Low fees and a lack of training are all problems for the Indian PR sector, says Avantha Group’s Shravani Dang

Give peanuts and you will get monkeys. How true does this old adage hold today? After all, people deserve to get paid for their creativity, energy and output. Simply put, we wish to be compensated for what we produce and the service we deliver. The view of the Indian PR industry shows problems and issues, but is it a lost case?

The ills affecting the Indian PR industry are not new – low fees, inability to attract or retain talent and lack of emphasis on training. The result is a lack of quality employee talent and intellectual capability, low employee retention, poor direction, hardly any incentivisation, pitable systems and trifling professional training. The industry professional level stays where it is. It is a vicious cycle.

In such an environment, the danger will always be low productivity and, worse still, low expectation, and low aspiration for growth. Bad all round – our bad!

The environment has changed and we need to grow to support a system that works for everyone; agencies, corporate PR practitioners, academic researchers, consulting firms, and research organisations. If we wish to build quality offering, we will need some very clever people to enable quality and consistent delivery. By hiring the cheapest people or by offering smart people less money is simply not good enough. The democratisation of data, new technology and channels and the connected publics are throwing up challenges every day. Is the industry equipped and ready to handle it? Does the PR industry have a hot start or is it still cold? This needs deep understanding and training up and down the line.  

The industry in India must start attracting the best. The world of the PR industry boasts of employees with excellent academic degrees from ranked institutions. This enables the industry to offer diverse and insightful analysis which can then be applied strategically and effectively. Then and only then can it  move to a higher level of listening, thinking and solving – a critical requirement from the industry at large. The problem is not just underpaid agencies, it’s also underpaid employees. Agencies must start paying well, so not to limit employee commitment and their longevity in one job as well as attract the best.

Strategy is the great neglect of the Indian PR industry. It suffers from tunnel-vision (e.g. for crisis management) or unfocused and woolly thinking (we need a good image, do something). Training is the other great neglect. I think it follows from the absence of strategy, so that PR juniors are trained only in putting out releases and sucking up to the media (please publish it; I’ll lose my job otherwise). Few young professionals understand what makes a story newsworthy, still fewer know how to communicate the concept of “newsworthy” to the client, and the why of it.

Recently I was to speak at a panel discussion on PR measurement and the Barcelona principles, another crying need for the industry. However, the adoption of standards and measurements can only happen once we have broad industry involvement, both from the client and the agency side. For this we need to press on for better budgets for PR internally in organisations and getting better recognition. Linked to this is the need for training to support the industry to improve the quality of people, both freshers and continuing training for the experienced.

I discussed this topic with a few peers, there was agreement across the board that raising the bar for the industry is imperative as there is a danger of PR assuming a “marketing support role”  instead of an increasing role in strategic management and being an important pillar along with finance, strategy, operations and HR in the CEO’s office.  

With the surge of international PR firms on India’s shores, the business and opportunity potential is huge. It is up to each one of us to take the public relations to a more professional, systematic and pro-active level. MNC PR firms have very strong processes, which make them person-independent. It can make them more rigid in handling Indian needs, since the processes are aligned to their Home environments, but ops are more robust. Indian PR firms need stronger frameworks. The sleepy and smug Indian PR industry – both agency and practitioners have to move quickly from a small cost centre outfit to becoming the strategic ‘go to’ function with a seat at the company’s head table.

And what better time than now, let’s start with the industry – both client and agencies may ring in the New Year with quality training, mentorship, case study sharing and forums. Each one of us in the industry can build the best in the industry and change the public’s perception of PR for the best. Then and only then will we attract quality professionals, and the respect and admiration our efforts deserve.

Shravani Dang is the Vice President & Global Group Head of Corporate Communications at the Avantha Group and Advisory Board member of Women in Leadership Forum