Are Indian PR professionals under too much pressure at their workplace?

The tragic passing away of Charudatta Deshpande, in late June, who headed corporate affairs and communications at Tata Steel, has turned attention to the enormous stress that PR professionals in India often find themselves under. Heartfelt tributes are pouring in for a highly respected communications professional who started his career as a journalist.  According to reports, Charudatta Deshpande was under tremendous pressure from his company for a story published by Forbes India, “Putting the Shine Back into Tata Steel”, in April this year and is also said to have received threats from the “mafia”.

Says Sanjiv Kataria, Strategic Communications and PR Counsel, for the services industry, “The circumstances leading to Charu taking the tragic step last fortnight are indeed appalling. Much as we would like to believe in the high ethical standards at some of the most revered industrial houses, I am not surprised by reported threat calls made by the “mafia”. Events like the unrest at the Manesar plant of Japanese automaker Maruti Udyog in 2012 and the alleged bludgeoning to death of CEO of NOIDA-based Italian company Graziano in Noida by agitating workers in 2008, though not directly comparable, point to the simmering hostility against ‘managements’ across the country, which the senior managers face on a day-to-day basis.”

Tata Steel Ltd, has now ordered an enquiry into the issues raised by the tragic death of Charudatta Deshpande, prompted by letters written by Charudatta Deshpande’s ex- colleagues and friends, which included not only members of the editorial staff at Forbes India, including the former editor of Forbes India,  but also by HR and corporate communications professionals from other companies.

Unrealistic Expectations from PR

These developments have raised a question- are expectations from PR unrealistic and what kind of pressures does that put the PR professional under? Sanjiv Kataria who served as brand custodian for NIIT for 19 years points out that, “Very few leaders in organisations know and understand the process of news gathering, production and dissemination. It is the job of the PR professional to educate the leaders in their organisations.”

Tarunjeet Rattan, Managing Partner, Nucleus PR also agrees that, “A lot of clients have this notion that the PR professional can control the content of a story and can preview the story before it goes to print.”

Pressures on PR

Clients often demand control over the story, its editorial line and its placement. Sanjiv Kataria says, “These demands can range from making it to the front page of ET, to buying more time for a potentially negative story to getting it dropped altogether. Inconsistency in communication is the biggest issue— in cases where the YoY performance is better than QoQ; a PR professional is expected to lead the press release with YoY growth while the financial press looks for QoQ improvement.”

While no profession is without pressure, the very nature of PR builds in situations that can become tough to cope with. This is compounded by the fact that PR is often perceived as not a profit centre, but as a cost centre.

Vikram Kharvi, Blogger – and founder of Indian PR Forum says that: "Some clients are really too enthusiastic about press conferences for some reason and they want to call for a press conference even if the announcement is of no great importance to the media. They expect the room to fill with print journalists and line-up of TV cameras. In case of MNCs, if a foreign executive visits India for his routine business purpose, then it comes across as the only opportunity for the Indian counterparts to impress the foreign delegate and want him to be covered across media. He may not have anything new to share, the company may not even be very well known, still there will be full pressure to get him covered all across.“

Kharvi adds that, there are also many expectations such as, “Ask the journalists to show the draft before he/she publishes it. Tell the journalist to hold on to the story until we get back to them or simply drop the story. Or as silly as I want to talk to only top publications .Though, these are everyday issues, but actual trouble starts when a client expects the PR professionals to stop a negative story. While we can try our best to offer our views on the story, which is also our right but as a PR professional we cannot tell the media to not do any story that is backed with facts. “

Tarunjeet Rattan relates her experience with a hospitality client who received a less than flattering food review by a popular daily. Rattan says that the review was correct in the perspective of the experience of the journalist and advised the client to mail the reporter and promise to improve on the issues mentioned. Says Rattan, “The email was sent but the client –agency relationship was damaged beyond the delicate ego balance. The client was miffed that we did not first – get a positive review for the publication, second - did not provide the mobile number of the said journalist so that s/he could yell at them! Third- actually took the journalist’s side and fourth – gave sane advice! We did not renew our contract with this particular client.”

Tarunjeet Rattan says she will not hesitate to drop a client who does not understand PR, “I will and I have in the past, when we are not on the same page and the above criteria does not match.  More often than not, the client has come back to me after doing the agency rounds because with time they realize that I did give them a true picture of what PR can realistically do for them. This has resulted in much stronger relationships with our set of clients. “

Sanjiv Kataria says that he has, “Dropped a client with a simple email when the new client CEO and I did not agree on the company strengths that needed projection.”

Dealing with unrealistic expectations

While in the long term, educating the entire ecosystem about PR is the answer, there are challenges there as well. Says Sanjiv Kataria, “Deploying a different and specific approach to each situation that drives the varied PR needs of an organisation--be it MNCs or Corporations, Government Departments or PSUs, Political Parties or NGOs, Start Ups or Legacy institutions—is as critical as basing communication on the fundamental tenets of facts, honesty and credibility.”

“The channels of communication have to be open at all times—good, bad and ugly--to win customer confidence. It is prudent to publically admit product failures, service deficiency or non-compliance to retain customers. Positive customer experience, alone, can go a long way in averting and handling crises,” adds Kataria.

Vikram Kharvi agrees that,” There is no best way to deal with unrealistic expectations; all depends on who you are talking to. Agencies can’t make magic happen if the client isn’t receptiveSo the only way to deal with this is to try explaining it to the client in the best possible manner, if they still insist then only do what is achievable to the best of your abilities without doing anything unethical or something that you will regret later.”

Tarunjeet Rattan advises that, “If the prospective client understands or is willing to educate themselves on PR then readily work with them as the client-agency relationship has to weather a lot of projects – successful or failed, challenges, altercations, disagreements and find a solution to work together. If they don’t understand this and you still take up the client then go with your eyes and ears and recorders ready-because you will have to reiterate and repeat everything and maintain copious records of everything you say to ensure you are ‘safe.’ But in my opinion, such a situation never works for either party as it is set to fail with every minor roadblock.”

Seema Bhatia, a psychologist,  who trained at the British Psychological Society, advises: “People in PR, should not feel that if they cannot meet expectations, it’s a failure that will affect their reputation. It is easier said than done, but companies need to understand that the PR process involves dealing with human minds that are unpredictable and ever-changing and therefore outcomes cannot be always guaranteed.  Since PR cannot always be a fixed formula, PR professionals have to also convey the possibility of failure to those they report to.”