Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Austerity Follows Carnage in Corporate India, Will PR Get Hit?

It is a mess and it is all over the place and it is not going away in a hurry. The stock market is toast, the oil price is freaking out in the USD 150s, real easte and financial services are tanking like the titanic! Everyone knows that we are in the middle of a meltdown and the effects of inflation have just about started to ruin the financial results of companies.

The politics of the nation are in the gutter and the uncertainty that clouds all decision making both in the public and private enterprise will continue well into the next year, if and when another government comes into being. A government that is cross subsidising the oil bill and some other future government will reap the whirlwind and some whirlwind it will be for sure, and I quote Rahul Bhasin of Barings in the DNA, where he said, “We are frittering away our gains made in the last 15 years”.

Against the background of this carnage in corporate India, the bean counters are finally seeing resurgence, like desert plants, they have waiting out the decade of exuberance. Today they are rising like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes, and promise to be the bane of many brands, marketing campaigns and other assorted still born initiatives. Austerity is back like the rude shock of a cold water bath in the freezing winter!

When the accountant’s chop does come down on big-ticket advertising, out-of-home and television commercials, these being the pet peeves of the accountant PR promises to stay untouched. Having said that budgets for travel, off sites, media training, and all those nice fuzzy things are bound to dry up real quick, if not disappear all together. In all this skirmishing, fortunately for PR, most corporates have come to understand that it is not an on-and-off thing and if anything, some might even find it the last refuge of the marketing to reach their target publics in times of budgetary paucity.

The job market for PR professional and Communicators promises to retain traction and the moaning for talent will stay the wail it is, so here is one area that I again see no effect of the slow down, if anything it could lead to many more corporates hiring for the reasons above.

Challenges bring opportunities and usually constitute the need, the same need that spurs innovation and fosters new paradigms and discoveries. These are the times to service your customer better and to vow to be closer to the business and not lose accounts on reasons of tardiness, inefficiency or downright stupidity! I see many avenues that were shoveled into the “not important or urgent” quadrants due the presence of other ‘lazy cheque’ populars suddenly becoming fashionable. The medium I am talking about and maybe one who’s time has finally come in India, is the online medium.

This is the time to knock again and dust off those online plans, whether it is a programme to engage key bloggers in your space, or kick off that e-mail campaign or spend your remaining rupees in the pursuit of a web-only viral marketing or buzz marketing campaign!

I wish you well in these nasty times, so get dug in and wait it out, this too shall pass, maybe not soon enough but you can always take the time to do something you always wanted to attempt, something forbidden, constructive, intellectual, delicious and inspiring! I look forward to comments here!

Friday, 30 May 2008

Shepherding Your Clients in Times of Manufactured Media Exclusives

The rapid expansion in the media space has done many good things for the nation. It has provided choice in beats across entertainment, movies, news and education that earlier was simply not ever thought of or envisioned. The proliferation has brought about waves of soaps, contests and now with the first IPL season shaking India, it has brought a gaggle of new anchors anxious to make their mark.

In a landscape dotted by hungry journalists, anchors, show producer, sometimes this breed, crosses the line of prudence and fair practice in the quest for exclusives, scoops and the most dramatic of them all; stings! In times of deadline overload and a lack of any tangible research, editorial balance becomes the first casualty to TRPs, popularity polls and advertising revenue.

How many times have you had a trick e-mail or a innocuous phone call translate into a bombshell in the press the next day, or even the same day in these times of broadcast and online media explosion? If you are out there working the space, then I am sure you do this more than you’d like to and while we all employ our own ways and means to deal with the scourge, maybe the time is right for a discussion. Keeping quiet is not an option so here are a few PR plays I’ve seen practiced:

