PR’s perception problem: Abhishek Gupta, CMO, Edelweiss Tokio Life Insurance

Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs is a cinematic journey of a PR genius. It is blatant yet masked under the shroud of what we have traditionally come to recognize as ‘Marketing.’ The movie starts and ends with the infamous Apple events and is peppered with scenes of journalists lurking around Steve to get a scoop on his latest innovations. Steve’s trusted marketing and PR lieutenant Joanna Hoffman forms the centerpiece of the film and keeps his vision going with an undaunted trust. 

Abhishek Gupta, CMO, Edelweiss Tokio Life Insurance

My personal takeaway, like most of you was – Steve Jobs and Apple are a class apart and certainly an exception to the rule! Apple signifies a rare leadership which understands that PR and marketing play an integral part in a company’s success. The norm is the exact opposite – most brands and their leaders do not fully appreciate the importance of PR and it is indicative from the fact that PR practitioners continue to struggle to secure a seat at the management table,

For C-suite leaders, who typically rise up from business-led functions like operations, distribution or finance, PR is often an afterthought. Business urgencies often take precedence and PR is deprioritized fairly regularly. This behaviour largely stems from the fact that leaders believe PR can be delegated to the communications team and doesn’t need their active participation. And that pretty much sums up PR’s perception problem!

Leaders and PR

India Inc’s prevailing PR challenge is the fact that corporate communication teams drive the narrative and are custodians of media relationships for their brands and not the leaders themselves. The result? PR becomes a tool for garnering intermittent brand visibility and not creating meaningful relation with media or building the company’s reputation.

What leaders must recognize is that PR is not like any other marketing tool. It hinges on the opinions and expertise of the brand’s leaders to disseminate meaningful information and prove themselves valuable for the media. 

Especially in the age of social media, journalists themselves have become influencers. People seek their views and recommendations when it comes to financial purchases. It is, therefore, extremely critical to spend time on nurturing an insight-based relation with your media counterparts. Without it, no brand can expect to effectively communicate any stakeholder - the consumer, the shareholders, the regulator, or the bureaucrats.

The numbers game

Perhaps the biggest disservice that the PR community has done to itself is letting the quantitative impact of PR supersede the qualitative. To speak a language understood by the number-focused business leaders, PR representatives have emphasized on activities instead of outcomes for some time now.

The advertising value equivalent, the column inches in the leading newspaper, likes on a Facebook post, share of voice, have come to determine how credible your PR efforts are. In the meanwhile, the conversation regarding what perception you are creating for the customers, and how it is contributing to the overall brands efforts has been lost.

This has created a vicious circle of its own design with leaders believing PR is best done by the communications team and not overseen by the CEO.

PR vs Marketing

PR and marketing veterans have been vocal about the differences between the two functions – marketing is promotion and PR is building brand reputation. I don’t dispute that! 

But I don’t entirely agree that PR and Marketing should be treated as separate functions. I have seen firsthand that treating PR as a part of the marketing mix reaps tremendous benefits for the brand.When you treat it as a separate function, you lose out on a holistic approach to brand building and willfully move away from projecting a synergistic narrative to your external and internal stakeholders. PR helps achieve the most important element of any brand – its aura!

It is especially important for retail companies like life insurance, MFs, to treat PR as a marketing lever because promotion alone cannot sustain your business. PR can help create a meaningful context for your products and explain how those solutions positively impact the customer.

PR is fake news?

The media portrayal of PR officers has always been that of an anti-hero. Be it Scandal’s ludicrous Olivia Pope, or the profane Malcom Tucker from ‘Thick of It’, PR officers are usually portrayed as burying the truth and a front to corporate’s greedy interests.

While it is tempting to demonize PR, it plays a productive role in maintaining a company’s reputation in the digital age. While social media has given a voice to voiceless, it has also created the problem of fake news which often leads to reputational risks to brands. During these incidences, PR officers help separate fact from fiction.

PR is a marathon and not a sprint. Unless leaders are invested in it for the long haul and personally committed to building brand’s aura over reaping short-lived dividends, no brand will achieve its full marketing potential.

 Abhishek Gupta, is CMO, Edelweiss Tokio Life Insurance.

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