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India will Lead in Establishing AI Standards, Fees not flat for value driven PR firms, Says Shivaram Lakshminarayan, COO, Ruder Finn India

In a dynamic PR landscape where AI presents both challenges and possibilities for brands, PRmoment India's Paarul Chand speaks with Shivaram Lakshminarayan, COO of Ruder Finn India. The interview delves into AI-powered crisis communication strategies, India's position in developing AI ethics, Ruder Finn's growth trajectory in India, and the evolving fee structures for PR firms, including whether PR retainers are flat.

AI risks for brand reputation: India is ahead in setting guardrails

AI risks for brand reputation: India is ahead in setting guardrails

Paarul Chand: What is your opinion on the challenges of working with AI? Especially what we saw with ChatGPT and the Scarlett Johansson voice cloning conflict? So, apart from fake news, how concerned are Indian clients about voice cloning and video cloning?

Shivaram Lakshminarayan: I believe most organizations have passed that particular bridge of should we use AI? Is it effective? Is it impactful? The conversations are more towards if I'm using AI, how do I use it more responsibly? What should be the guardrails of using AI and how will you own the outcomes of usage of the AI technology?

Countries like India will leapfrog in terms of understanding AI usage. Therefore, I think we'll be faster in understanding what the guardrails should be too. The conversation is moving very fast in that direction, and I believe that organizations will find a solution sooner than later.

Growth Priorities for Ruder Finn India, Are PR Fees Flat

Paarul Chand: What about the future of Ruder Finn itself? What sectors are you looking at? Of course, traditionally, there are specific sectors in which Ruder Finn has been strong. Do they remain the same? Are there any new areas of growth that you're looking at?

Shivaram Lakshminarayan: If you see the kind of service lines or sectors we go after, it's technology, healthcare, commerce, leadership and workplace. So, these continue to be our growth sectors.

Paarul Chand: One keeps hearing from PR CEOs and founders about the problem of flat retainers in the PR business. In your perspective what can be done about handling this?

Shivaram Lakshminarayan: I disagree that retainers are flat. It is a value-driven industry, and it is the value that creates the revenue stream. We do not want to look at our client and say, ‘Hey, this is a retainer client and hence this is the kind of service we want to provide.’ Instead, first, look at what the customer requirement is. It is no longer the traditional PR services that any firm/ customer is looking for. They are now looking at an integrated and multiple-platform, content and engagement approach. Hence, you have a combination of revenue streams.

"In my journey during the last couple of months at Ruder Finn, I've never seen a client walking up to us and saying, “Hey, it is going to be a flat retainer.” The conversation has always been, "This is the problem statement I have. Now tell us, what do you want to do here?"

Shivaram Lakshminarayan: If you're able to tell the customer and say, ‘Okay, this is the journey I want to create for you this particular year and these are the various value streams I want to create for you,’ then the retainer is just a conversation. I think agencies should concentrate more on getting the value quotient high. The more they're able to deliver that, the retainers will flow in.

Paarul Chand: A follow-up question – there is this feedback that I get fairly often is that Indian firms are not comfortable with network firms. Is that something that you have experienced and how did you overcome that?

Shivaram Lakshminarayan: When a customer is working with an agency partner, they're looking at a certain level of SOP and SLA comfort that needs to come with that agency partner. As long as you're able to streamline this, the journey is then easier.

So, agency teams must invest in the network teams, and network partners. They have to work with them to understand or make them understand, the culture of the company.

Paarul Chand: I've heard a very negative narrative, so to speak, that Indian companies do not like to work with subsidiaries of large network companies because there's a big cultural mismatch. So, thanks for those insights. Coming to the media system right now, there's been so much change in the media and there is hope that the credibility of television media might improve now. Leaving that bit aside, how do you see the media engagement market? Has media engagement as a service declined in importance?

Evolving Media Engagement

Shivaram Lakshminarayan: It is changing and it is changing for good. I think it is in tune with how news is now getting consumed. I can comfortably say that I've seen three decades of news consumption and my news consumption pattern for the last three decades has changed drastically. The media is also evolving, and they also understand. Recently I heard The Hindu wants to also get into podcasts, the Kasturi group wants to get into podcast formats. It’s a very welcoming change.

Paarul Chand: What skills will PR professionals need to adjust the way media is evolving over digital and social media?

Shivaram Lakshminarayan: As a PR professional, I need to know my client's TG and what kind of information will make sense to them, and also know the media which will be able to cater to that particular TG. If I don't know these two, I will always be left in the lull.

One of the strongest perspectives that the PR agencies brought on board is that ‘we understand stakeholders, mediums, and the media.’ We said we will connect the dots for you and we would do that research at our end to make it happen for you. That remains the core, just that the mediums have become digital. 

Launch of AI-enabled crisis tool Sonar

Paarul Chand: The latest version of the crisis communications tool Sonar has just been launched. I did have the opportunity to see a demonstration of the tool in 2017 and it was impressive. This updated AI-enabled version does not seem to cover input from Indian regional languages. How do you see Indian clients using Sonar?

Shivaram Lakshminarayan: It is, like you said, a very powerful crisis simulation platform. It talks about creating experiences for our customers in a hyper-realistic and multi-language environment. Right now, it is available in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean languages. We are looking at taking it much more region-specific, at least in markets like India and China, which are very language-driven.

The platform is undergoing a lot of changes. One of the things we look forward to in an English-speaking market like ours is, also going multilingual. But at this juncture, yes, it's true it has a limitation of multi-regional languages.

Paarul Chand: So as of now, regional languages will not be included and there's no immediate plan to look at that?

Shivaram Lakshminarayan: Right now, it is not included, but it's evolving, and we will look at options of having other Indian languages included in it.

As corporates are going global, we also need to have global expertise and language capabilities, hence the current languages from a regional point of view

Paarul Chand: One final question. Away from PR what are your destressors?

Shivaram Lakshminarayan: So what do I do minus PR? I have two fur babies, a dog and a cat.

Shivaram with his dog Tia and cat Snowy

I like to spend a lot of time with them. I have a human child too. He's young and very different, so I try to see things from his perspective which is very unique and new. There are no filters in their mind regarding how they see the world.


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