Will Fintech, data privacy and online entertainment redefine consumer tech PR in India?

If you do a basic search for consumer tech trends in India, you will see plenty of lists of products listed as the next 'IT' (pun intended!) object for 2019. But the last two years been a bit of a game changer for consumer tech with the entry of privacy and data protection as a mainstream consumer issue in India. Add to that, issues regarding freedom to stream uncensored content on services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hotstar and the rising prevalence of cosumer fintech, PR practioners in India are grappling with complex issues. Issues that mean that consumer tech PR can no longer be about just product PR.

Citizen's Rights: Of personal data privacy and expression 

The Background 

Last year, the Economist, dubbed 2018 as the year of the tech lash. A term used to describe the face off between policy makers and 'Big Tech'. This development is seen in India as well through specific events. With Aadhar cards ( Last year the Supreme Court of India barred private firms from using Aadhar as a method to authenticate customer data) and Facebook's Free Basics offer, India already saw a strong debate on privacy and what content is on offer to the Indian consumer. This coupled with an increasingly conservative social environment pushed by political elements closely associated with the BJP's right wing ideology means that India is now actively discussing the issue of privacy, fake news, content they want to watch on streaming services and what it means to be an Indian who can freely express his or her opinion.

These are fresh issues that challenge PR practitioners, requiring a combination of policy lobbying and crisis management far beyond the scope of product PR. Let's look at a few recent examples of this In India. Earlier this month, Twitter founder and CEO, Jack Dorsey did not turn up for a parliamentary committee meeting to discuss citizen safeguards for online activity, citing short notice as the reason for not attending. Subsequently, the Indian parliamentary committee turned away other local Twitter senior executives creating quite the online storm.

Secondly, after a slew of multi million dollar fines by France, UK and Italy about the failure to protect user data, Facebook is now facing a possible multi-billion dollar fine by the US Federal Trade Commission. In India, the 'Personal Data Protection Bill', 2018 is in the pipeline and once that is law a Data Protection Agency (DPA) will be set up, this DPA will formulate bylaws that will regulate on the granular aspects of personal data protection and deeply infuence the way consumers interact with advertisements online. 

As policy makers increasingly put the onus of personal data protection and curation of content on tech firms, these are all issues that Indian PR professionals will need to handle as well. Senior PR practitioners would recall the case of Blackberry who after a proctracted battle with the Government of India about stationing its servers in India so that they would fall under local law, finally gave in. But, not before, it generated much bad press including a widely reported walkout by RIM founder, Mike Lazaridis, from a BBC interview. Lazaridis was being questioned about the access of enterprise mail in India and the Middle East due to national security issues. 

Aditya Kshirsagar, who has done product PR for consumer tech firms says he feels data protection and personal privacy online will be consumer tech issues that will dominate for the next 3 to 5 years, beyond 2020 at any rate.

What is 'good' content? 

As telecom service providers such as Airtel and Jio offer attractive content bundles with free streaming of services such Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, access to content on these and other services such as Voot, Zee 5 and ALT Balaji have spread to consumers in smaller towns. This has resulted in increasing content scrutiny. In January this year, streaming services Hotstar, Netflix, Jio, Voot, Zee5, Arre, SonyLIV, ALT Balaji and Eros Now bowed to Indian sensibilities and signed a code called the “Code of Best Practices for Online Curated Content Providers”. This decision, which Amazon, did not take part in has attracted critisism of self censorship.

Kshirsagar, however, offers a contrary view saying, "Sadly, I am an advocate for certain level of censorship on the content that is being peddled by most streaming services. These services feature a lot of ‘original content’ but there are umpteen number of times that they have been short sighted with Indian sensibilities." In an election year issues around what is áppropriate' content will sharpen as online content brands can be a soft target.

The awakening of the Fintech giant in India 

When one speaks of pure play consumer tech PR, its the smartphone, entertainment devices, wearbles and voice assistant devices that dominate the conversation. But the FIntech, especially consumer Fintech has been emerging as a new growth area for PR. In 2018, Fintech raised 2.34 billion dollars across145 deals, making it the darling of funders for the first time ahead of e-commerce.

This will give rise to the need for a more nuanced product PR approach. Among the areas that will need active consumer PR and engagement are how to onboard the documents for offline customers that use Fintech, consolidation of the digital lending market and the use of voice recognition for Indian Fintech consumers. The use of voice and local Indic languages will be key to PR for the next 500 million customers that could potentially use Fintech services.

Agreeing, Shalini Singh, founder, Galvanise PR, says, "PR is now directly talking to the end customer where a country like India the conversation needs to take place in minimum 11 Indian languages including English. The challenge will also be to manage vernacular language communication in the online space."

Even product PR is set to evolve. Kshirsagar says it will be increasingly about the, "Ability to communicate product benefit clearly." This could also lead to a fresh rise of consumer activism as they lobby for safer products.