This general election saw a huge rise in the extent of mass messaging by political parties such as the BJP and AAP. Even the Indian National Congress, a late entrant to the new age political campaigns, tried to catch up once the campaigning was underway.
Does this mean that political PR is here to stay in India?
Dilip Cherian, Image Guru, says that professional political communications is a two decades old concept, with a few players then and multiple players now, providing professional political PR services. Dilip feels that, “As media becomes ubiquitous with the growth of the digital medium, professional advisory for politicians and political parties will only grow. Political PR is something that the new age politicians seem to understand better than more conventional ones. We were blessed to have had some far thinking younger politicians push for it when we started.”
Paresh Chaudhry, chief executive officer, Madison is, “Not sure if it's the next big thing in the immediate term. The recent mandate by the people will demand for more accountability from our politicians and expect corporatisation of parties. In the medium to long term political PR will become a critical vertical for large agencies.”
Deepa Dey, head of communications, GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare Ltd, feels that from product communication to brand communication, service messaging and issue management, political PR seems to be the natural progression of PR in India.
Deepa adds that, “This is the new frontier where corporate affairs seemingly mash up with corporate communications to create a platform for new learning and growth. It brings with it a new challenge and the incredible high of having moulded public opinion to either get a leader elected or push through policy changes – it is like you can be the author of the future of the nation!”
What skill sets are needed as a political PR practitioner?
Amith Prabhu, founder, Zero Hour Strategies, says that, “A mix of formal training and hands on experience would be ideal. The opportunity is huge and we are gearing up for it. While we are not fully ready for it, by the time the next elections comes up we should be in a good position.”
Dilip Cherian says that, “We believe the most important skill for a PR practitioner is one that at Perfect Relations we have grown over the years – an understanding of ground realities. Many of the smaller players tend to focus on media and honestly there is much more beyond that. Crafting a speech, selecting a wardrobe and choosing the appropriate timing for a manifesto release used to be purely political decisions, but they no longer are. Because ultimately, with the growing numbers of young voters in the market for votes, politicians are realising that image is what makes the difference between winners and losers. This time, the Modi campaign is an illustration of how image and bytes make the crucial difference”.
Challenges and opportunities of political PR in India
Deepa Dey feels that, “Without totally attributing the last mile to PR, the recently concluded elections have shown the power of PR and how it goes a long way to generate support, funding, debate and, in some cases, the votes. I suspect that PR, in the beginning, will be used largely for positioning a party or a candidate in the minds of the voters. Slowly it will move into issues and agendas to gain mass support. Digital and social will play a great role. But people will need to bring in honesty and integrity to that platform. With all this will come some censorship which, I feel, could change the narrative for the generations to come”.
Dilip believes that that in the future political PR is going to move away from central parties, despite their dominance in the current parliament, and move to more aggressive campaigns by regional players. “This is still to come of age and most of it is still being handled in a sporadic and unstructured manner, but that’s set to change now. Today, for example, in the state elections we are working with at least three different regional parties and that makes a huge difference to their approach to politics.”
Rahul Sharma, president of Rediffusion Communications feels that, “Assembly elections are very different from national elections. The issues are different and extremely granular in nature. The constituencies are smaller and there are fewer voters in each constituency. That makes it extremely difficult because many of the battles are over very local issues between local candidates who are well entrenched in that social system”.
Rahul adds, “While in a national election, the focus can be on a handful of issues and one potential leader, at the state level things get blurred and confusing as local issues take precedence. A good example is the recent by-election in Uttarakhand. The BJP, which won a stunning victory in parliament elections just two months ago, but lost the assembly seats it earlier held. So while opportunities are there in the forthcoming elections in the five states, a thorough knowledge of local issues is a must to get to play a role in formulating and supporting a campaign. Most large PR firms lack that expertise.”
Rahul Sharma points out that another challenge is that most politicians and political parties, in general, don’t yet understand what a professional public relations agency can and cannot do, as well as what they will and won’t do.
Rahul says that, “Their view of public relations – like for many in the corporate world – is limited to media engagement to ensure that fair-weather journalists are managed to help with positive messages. For them media engagement, advertising, social media outreach and voter engagement reside in different silos. They have to understand that they are all part of one common platform built on the core message that resonates with the electorate.”
Rahul says the problem also is a culture mismatch between PR professionals and politicians, “For most public relations professionals in this country politics is a strange field, filled by corrupt politicians who can only be disliked. The other problem is that most politicians are men and many PR professionals are women, which creates a different set of issues. There are perception issues at the ground level which need to change. That will take time.”
“For larger agencies, language is a barrier. Most PR professionals think in English, most politicians don’t. Similarly, voters think in different languages too.”
Paresh says that among the challenges is the fact that parties are not yet ready to officially use "a full-fledged agency. They will not publicly announce it like they do for advertising and media. That's a mistake because as I said that, in the medium to long term they will have to bring us on board.”
Dilip says that PR practitioners will have to accept that, “Political communications, unlike corporate PR, is not very structured and stratified. There is chaos and the challenge is to develop a method within the chaos and make it look seamless to various stakeholders in the process. Politicians are a busy lot, there are no ‘weekends’ and no ‘office hours’. Hence an ability to be on top of your toes, and to deal with a crisis almost on a daily basis, is something one must be prepared for. Most Indian professionals still apply corporate PR tactics to political PR.”
Political PR and the political journalist
Political PR will also create pressure on the typical politician – political journo ties. “The political reporter is a different breed of journalist. Most PR agencies in India – as focused on corporate accounts as they are – have not engaged with the political journo, and therefore, don’t understand them,” points out Rahul.
Rahul says that a political reporter or a political editor lives off politics and politicians. For them it is all about the access they have to political leaders. “Given that many of them have covered specific parties for long years, they tend to build a rapport with political leaders and don’t always appreciate a PR wall in between. Similarly, every politician and political party also have their favourite scribe with whom they would like to deal with directly. The last national election has changed that equation a little, but we have a long way to go. At the state level it becomes even more difficult because of even closer proximity journalists have with political leaders. “