invitation, I looked forward to participating in a small way in the bridging of a vast global divide. But my journey brought an unexpected surprise: a front-row seat at an intelligent, anxious and cautiously optimistic discussion among moderate Muslims from 23 countries about their faith’s global brand, and the role public relations could play in its future.

 

Former Malaysian prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi opened the conference by advancing a hopeful idea rooted in public diplomacy: that ten years after Al-Queda’s 9/11 attacks and the divisive Iraq war, the Arab Spring provides a window of opportunity to ‘rebrand Islam’ as a young, determined, modern global community -- and that public relations professionals would be essential to the task.

 

Various speakers linked core Islamic principles to public relations, particularly the importance of justice, accountability and shura – the seeking of mutual agreement or consensus, without which no authority has legitimacy. While these are ancient ideas in Islamic thought, they could not be more relevant to modern PR: for example, consider the importance of ethics, transparency, authenticity, accountability and mutual understanding to successful corporate communication and stakeholder governance.

I drew heavily on this new learning in addressing my assigned topic, PR strategies for unity and diversity.

 

The idea of uniting a faith that is practised so widely -- from the Arab world to Asia to America and everywhere in between – is challenging, as is the idea of bridging the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds while respecting diversity. Here are a few reasons:

  • History shows us that ‘unity’ has often been achieved by conquest or by compromise  – but rarely through genuine consensus.
  • Even in countries that embrace ethnic diversity, there are limits on tolerance for true cultural diversity, including different visions of social order, politics and economics. (Consider the small Quebec town that shamefully banned the wearing of Islamic headwear by women, just on the off chance they might encounter such a situation someday).
  • Ethnocentrism remains a powerful and pernicious force – whether manifested in horrific ethnic cleansing and civil wars or more subtle forms of discrimination and repression.
  • Even in a conference overwhelmingly dedicated to a message of hope and inclusion, one deeply misguided speaker caused considerable embarrassment by distributing a book on the alleged American-Zionist plot for world domination. (While I absented myself from that session, it was a reminder that we still have far to go to achieve mutual understanding, and that some people will never cross the divide).

 

The reasons for optimism, however, are far greater:

  • For an historically high number of people, demography is no longer destiny – and diversity transcends demography. The advent of global culture, cultural cross-pollination and hybridity means we can no longer reliably predict how someone might think or feel simply because they happen to be young or old, Asian or Caucasian, urban or rural, white-collar or blue-collar, wealthy or poor.
  • Notwithstanding the ongoing conflicts between nations, never have we seen nations act together with greater unity of purpose. The leaders of Europe, struggling to save their common currency, endure much criticism; but consider that for most of the continent’s history these nations were organized into military blocs that were perennially on the brink of war. And in Asia, in less than a generation, China’s image has been transformed from that of an enemy of capitalism to a potential saviour.
  • The emergence of the social web – and the consequent massive decentralization of communication power – is a force that makes ‘command and control’ forms of unity far more difficult – though we must never forget that technology can be used to promote hatred and division as easily as it can be used to promote love and understanding.

 

I argued for two core strategies in working toward unity amid diversity.

 

The first strategy is co-creation. There is need for neither conquest nor compromise if we commit to generating ideas together – as this conference demonstrated so successfully. This is an area where those of us in the West can learn from Eastern traditions. Communications theorists K.S. Sitaram and Michael Prosser have written that:

“…While Western philosophers place importance on the author and the originator of the idea, eastern philosophers did not do so because they believed the idea was more important than the originator of the idea itself. We know that some Hindu philosophers visited Socrates, but we do not know their names.”

They argue that Westerners tend to believe in communication as a linear process that begins with an information source and involves a transmitter and a receiver. Easterners tend to believe that there is no definite beginning or ending to any idea. We need to embrace that idea – and create content together.

 Toni Muzi Falconi, Daniel Tisch, Shameen Abdul Jalil, Jean Valin     

The second strategy is the search for universal principles – while respecting diverse applications.

In my country and many others, aboriginal peoples have a history of oral storytelling: the basics of the story are always the same, but the specifics will depend on the communicator, the audience and the context. So let it be with our communication: unity in our ideas, diversity in their applications. This idea has long animated the work of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, enabling the Global Code of Ethics, the Stockholm Accords, the World Public Relations Forum and many other examples of consensus-based collaboration.

Throughout the conference, the image of moderate Islam shone brightly. As a global soul with a Jewish-born father and a Catholic-born mother, it was a great honour for me to stand in solidarity with Muslim public relations practitioners, using communication to understand our diversity, while finding unity in both our profession and our humanity.

 

Daniel Tisch APR, Fellow CPRS
Global Alliance Chair
dtisch@argylecommunications.com