  • No comment - This is the most basic defense of the scared communicator or resident PR punter in the establishment. It creates a doubt in the mind of the viewer or reader about the authenticity or veracity of the story but has the potential of making front page all the same or the lead story in the dozen or so television channels out there, business, news, and combinations thereof.
  • We do not speculate on market speculation - This or another variation of the same featuring words like ‘policy’ are yet another wet blanket in terms of media credibility, will they stop your brand image from get a contentious tag or even a black eye is arguable.
    Denial - This is the last reprieve of either the aggrieved or the very stupid, especially if its a lie. It will give a pause to the editor or the journalist, who will question their gut, chances of going to print or being aired, fifty per cent.
  • Half Agreement, Half Denial - This Molotov Cocktail is the most sophisticated of the ploys, and clearly agrees to all or some part of the allegation but uses the loop in technique to include crisis messaging. Sent as a quote and usually written, it forces the hack to use the statement in full. Only the most savvy can do this bespoke but chances of being quoted out of context or half quoted remain high.
  • Retraction or Rejoinder - These are mostly ego plasters to paper over bruised management egos, striking how the size of the retraction and rejoinder is in contrast to the placement, font size and prominence of the offending piece.
  • Confirming statement - This is the pushover statement, executed along with a sincere sorry note and a display of the belly in submission. These are very bad for the ego and best suited for real tragedies, fraud, accidents, calamities and other industrial or infrastructure and government type of communicators.

I am sure there are hilarious variations sitting out there in your very fertile and successful minds and would love to get any more classification here or a anonymous war story, do feel obliged to share your scary knowledge with the tribe.

These are some concerning times that need both awareness of the stakes and training, if it is your privilege to be charged as the guardian of your brand and company image. There are lots of ploys the feverish hack employs to in the get-rich-quick-or-get-fired-trying, exclusive hunt. You need to understand that it is their job to report, to analyze, to predict and to expose, the end is fine but the means are most questionable.

This pool is further muddied by competition and the dirty tricks department using friendly media for planting, seeding or plain obfuscating an issue. I will not use examples but the watchful here will see and read patterns in politics, industry and most media reporting, even that front page headline or the lead story on that television channel that looks innocent at first pass. Go figure…

If they know that you know, then you will receive their respect and maybe the show can continue down the road for all. Right now these are dangerous times for Image and Brand and all seems fair in the media war for exclusives. Next week sticking to a statement and dodging trick questions on the phone. Happy skirmishing!

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Game Changers-How IPL Changed Indian Marketing and PR Forever

Last night the Kings XI Punjab made another killing! Shaun Marsh produced what some would colloquially describe as giving a right walloping and Yuvraj Singh followed through with more arson on the pitch; the two are the cynosure of all eyes in the cricket world in India, the Commonwealth continents and many points further.

This wasn't always the case, suddenly a team that was for long an underdog is making huge waves. The IPL analogy is no different, it came from nowhere and took over the house, and those in the marketing and PR fraternity who were watching the wind speed and its direction are smiling, while the laggards are now wringing their hands in furious frustration at the massive opportunity loss.

A few months have passed since the marketing and PR landscape got hijacked by IPL, the usual heavy-lids marketing and PR veteran, already bored to death with the monotony of the hot summer, mistook it for a flash in the pan, many weeks later it was still there refusing to go away like a bad nightmare, rocketing TRPs and bringing in eyeballs by the truck load for competition; the ones who got on the band wagon are laughing to the brand bank, the ones that did not have conceded defeat. The 'serial shock' gave all channels a huge scare and the war moved from the pitch to the air waves as the IPL tsunami sucked all eyes to a single channel away from the staple 'soap and serial' diet!

Team sponsorships that went a begging are now worth their weight in gold and next season; by all means, do please expect to see the phenomenon of inflation translate to cricket sponsorship. In these incredulous times of USD 130 for a barrel of crude oil, why should inflation be confined to steel, onions and cement?

The fight for eye balls has been won by mobile companies, banks and FMCG companies being the usual suspect that also ran and got some successes. The losers were car and bike companies, ringed in first by the RBI triggered, inflation killer, CRR measures, that squeezed the already flat credit situation. Across packed stadium; the howls of delight and screams of incredulity submerged the Bloomberg story reporting how this had been the lowest growth in the last 10 quarters for India.

As crude oil price insanity triggered troubling visions of more tax and ‘cess-upon-more-cess’ crowded my radar, the oil companies were slowly sinking and losses were being reported first time in the current quarters of these public sector behemoths. As ministries quibbled over customs, excise, luxury tax and oil stabilisation funds, the screams of cricket hooliganism in stadiums kept growing louder, so much more dignified than the marauding Chelsea club fans in England that would shame Genghis Khan but the days are not far! Welcome to the Indian version of the superbowl!

