Is it time for a bull run for Public Affairs in India?

Two news stories. Two weeks.

One, a documentary called ‘India’s Daughter’ was slotted for release on BBC and NDTV 24x7. The Government of India jumped in to ban the film, among the reasons given was that the interview with the rapist was shaming. However, all the ban did was give the film a spur to go viral and become a running news story.

Two, the Government doesn’t seem to have stopped blundering. With regard to the curious case of the police visit to Rahul Gandhi’s residence, I have only this to say – remember Watergate?

These two incidents highlight the fact that even a government headed by a strong and savvy communicator like Modi can falter when managing stakeholders that do not fall under you, have no motivation to agree with you and get a lot by disagreeing with you.

The newsfeed phenomenon

In today’s world where posts about a friend’s marriage anniversary sit cheek by jowl with news about a retrospective tax, ‘India’s Daughter’ ban, a beef ban or jokes about the police visit to Rahul Gandhi means that one issue can spill over into another with the greatest of ease. An India’s Daughter ban can also affect what people think about India as a place to invest.  Therefore, the role of the public affairs professional has never been more important.

Manash K Neog, Director, Public Policy and Government Relations, Chase India, says that,With the past mishaps fresh in mind for many companies, large global companies would like to vet the current policy climate and get a regulatory interpretation from an expert public affairs consultancy. The public affairs scope, which helps companies get a deeper understanding of the policy direction of the current government, enables companies to strategise their country growth plans. More and more corporates are recognising the value in a specialised PA firm, creating a ‘perfect storm’ situation for public affairs offering in India. “

Public affairs in India

Currently there are a handful of well-known standalone firms that offer public affairs in India. These include APCO worldwide – largely seen as a strong contributor for crafting Modi’s acceptability in the international and domestic arena. DUA Consulting with its roots as a law and not a PR firm. Albright Stonebridge – set up by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and Chase India – An Avian Media firm. Although every major agency in the country offers public affairs services.

Ranji Dua, Senior Advisor, Dua Consulting, says that the Indian scenario is no different from that of any other democratic country that has or aspires to climb the economic ladder.

Dua warns however that “given the size of the Indian economy, and its geography, India will need for such public affairs and advocacy professionals to be following some ground rules which would ensure maintenance of certain basic standards in their profession.”

Sushmita Bandopadhyay, communications and identity advisor, Becton, Dickinson & Co agrees that, “While public affairs is more pertinent today as it resonates with the Government’s way of thinking, it needs more transparency and not be the 'elitist secret service!'”

Growth potential for public affairs in India

While public affairs in India has been around for a long time, in its early days it was mostly about handling a company’s issues at the point of entry to India. But today a public affairs consultancy can offer much more – not just help with entry issues but also on-going management of stakeholders, policy push and crisis management. In a way this means that these firms do work quite similarly to trade bodies such as FICCI and CII. This adds up to a lot of potential.

While few commit to hard numbers, Neog assesses that, “Globally, public affairs and government relations consultancies earn revenue that is two to three times that of the PR arm’s revenue. I see those numbers becoming a reality in India in the next 5-6 years.”

Ranji Dua also grees with the high growth forecast. Dua says, “It is my view that in a large country like India, revenue earning in the long run is determined by the quality of the service and its effectiveness. The size of the Indian economy and the complexity that the industry must address should provide a fertile ground for public affairs professionals. As in other areas relating to the service industry, it is my view that public affairs will see an incremental value increase in the coming years.  India will in due course not lag very far behind the remuneration for such services in other developing markets, as we have seen happening in the last decade in the field of law.”

What skills do public affairs specialists need?

During an offline conversation, the senior PR lead of an IT firm says that he believes that PR professionals must now include public affairs in their skill set.  While I can see PR pros all over groaning at the thought of one more must have skill set, if you are so inclined what are the qualities needed to be a rocking public affairs professional?

For Bandopadhyay, “It is essential to have an understanding of the Government’s priorities, functioning and its spends on respective sectors.”

Neog says his dream team is a mix of people with knowledge around legislation, politics and law. Neog prefers people from political science, public policy and law background pointing out that, “For a public affairs professional, a very important skill is the urge to read and comprehend legislation quickly, and accordingly connect the same with a client’s business objective. “

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