A controversial “envelope culture” and lack of a professional practice framework are some of the challenges facing Vietnam’s burgeoning public relations industry.
It’s a country where “modern” public relations has been officially practised for less than two decades, after the doors to the world economy were opened in 1986.
But the early-stage positioning of Vietnam’s public relations industry is critical for its long-term development, according to RMIT Vietnam researchers Jade Bilowol and Mai Anh Doan.
The pair has explored how the introduction of public relations to Vietnam, through the arrival of Western multinational corporations, has been adapted in a local context.
Misperceptions on its role and a widely entrenched practice of gift-giving to journalists are in focus.
“There seems to be a lack of consensus among public relations practitioners in Vietnam on what constitutes ethics in public relations,” Bilowol says.
“Payment to journalists is considered by some as appropriate, given the low salaries, shrinking advertising revenue and slowing economy. Maintaining professional ethics is thought to be more about supplying accurate and factual content.”
Bilowol says the practice of negative public relations or “Black PR”, where agencies are hired to mislead an organisation’s competitors, also presents damaging implications for the growing industry.
But some public relations practitioners in Vietnam reject this approach due to cultural influences.
“Buddhist philosophies and beliefs have been shown to have a role in shaping perceptions of practice,” Bilowol says.
Both researchers argue that for optimum long-term development of the industry, there needs to be a better understanding of what public relations is and the value it can bring to organisations and society at large.
Bilowol says this can be achieved through stronger relations between agency public relations practitioners and their clients, as well as through the establishment of a professional body.
“There are also opportunities for further development of public relations education and training.”
The pair’s research involved interviews with senior Vietnamese public relations executives employed at international and local public relations agencies in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.
“Vietnam’s public relations industry was established less than 20 years ago, through the arrival of Western multinational corporations,” Bilowol says.
“It has grown among a backdrop of propaganda used by authorities to build national unity in a previously war-torn country.
“And the demand for public relations in Vietnam is still mostly driven by multinationals promoting products through media relations.”
Bilowol says many Vietnamese companies are unsure about making an investment in public relations due to a limited understanding of what it is and misperceptions in its practice.
“It highlights the critical need for the establishment of a professional industry body and framework, as well as more public relations training courses or education.”
Bilowol and Doan presented their findings at the 2014 World Public Relations Forum in Madrid, Spain.
The pair’s work is now being used to inform a framework for professional practice, which is being developed in consultation with industry.
Story: Karen Matthews
Photo: Le Gia Phong
This story was first published in RMIT's Making Connections magazine.