Are in-house communicators ready to drive the future of PR?

First on the speed dial for a crisis, yet not always respected for the work they do, the lot of the in-house communicators is a tough one. Yet the future of PR depends strongly on their ability to position PR as an integral marketing, reputation and brand building function.

Company agnostic ROIs and not accepting a corporate communications role that reports to the marketing lead are some of the solutions on offer to push for a big future for PR.

PR communicators need to ‘lean in ‘more

Deepa Dey, head of communications, GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare Ltd  exclaims that, “Our lives in this profession are full of contradictions. Despite all that we do, every day we are fine tuning our elevator pitch to explain the relevance of our profession to our colleagues. Our patience is tested outside closed doors as we wait for the last mile briefing. But we are on speed dial in case of any crisis.”

Deepa admits that PR does not do PR for PR. “We never “lean in” enough on key conversations to push in our point of view. We are not grabbing the seat at the table – shamelessly. We can only ‘sell’ ourselves if we have a point of view, a news sense, relationships with key media, an understanding of the business as well as having the pulse of the organisation. For this we need to be curious, well networked and have a sincere passion for the work we set out to do.”

Rakesh Thukral, chief operating officer, Edelman India says that, "the lines that demarcated the areas of operation of a PR firm from that of an advertising agency are blurring. PR campaigns have become more integrated and aim to work successfully across print, electronic, digital and experiential media. In this regard, in-house corporate communications leads play an important role in working with their PR partners to deliver outstanding campaigns that are creative and wide reaching.”

Rakesh feels that operating in silos tends to be a common problem in today’s world and this is what is likely to restrict great ideas from coming to life. “The in-house communications leads have to bring together all evolving methods of communication, while owning the ever increasing possibilities for PR. They are the enablers who help remove inhibitions that may exist in the minds of senior management. This convergence is an opportunity for in-house communicators to break out of these silos; to become more directly involved with the core brand and marketing functions of the business. The in-house folks have the most important role to play at every stage; from the inception of an idea and execution of a great campaign."

The PR function has a serious perception issue among the management and marketing leads

Aniisu K Verghese, who leads corporate communications for Tesco HSC, says that, “It is important to understand how and why PR is currently viewed with mistrust. The perception is that PR ‘sells’ lies and can overcome gaps in brand visibility. This awareness has set in deeply and it hurts how the domain is understood. Been seen as ‘spin doctors’ who can tweak messages to suit the need is a concern that needs addressing. PR needs to be pitched in context of the overall company strategy which includes all other elements of the marketing and communications mix. It isn’t a standalone exercise that gets you quick wins and press coverage. PR needs to be shown as adding measurable value and enhancing the overall image of the brand.”

Aniisu also feels that the agency has a big role to play in creating PR perceptions: “There is limited awareness of what PR can and cannot do. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the agency or the in-house corporate communications professional to help decode the ‘ask’ from within and set expectations on the deliverables that can fit the need. How PR is presented contributes to how it is perceived. If the agency on the account talks of media hits and coverage as their ways of measurement it will set wrong expectations. If PR is presented as part of the overall communications remit the chances of making an impact is greater.”

Shweta Munjal, head of corporate affairs, South Asia, Thomson Reuters, draws attention to the fact that,In-house communication teams are usually small and the roles expansive. In spite of being able to see the “whole corporate picture,” sometimes the focus is more towards tactical execution.”

Amith Prabhu, founder, Zero Hour Strategies, feels that PR has a significant role to play in building brand and corporate reputation. “In-house marketing leads and the C suite are aware of this. At times they turn a blind eye because PR professionals in some organisations do not make the effort to build a case for PR – in asking for budgets and in asking for recognition. If individuals in charge change that function PR will get its due.”

PR professionals need to start thinking about business results rather than just media results. Sushmita Bandopadhyay, communications and identity advisor, BD India, says that, “Such a mind-set shift can enable the PR function to assume importance in the overall strategy of the organisation. It is important to speak the language of business, develop integrated metrics that support business decisions and articulate the value of PR which can increase revenue, cost savings, improved reputation or even increased engagement.”

PR will evolve into a central marketing function in the future

Not everyone is pessimistic about the state of PR at companies. Varghese M. Thomas, director, corporate communications, India and SAARC region, Blackberry says that, “Many CEOs are increasingly making corporate communications a specific, more comprehensive role, one that sits in the c-suite and is far more connected to the business and to revenue streams than typically has been the case in the past.”

Varghese adds: “The result is a chief communications officer (CCO) charged with centralising, developing, leading and executing a robust and fully integrated communications plan, that impacts business outcomes and goals. A CCO’s importance is already evidenced through the fact that 24.2% of FT 500 (companies listed under the Financial Times (FT) Top 500 list) companies include their chief communications officer (CCO) as a member of the executive committee. It is a matter of time before this becomes the norm.”

Varghese points out that as the new age enterprise comes to fore, decision making and influence is getting dispersed amongst the C suite.

”For instance technology investments that used to be the domain of CTO/CIOs, today are a part of the CMO/ CEO agenda. As the PR industry matures, the role of the CCO and PR as an agenda will be a part of the C Suite more prominently. The challenges have been primarily from a maturity of a function standpoint and evaluation of PR in terms of traditional tools like column centimetre, broadcast or print real estate.”

Varghese believes that, “Today’s savvy organisation, is making a shift from output focused communications efforts to outcome focused efforts that reach out to influencers, consumers and stakeholders keeping the narrative at the centre and the desired behaviour as the end result. PR needs to be a part of the integrated strategy instead of a piecemeal approach to garner ink.”

Shweta points to three things she does to ensure that PR is seen in the right light: “First of all, go-ahead and jump-in: take the initiative and build proactive PR programs. Secondly, to speak the language of business: to align PR objectives with business and organisational objectives and set your sights on the competition too. And lastly, measure perception and not the number of clips: building thought leadership is important.”

The way ahead for in-house communicators

Deepa says that, “Free editorial endorsement of your service or product is something the marketing teams value hugely – what is not to like about no money spend and huge reputation gained? It is just they are still trying to strip themselves of their award winning egos and beginning to agree to welcome PR into their ambits of work – “we bring in the ABBYs / Cannes and you don’t!” “

Yet, Deepa feels that, “It is good to see that changes are happening in more and more companies and PR teams and agencies are being included in all agency meetings and conversations led by marketing and sales.”

Deepa looks forward to the next big step, “Which will be to remove the budget for PR as a line item from marketing, HR or CEOs offices to its own line in the annual budget sheet. It will hugely help if there was an industry wise agreed ROI modelling for PR which could be company agnostic.”

Amith has this succinct bit of advice for in-house communicators: “PR pros should not take in-house jobs where they have to report to marketing unless they are hired for brand PR.”

Written by Paarul Chand

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