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The Practice of Public Relations in AzerbaijanAzerbaijan Public Relations Association (APRA)March 2004Public Relations (PR) is a comparatively new concept in Azerbaijan. Multinational oil companies were the first to introduce PR in the country in 1993. This happened in a time when scores of the oil companies were arriving in Azerbaijan to take part in the exploration and production of Azerbaijan's rich oil reserves, soon after the Soviet Union collapsed.From the mid 1990's, the practice of PR started to gain momentum in state, private and non-governmental organizations (NGO's). Several international organizations involved in civil society development projects initiated extensive trainings on PR for local NGO's. The leading in this area was the Initiative for Social Action and Renewal in Eurasia (ISAR), a US-based NGO, which offered half-day PR courses to the NGO representatives who expressed interest. However, these training courses didn't go beyond the basics of PR.In 1997, for the first time in Azerbaijan, local Gafgaz University incorporated PR courses into the curricula of undergraduate programs for Public and Business Administration. This was a milestone in the development of PR practice in the country and was followed by a couple of other state and private universities, which also included PR courses in their undergraduate programs.The law "On the Rules of Reviewing Citizens' Claims" adopted by the nation's parliament in 1997 represented a breakthrough in PR practice in the country. The law required all state, private and non-profit volunteer organizations to look into and consider complaints and comments from citizens and address them appropriately within two weeks. This, in turn, necessitated all the state and private institutions in Azerbaijan to establish relevant departments and mechanisms for managing claims from citizens. In most institutions this management responsibility ended up in the existing or newly created PR departments, which was another important milestone in the development of PR. This brought new functions to PR practitioners who, prior to this law, were for the most part in charge of media relations only.In 1998, the censorship on media, which had been in effect since 1993, was abolished, and the new law "On the Freedom of Information" was adopted. This law added into the strength of the mass media and gave them new rights and responsibilities. The law entailed government, private and non-profit volunteer organisations to respond to the inquiries of the media within 24 hours unless otherwise indicated in the regulations. In addition, it required these organizations to inform the media about their activities at least once a year. The law dramatically increased the need for proactive PR in both the private and public sectors.The field of PR is still developing in Azerbaijan. Its importance and use will increase parallel to the development of democracy in the country. Currently, only large companies and organizations actively use PR methods and techniques. These include oil companies, donor organizations, international institutions, large service companies, and some state establishments.PR is still an insufficiently explored area for the majority of small- and medium-sized enterprises in Azerbaijan. Most of these enterprises have a very short-term profit-oriented agenda. PR initiatives are a less urgent priority for them than advertising, which pays off immediately. However, PR activities are crucial to their long-term success and growth, and it is important that they realize this in the near future.Recently, another significant milestone was achieved in the development of PR in Azerbaijan with the establishment of the Azerbaijan Public Relations Association (APRA) in April 2003. APRA was founded by PR representatives of several international and local organizations. The association's mission is to research problems, highlight the best practices and offer new perspectives in the field of PR as well as promote PR in public administration and non-profit and business sectors in Azerbaijan. Today, APRA unites over 20 PR professionals. The association gets most of its financial and organizational support from Internews Azerbaijan, a US-based media development non-profit institution.At this time, the most common PR method used in Azerbaijan is media relations. Also widespread are the use of festivals, opening ceremonies, conferences, workshops, and face-to-face conversations. Websites are gaining popularity as a PR tool. One of the effective and newest PR tools used in Azerbaijan is social investment schemes. These schemes include, but not limited to, micro finance, community mobilization and development, environmental, health, and educational development projects. Most of these projects aim at the rehabilitation and revitalization of the economic, environmental, social, and physical infrastructure of a community by the community itself through the support of commercial, state and non-profit institutions.As a new PR tool, social investment schemes provide many advantages to companies in terms of public relations. First, through the process of social investment, the company has an opportunity to establish goodwill relations with its communities through supporting them to develop and solve their own problems. Second, community development projects improve the capacity of communities to solve their own problems, avoiding dependency syndromes and unreal expectations.The field of PR faces many challenges in the new environment in Azerbaijan. First, educated and experienced PR specialists are in short supply. Second, many company executives, state officials, editors, journalists, and university professors don't have sufficient understanding of PR. Many of them confuse PR with advertising, propaganda or general communication techniques. As a result, it is not uncommon for newspaper and magazine editors to request payment to run a press release or cover an event. Some editors are hesitant to name event sponsors, as they consider this advertising. Many are simply puzzled when organizations approach them to establish a working relationship.Many of the obstacles faced by the PR profession in Azerbaijan can be addressed through educational activities. Providing major stakeholders with access to modern-day PR resources could alleviate some of the basic misconceptions about the profession.However, the challenges that are specific to the media require more time and support to strengthen the media's financial standing. This can only be achieved through the overall economic development of the country. The development of democracy is crucial to address many of the challenges faced by PR practitioners: as the level of democracy rises, institutions and individuals will become more sensitive and responsive to PR.