A new culture of openness in the Middle East and the importance of professional ethics were the focus of the opening ceremony of the 20th Public Relations World Congress (PRWC) in Dubai on Wednesday. Officially opening the congress, the UAE Minister of State Reem Al Hashimy told the over 450 attending delegates that communications is playing an increasingly critical role for governments, businesses and civil society. “Connectivity and dialogue — between peoples and among nations — are so central to our shared future,” she said. “That’s why communications professionals, like you, play such an important role in shaping the positive direction of the world.” The three-day congress presents the latest trends in communications. The biennial international event is being held in the Middle East Dubai for the first time. Abdallah S. Jum’ah, the former president and chief executive officer of Saudi Aramco, said that PR practitioners wielded tremendous power, but with that power came significant responsibilities. “At the heart of those responsibilities lies adherence to a strong code of professional ethics,” he said. “Talk of a ‘moral code’ for corporate communications professionals may sound old-fashioned to some, but I would argue that ethics is the cornerstone of public relations,” Jum’ah said. “Consistent ethical behaviour is indeed the single most important hallmark of a successful PR professional.” Speakers at the congress also include Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim; the founder chairman of Burson-Marsteller, Harold Burson; British Public Relations guru and chairman of Chime Communications Lord Tim Bell; former head of Al Jazeera and co-founder of the Sharq Forum, Wadah Khanfar; general manager of Al Arabiya TV, Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed; Roger Fisk, who played a key ‘behind the scenes role’ in the election of US President Barack Obama; and many others. “A successful communications strategy cannot operate in a vacuum but must be supported by sound policy decisions,” Lord Bell said. “Reputation depends on what you do, not just what you say,” he said in his keynote address ahead of a panel discussion on ‘Public relations in an age of dialogue: Challenges & opportunities.’ He acknowledged that some of his firm’s clients are controversial. However, he argued that “everybody has the right to representation.” Underscoring that “how well we conduct our business is what matters,” Lord Bell said there is sometimes a fine line between public relations and propaganda. “Practice good PR, no matter how difficult the circumstances, and you will be okay,” he said. “Practice propaganda and you deserve what you get.” In the last session, PR pioneer Harold Burson shares his 65 years of industry insight with the delegates. Burson, a pioneer of modern public relations, told delegates that the best years for the PR industry are yet to come. Burson attributed the positive industry trend to increasing awareness of the value of corporate reputation, especially among CEOs. Presenting a keynote address on ‘Public relations in perspective’ at a special session, ‘An hour with a living legend,’ Burson delivered a wide range of compelling insights gained from his 65 years of industry leadership. Stressing the importance of recruiting to the industry what he called, “renaissance people,” Burson said that the best public relations practitioners are “able to deal at the top of the management pyramid, holding their own with the toughest, most-demanding and smartest CEOs.” Burson, 91, also said that the ongoing decline of print media offered an opportunity for public relations firms to identify and hire talent from the world of journalism. But the industry veteran warned that practitioners must do more to assert themselves in boardrooms, and said that agencies should avoid putting too much store in how digital communications is reshaping the industry. “The best is yet to come for public relations. Moving forward, demand will further raise the market value of our services,” Burson told the congress delegates.