As stories got pitched to the print, television and online spaces and the pickled brain of the now smiling senior PR types picked up the sweet stink of plugs a headline or byte away, agencies were being whipped to leverage the sponsorship investment and brand types were churning websites and campaigns by the dime across outdoor, print and online; search or ad word. Here in this very fertile climate unnoticed a bevy of writers, television anchors and producers were taking birth.

In the text message histrionics of Shah Rukh Khan and Vijay Mallya's tantrums, the hugs of Preity Zinta and the exploits of Ness Wadia with the Punjab Police hijacked dinner and tea time conversations across the homes and offices of the unsuspecting consumer in a heady brew, without alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. Healthy I thought!

In this entire din, the lessons have been many and things have changed forever in sports marketing and PR. The heady mix of entertainment, blaring team songs and not to forget the introduction of cheer leaders in a morality stricken nation, helped tone down changes that would have otherwise not gone down well.

I am talking about the erosion of nationality as the basis for cricket teams. Questions about how ex-team mates will reconcile their fury and belligerence once IPL is over and things are back to normal for the Indian, Sri Lankan, Australian and many other teams. Of course and then unlearning all that when the next IPL starts. In the confines of Wankhede, Eden Gardens, Mohali and many other cricket stadiums, the energy was electric and someone watching the same show on TV would never understand the fury of the music, the hysteria whipped up by the cheer leaders and the crowd as it chanted favourites or booed down others.

The good change that has again gone largely unnoticed like the bad is the new faces that have got the opportunity to play with the reigning cricket gods. Good for India and good for cricket and definitely good for brand endorsement, marketing and Public Relations!

As I wait for the semi-finals, I doff my hat to LK Modi and despite the large headline in a prominent Indian newspaper harking back to a real or imagined misdemeanor 20 years ago in a foreign country, life in India after IPL will never be the same! They are obviously trying to get back at his temerity in bringing in IPL Media Guidelines in the usual petty and spiteful style characteristic of the large egos of the rather spoilt Indian press fraternity. Long live IPL!

Friday, 4 April 2008

Breaking Media Gridlocks When Perception Lags Performance - PR Mind Games

Every once in a while, there comes the case of a company that is unable to throughput communication in stark contrast to its otherwise brilliant performance indices. I have sought to understand this malady now and again but a chance conversation yesterday with a known genius in the Indian Financial Services space triggered this post. If you are the guardian angel of the Aspirational; the evangelist with passion, fire and a head full of mindgames, the PR kind, then read on…

Perception lags performance, due to many reasons. The causes manifest themselves in three primary reasons. For a Public Relations, Communications or Brand consultant, it is important to understand the terrain before they pick up on a project that seeks to break logjams in the media and perception circuits for a customer.

Breaking gridlocks and logjams for late entrants to the perception game requires special skills, the tricks and tactics have been there forever, question is have you ever thought about it, enough to elevate it to strategy?

Changing share of voice in the media and lecture circuit from a inane buzz to the screaming roar of a Ferrari or shepherding your customer (internal or external depends which side of the table you are sat) from the mind-numbing terrors and traps in the media, triggering a turbo boost for your spokesperson in terms of messaging uptake and effectiveness, is what this post is about.

Firstly, an inability or fear of dealing with the media due to a past bad experience can make efforts hard or non-starters. Media Relations is an art that requires constant practice, the ride comes with bumps and smooth stretches, sporadic crises thrown in for spice. You give, you get, but you always talk! There is media out there that is out to trick you out, will they hesitate to rubbish your carefully build reputation for an exclusive? Absolutely not for a second! Can PR change the game for your business? Absolutely yes! Good comes with the bad, package deal like with most things in life. If you are going to get anywhere, you need to get started! Tell them like it is, chances are that they take risks in business everyday and will grow into the act with a little hand holding from you, the specialist!

