PRmoment-Kaizzen Pathfinders 10 for 2021: Sequoia Capital's Payal Banerjee on the 'Zero to One' PR challenge

Covid-19 has completely changed the future of communication and has brought in opportunities for growth last seen in the wake of economic liberalisation in the early '90s.

In order to record the evolving shape of corporate communications post 2020, PRmoment India along with Kaizzen presents Pathfinders 10 for 2021 where 10 emerging corporate communications leaders will share their blueprint on the path head for the PR and communications sector in India.

Starting this week, this column will be carried twice monthly- for the next five months as part of Season 1 of the series.

We kick off Season 1 with Payal Banerjee, Sequoia's Head of Communications for India and Southeast Asia. A seasoned strategic communicator Payal has had the opportunity to work from scratch with iconic startup Flipkart as well as be part of the core that designed Surge, Sequoia's programme for early-stage startups in India. She shares her views on the challenges and opportunities for the future of post Covid-19 communications.

PRmoment India: What is your top forecast for the future of communications in India?

    Payal Banerjee: I won’t call this a forecast – since I already see this beginning to happen across several sector and geographies. But external communications as a function that limits itself to media relations, will soon be passé. In a world that’s more digital than analog, you can no longer design effective communications campaigns without creating the right mix of channels –media, content, events, or social media.

    This is particularly true of the fast-paced startup ecosystem, where being a generalist who can effortlessly ideate and execute across many marketing mediums, while being a specialist in one or two, is rapidly becoming a must-have skill.

    Payal Banerjee VP and head – Communications, Sequoia India and Southeast Asia

    PRmoment India: One sector ripe for strategic communications not related to your current industry?

    Payal Banerjee: While it’s not really a sector, I think data privacy is a space that is not well understood by many. In recent times, more and more organizational crises has stemmed from the breach or alleged misuse of data. 

    Given that all organizations deal with consumer data in some shape or form, it’s critical that leaders think about proactively talking about the impact and usage of data from day one, and not as a measure of defense in the event of a breach.

    PRmoment India: One key leadership skill in the context of team building for communicators in the future.

    Payal Banerjee: Empathy – less of a skill, more a quality I believe to be critical for all leaders, not just those in communications. In a world where teams will likely be significantly dispersed and remote due to Covid, lack of interpersonal time can affect our ability to gauge the challenges and constraints team members may be facing at work and outside of it.

    Being aware and empathetic as a leader is critical if you want to build healthy, connected and happy teams.

    PRmoment India: One of the biggest stumbling blocks for communications for realizing its potential within the marketing communication matrix. Your views? 

    Payal Banerjee: I think the biggest challenge that marketing and communications teams continue to face is the lack of a seat at the table. While communications is being increasingly acknowledged by many for the critical role it plays in brand building, a majority of organizations are yet to treat this function as core – and not just an afterthought.

    I’ve seen numerous instances where communications teams are brought in right at the time of a product launch - and expected to just churn out a press release using information given to them, sometimes with little or no context to the thinking behind the launch, why it’s critical or what were the challenges the teams faced up to that point. That’s neither strategic nor effective – and does not have any long-term impact.

    For communications to truly play to its strengths, it needs to be part of the consideration set from the very early stages of building that product. Communications teams should be as much a part of the conversations around product and design choices as say, tech teams. So that they can build out communications strategies that not only drive coverage, but also business impact.

    And this can only happen when communications leaders are considered an integral part of the core leadership in any startup or organization.

    PRmoment India: Your breakout communications moment?

    Payal Banerjee: I haven’t really had a single breakout moment. What I have been is incredibly lucky about the opportunities I’ve been given, especially after I moved into the startup and then VC ecosystem. 

    It can be very rare to be a part of companies and industries that are seeing rocket ship growth, rarer still to get in at the ground floor, be part of those journeys from the very beginning.

    I’ve experienced this not just one but twice in my career till date. First, as an early employee at Flipkart, and then again at Sequoia India, when I got to be part of the core team designing and launching Surge, our program for early-stage startups.

    Both have given me rare opportunities to try my hand at so much more than straightforward communications, helped me understand how critical early-stage design choices are in the success of what you do. And it’s also made me realize just how much I enjoy both the 0-1 journey. Of getting an almost blank slate to work with – and seeing what you do drive impact beyond just a headline in a paper.

    Payal Banerjee, VP and head – communications, Sequoia India and Southeast Asia. She  is responsible for helping the firm and its founders find the most effective ways of sharing brand, product and community stories across mediums – be it through media, social media or marketing campaigns.