Changing Facets of Public Relations

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Discerning newspaper readers must have noticed that the Congress Party did not even spare the communications agency that handled the election campaign for them. This was Dentsu, one of the most respected and topnotch global agencies which got the end of the stick for the party’s recent electoral debacle. Had the party come out with flying colors, it was unlikely that the agency would have got a pat on the back. Then all the credit would have gone to the RaGamThanamPallavi people and fossils in the party for doing a marvelous job!

The advertising and PR agencies have in fact a thankless job on hand. Maybe that’s what they mostly get paid for. Bouquets they seldom get, but there is no shortage of brickbats. This is especially true in the Indian context when over the last three decades or so the corporate sector startedincreasingly tapping the PR talent to put across their views, projecting them in proper light. But there is a problem. Many a company in the Indian corporate world have an in-house PR setup, or hire one on assignment, more as a piece of imitation jewelry without any store value than anything else.

Then and Now

Back in the eighties a good journalist friend who joined one of the largest and steady business groups in the country rued his decision to switch his profession and job. That was when journalists used to get a pittance. Even an increment of Rs100called for a party at the Press Club. Anyway, this friend ended up as an errand boy for the group, lamenting he was the least informed in the setup. His job entailed personally going over to newspaper offices and delivering company releases. He was not in the loop not because the management suspected his capabilities or credentials, but because that was the prevailing company culture and practice! If I identify the business empire, you might as well tick me off and say, “OK, Tata Bye-Bye” or some such thing as you see painted on trucks, so let me desist from naming names.

One also heard this story from the horse’s mouth. The Finance Director of a huge multinational company was accompanying his Chairman on a flight to Delhi. Their PR Manager was also on the flight, sitting just behind the duo. To make best use of the flying time, the FD promptly took out a file and started talking about an upcoming project. The Chairman whispered in his ear not to discuss the project as it was still in an embryonic stage and he did not want the PR Manager, of all the people, to get wind of it. So much for in-house PR and the cat and mouse game!

Does the corporate sector look at PR with the same old set of glassy eyes or rather differently? The answer is yes and no. Yes, because especially after 1991, the corporate sector and the economy as a whole has undergone a sea change. Companies recognize now that good PR is a sine qua non for them to expand and become mega-sized entities. The days of the “red book” that Marwari businessmen used to maintain are more or less a thing of the past. The scale of operations, the exposure, the need to raise funds and the transparency that is called for�all these make it incumbent on the companies to professionalize their operations on all fronts, PR included. Little wonder, most companies now willy-nilly hire PR service to work for them. It has also become fashionable to have a PR person in tow for stakeholders to know that the company has ‘arrived’. But the problem arises when the ‘brief’ that companies provide to their PR agencies is rather brief. Think of a real life situation: When journalists check on a piece of sensitive information, companies quietly pass the buck to the agency, invariably without taking it into confidence. So the PR firm in the dark room has little choice but to tell what the company expects it to do: pass on a written statement that “the company does not speculate on market rumors.” But the PR firm will find itself in a spot when a day or two later the company sends out a handout confirming that very “market rumor”. This creates bad blood between the journalists and the PR firms.

Though over the years the regulatory authorities have tightened the disclosure norms, companies in India still try to circumvent these as they want to conceal more than what they reveal. This is an area of conflict. Even in the West, we have seen companies still hiding facts and finally being forced to fold. Washington and New York can well teach Delhi and Mumbai the finer aspects of devious corporate methods.

Good Signs

But a redeeming feature is that keeping the touchy relationship in mind, there are at least a few professional PR firms in the country that tell their clients to repose full confidence in them and make full disclosure if they expect them to come on board. They don’t run after clients like rabid dogs. Gone are the days, it would appear, when certain companies expected just one thing from their PR agency: “Tell us six hours in advance if any newspaper or magazine is carrying any negative write-up on us”. Just as there are black sheep in every profession, PR too has its share, but the number of such uncouth, fly-by-night operators is fortunately on the wane.

Today there are several PR agencies lending truly professional service. Most of these lean and homegrown firms, who have put all the eggs in one basket, have exposure across a wide spectrum of industries. A lot of them have tie-ups with international agencies in the field, but never outside of it. In the end experience counts and one can identify the good ones by their client lists, expertise, and the kind of specialized work they undertake rather than chasing too many clients and ending up as a Jack of all trades and doing disservice to all and sundry.


The author is a senior financial journalist with more than three decades of experience. He worked as Senior Editor of The Financial Express, Group Business Editor of The New Indian Express, Founder Editor of a Pharma magazine and Consulting Editor of Orissa Post. His debut novel ‘Mole In The Sky’ was published in the US two years ago. He also wrote a weekly column for Thomson Reuters.

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