Is a lack of business platforms affecting the growth of women PR professionals in India?

Much like the television news industry here in India, the Indian PR business is often described as an industry dominated by women, including heads of large national agencies and PR leads within MNCs.

Papri Dev Sharma, India Practice Chair – Brand Marketing and Healthcare, Genesis Burson-Marsteller, comments, "In the PR business in India, women have taken a lead in building the industry to what it is today. Not only are they influencers, they are powerful voices that have been and continue to shape the course of the profession in the country. This holds true for positions both in corporate communications and agencies in the country. Interestingly this profession is an empowered one where women haven’t really seen a glass ceiling effect rising to a seat at the table as a strategic advisor.”

While PR insiders would agree believe while women certainly do not lack opportunity and have grown to take advantage of it, the PR industry in India in general has few cohesive platforms to share knowledge and experiences that would help deepen the growth of PR professionals. Poonam Kaul, Director of Communications, Nokia India, Middle East and Africa, asks, “Where are the branding moments in the PR industry for women or for men? There are pockets of activity where there are groups of agencies, but it’s the same bunch of people that one keeps meeting. There are very few platforms for positioning PR professionals and even here the quality of conversations is fairly repetitive.”

Kaul believes that organisations within the industry are more concerned about merit than gender, “The fact is that there is nothing to stop someone from positioning themselves as value partner. I was in Microsoft before Nokia and it’s not like as a woman, I felt that I should keep my views to myself. I have been lucky that I have been in organisations that encourage the challenger mindset. If at all there is a trend towards women in PR not getting their due, then all the more we need to have platforms for PR professionals – and not just women – to share knowledge and best practices. This is an industry that is pretty senior now and we can’t hide behind youth. Senior communications professionals should ideally contribute back to the industry that has helped them grow but then again, it is the same chicken and egg situation.”

Others agree that at the company level, organisational DNA plays a key role in supporting both men and women in their drive to add value and thinking strategic communications. According to Vandana Sandhir, India Practice Chair – Corporate, Genesis Burson-Marsteller, “It depends a lot on the organisations and agencies that they work for. Agencies which offer counsel to clients as reputation experts are better placed to help their employees' position themselves as influencers as opposed to being story peddlers. The Indian PR industry is growing at a rapid pace however very few PR firms truly look at reputation management in a holistic fashion going beyond media relations to influence minds. This culture then flows back into the actions of their employees towards either pushing the boundaries of finding new ways to influence stakeholders or remain confined to pushing information."

Poonam Kaul points out that, “If you are seen as a strategic partner in the organisation, you will be seen as an influencer. And that is most important. You need to add value to the business to be seen as a strategic partner. Part of being strategic is to make the effort to let go of artificial boundaries, which includes gender. If you have too many boundaries and want to be straitjacketed, e.g., we only do press releases and press conferences, then you might as well retire.”

PR strategists also feel that at the individual level, PR professionals – both men and women – must make a greater effort to learn how to create value for the organisation. "Understand the business first. If you don’t understand the business, you will not be able to add value. The moment you understand the business, you can challenge tactical thinking and come up with strategies that really work because you understand not only what makes news, but also where the business is coming from, where it is going, the competitive scenario et al. Otherwise, you will be only seen as a satellite that hovers around and is called upon to write press releases. And this can happen to anyone – man or women,” says Poonam Kaul.

Organisations need to strike a balance between merit and considering the challenges women face. Says Sandhir, "Organisations that adopt meritocracy as part of their philosophy benefit by attracting and retaining talent, irrespective of being male or female. Women have specific needs to manage home, children and work. Organisations which provide women with flexibility in work stand to benefit from greater loyalty and tenure. Group support systems also help in providing additional support system."

While PR professionals can do much at the individual and even the organisational level to grow, there is need for the PR business to organise itself better to support the people who work there and learn from how the advertising industry in India has grown. Kaul says, "The PR industry in India lives in pockets. Not many platforms. Too many silos. Where are the platforms to share best practices. Even the industry awards, most of the time, it is a group of people who know about them. They are not industry wide. I don’t know of any single award that young people in the industry really look forward to getting." 

Kaul adds, "We can learn from the advertising industry. Brands and companies and agencies come together. Even if there are creative differences or are competitors, those are set aside. There are organised platforms to share information and best practices. That is what we need in the Indian PR industry and not exist in silos.”

Clearly the time has arrived for the PR business to organise itself to take its place under the sun, for both women and men.