Is the Indian PR business ready to move beyond operational PR?

Is PR in India strategic?

The PR business in India is currently facing a situation where in order to raise budgets and be taken seriously PR professionals need to be seen as strategic partners and not mere operational partners. But is this happening, can it happen?

According to Rajiv Ranjay Sarkar, PR professional: “We are faced with two sides; One where PR is understood, this is where we have the larger corporations (including some global MNCs) to an extent practicing strategic PR... And two, where it is largely operational because they do not understand or are not at par with the right knowledge about this discipline."

Most practitioners agree that there are many in-house PR professionals not just in large MNCs but also in modern Indian firms, who would see PR with a strategic eye and not necessarily just an operational eye.

Associate Director at Eulogy India, Cyrus Jogina points out that: “A large percentage of clients in India do not see PR beyond media. Clients in India (even the MNCs) do not consider PR as an important part of marketing. For them PR is still very much press release, by-lined articles, interviews, relationship meetings and press conferences driven. And there are many PR agencies who themselves believe that PR is only media driven... Be all, end all. Hence clients who have interacted with these agencies find it difficult to understand that PR agencies could also be their strategic partners.”

Many PR professionals believe that the problem begins at the foundation itself. Ritesh Shete, Senior Account Executive, 20:20 MSL, says that: “I have seen professionals who have a background of B.Com or BA and have somehow jumped or landed in this industry. Either they have gone with the flow or they thought that they should try their hands at PR and test the waters as to whether it makes a good career option. The side effect of this leads to two situations. Either people quit very early from their jobs, stating mismatch of expectations or people who have stayed in the industry with those B.Com or BA degrees rise to senior positions and have less knowledge compared to an executive who has a communications degree, leading to individual or team conflicts. The bottom line is the industry needs to evaluate how many PR professionals have actually studied PR as a discipline in their academics.”

Ritesh believes that PR professionals are often unable to make the leap to strategic PR because they don’t understand the business goals and priorities of the client and this is because of an overload of accounts: “I often see one individual professional being burdened with more than 2-3 accounts/clients. While I agree that in India we are great at multitasking, this profession calls in and demands for a lot of industry analysis and understanding to arrive at a conclusion. Only when we have the time for this will PR pro's look like ADVISORS to the management of a company and gain its much needed respect.”

Measuring PR

Part of the reason PR professionals don’t get their due is the use of measurement techniques such as AVEs. Cyrus agrees that: “Yes the normal measurement will not convince the marketing person.” He explains that his firm is currently working on a module that will help demonstrate the value of PR. Cyrus adds that indices such as: “Readership profiles, reading patterns, target audience, messaging, genres of media and PR tools will be used. And this will not be restricted to just clients but analysis with the competition, industry and market will also be included.”

While firms like Eulogy are attempting to crack the measurement puzzle, Ritesh also believes that a financial ROI does not work for PR: “In my view, PR should always be looked upon as Strategic ROI. In India, the above statement is yet to get its due importance. Here you would find clients demanding for "Docket Size" or "The Economic Times". Until recently very few have understood that PR is not only coverage driven, but certainly more than that. While for the marketing fellas it would mean "Docket Size" for "Corp Comm" fellas it would mean "The Economic Times" and accordingly the firm or consultancy is evaluated at the end of the year.”

Ritesh adds: “When I say Strategic ROI, I mean how a corporate communications department should understand PR as a management function or as advisor to the top management of a company (only well qualified & educated pro's fit into the terms). PR is not equal to Sales. Sales in PR should be looked upon as a pure bonus or by-product and should not be expected at any point in time.”

Will Reporting to the CEO help?

If the PR function reports directly to the CEO, will this help PR to evolve into a strategic partner? Sumathi Chari, Head of Strategy and Planning, PRHUB says: “The significant change as PR emerges to become a strategic business function in most organisations is that it is slowly becoming part of the boardroom agenda, which means the CEO and senior management is directly involved in decision making and driving it.”

Sumathi adds that: “While it may not necessarily be a CEO, especially in large organisations and MNCs, PR definitely needs senior management buy-in, time and efforts since they represent the brand and are the spokespersons most often. Also, the marketing or corp comms head who might be driving the efforts needs to have a complete and thorough understanding and knowledge of the organisations’ vision, growth plans, challenges, why they need to invest in PR and what specifically they want to achieve out of it, in various growth stages. Having this holistic perspective will help constantly customise and align PR efforts and it will also ensure better ROI in turn.”

Cyrus on the other hand believes that it is: “Not necessary. An important point to note is that there is major confusion and misunderstanding when it comes to "Strategy". It is sad but true that a large percentage of heads across the board and industry do not know what strategy means or is. It is confused with either of the following: Plan or Objectives or Tactics or Tools. The job becomes easy and much more interesting when the head understands what strategy is and what the power of communication is.”

Written by Paarul Chand