A PR Legend: Genesis Burson Marsteller’s Prema Sagar

Kicking off our series of PR Legends with GBM's Prema Sagar. Read about her extraordinary journey from Fauji kid to PR business leader.

Growing up as a fauji kid in the cantonments of small town India, Sagar was a self described wild child whose, “Swiss blood ran one way and the Indian blood another way”. Sagar says that, “every answer to my question to my dad was a No!”, this early opposition made her a risk taker at work with a strong drive to find her own way. At the same time, her values from her disciplined air force father and the example of the concern her mother had for the less fortunate has kept Sagar grounded. A clear eyed businesswoman who also longs to help the world know Mother Teresa better, a person with an appetite for risk who set the way for PR in India.

PRmoment India speaks to one of the pioneers of the public relations business in India about what it takes as a person to define an entire business category and on what lies ahead for her in 2016.

Genesis was an early training ground for many current PR leaders. Prema Sagar(middle) with’ PR Pundit’s’ Archana Jain and Nandita Lakshmanan of ‘The PRactice’ (right).

PRmoment India: What brought you to the PR business?
Prema Sagar: I was 23 when Priya Paul, Apeejay Surrendra Group the owner of Park Hotels got in touch with me. Her father, Surrendra Paul, had just been assassinated by suspected ULFA cadres and the Park hotel has an occupancy rate of just 3%. Priya Paul wanted to increase the profile for Park Hotels and as there was no advertising budget she thought PR could be the answer to her problem. So I worked out a plan to hold ‘Going Public at the Park’, a monthly talk event over tea and biscuits. The first speaker for this was Ramesh Vangal, then chief of PepsiCo Foods, India, who spoke on ‘Building India Inc. The series really helped attract people to the hotel and over time the occupancy rose to 75%.

From here, I added two other clients, interestingly all in the travel and tourism business: Thai Airways and Travel House. G-BM still caters to these three clients.

PRmoment India: Tell us about your journey as an entrepreneur?
Prema Sagar: I ran away from home at 22 with one suitcase to get married. When you have run away, you are free.  My husband, Jyoti, never said no to me for anything. So when I wanted to set up a printing press I did so. I was never scared of anything, even though I had never done business before. In fact, my first project as a printer for the Maurya Sheraton was a huge loss financially. But I carried on and brought out a city guide next, before eventually moving to PR.

Prema Sagar with Harold Burson. In 2005, Genesis joined Burson-Marsteller, now a part of the WPP group. This made Genesis one of the first home grown PR firm to be bought over by a global communications company.

PRmoment India: How are you dealing with the challenges of new PR?
Prema Sagar: 2014 was make or break year for us. It was a year when it would all fall apart or will be there. Over the last 12 months, we have established Centres of Expertise (COEs), started new divisions with clear differentiation (The Outstanding Speakers’ Bureau & Step Up) and invested in new media specialists to deliver integrated services in digital, content and design and data analytics. The Bureau alone has made us double what we invested in. If you keep on harping on media, media all the time then that it where you will stay. I know people who actually submit suitcases full of media clips.

The key to succeeding in PR today is to invest in the right people. You have to take the risk to support a person. It takes us one year to support a person we hire, but you have to invest in building your people. 2016 for us, is going to be about the spirit of entrepreneurship, you make the dream for yourself as an employee. So if 2015 was about hiring people, in 2016 we will fly!

2016 will be the year of entrepreneurship for GBM.

PRmoment India: PR professionals don’t seem to respect themselves much, why is that?
Prema Sagar: I really don’t know. Unfortunately, there are people who treat our young people in a nasty manner. Normally, we don’t take on clients like that. At the end of the day, the only thing you earn is your self-respect. If you don’t have that the PR people you have will either run away from the company or leave the industry all together.

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