Secondly, there is a clique out there as in most other domains, these ‘usual suspects’ then pretty much control the share of voice in the media, and this maybe specific to a beat. The media is most times too lazy to do any hard digging when mapping a business space and again relies on the ‘usual suspects’, who maybe be convenient darling MDs, CEOs and other assorted rabble rousers. Awards: every publication and their mother has an award stacked with their favourites, breaking into this game needs perseverance, a nose for ‘distress sales’, finally being able to work the apex bodies like CII, FICCI, NASSCOM, etc, for advocacy and influencer relations.

Third and last here, is clearly a lack of process internally at the client organisation be it in terms of communication superstructure, even if one does exist, its ability to deliver strategic advice to management may be suspect in hierarchy driven situations or where communicators are too junior to be taken seriously. Some people use external consultants to tell them what is known already as it brings a credibility they lack.

Anyone can tell you that game changing maneuvers are few and far in between as stereotypes and ’safe’ options abound but if you as a PR professional were ever able to affect changes that made a company’s perception congruent with its performance as benchmarked against its peers, then you indeed deserve to be in the hall of fame. If commitment is your destiny and you can help tell a story that is true and ethical but inconvenient, then you are indeed one lucky person!

We need our heroes just like we need our war stories to feel good about the tribe and what it does, so come on give!

Friday, 7 March 2008

Garbage In; Garbage Out - A Contrarian View on PR Agencies in India

I am a little tired of rants including mine so here is a contrarian view, as you can see I do this contrarian thing quite well (or badly depending on your world view today). This post originally started as a comment and as it grew embarrassingly large, I decided to actually graduate this to a post instead of the original comment it was meant to be!

Client and PR relationships are like marriages, they feud, but can"t stay without each other and more or less work out if both parties give it a half decent shot. There are exceptions on both ends and so let's not go there today for the sake of the majority. On the specific question of clients not paying or paying too less or other grouses, I see essentially see this phenomenon in two parts.

Product or Services Differentiation

Firstly, it is an ability to differentiate your self in positioning. The PR Firm market has been a commodity market for the longest time with no entry barriers for hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop shows. I saw this happening 10 years ago and today is no different. There is room for both and it is good that entrepreneurship is still a possibility in the market place. What is the big difference in working for the big 5 PR Firms in the country (if you can actually figure out ever who they are by number of people employed or revenue in a transparent fashion, beyond claims) and the home office 2-3 people outfit, one can argue. I am sure there are a lot of differences in offering and durability in time of intense attrition but we who profess to be champions of branding do a rubbish job of its when it involves our own brand characteristics and touch points across websites, corporate identity markers from business cards to collateral branding including electronic collateral like the microsoft power point, the one leg of the one legged, PR Industry are all pretty crap.

How many people can recall different practices in a large popular PR Agency unless they happen to be a specialist firm? If I take names I will be slaughtered as these are all friends, colleagues, ex-colleagues, so I'll be prudent and duck my tail in on that but there are no many opportunities lost because no one in the leadership is really thinking about it beyond lip service and also-ran measures. Practice differentiation is not something just to do as a business whenever a fat client with a fat retainer demands it or when a projects to a reusable solution offering. It too needs the branding and marketing that will differentiate it as an offering and help you charge a premium for the effort in doing so.

Text 100 first changed the retainer landscape in the country in late 1990s with retainer values far in excess of what was then 'going price' for retainers in the Tech PR game at least. Again without taking names, there were enough nay sayers who never thought such retainers were possible or rated the survival chances of Text 100 in India. When the dust settled, history had been made with the Microsoft Account and there were many red faces. To be fair Text 100 came with an international mandates, best practices, processes but whatever local clients they picked up too came at larger retainers.

They were leaps and bounds ahead in differentiation, branding, positioning, and clients loved them and paid too. This gave hope and eventually benefited so many other legacy PR Firms who over a period of time started to attain similar retainer values because they moved up the value chain and comparing. This is when they had all along been largely sedentary about the possibility of a retainer being more than a lakh or two. There are many other examples of large retainers in Automotive, Financial Services, and Real Estate etc.

Let's talk for a minute about the client perspective here. What clients complain about is a lack of employee stickiness and just getting legs and no brains when they employ a PR Firm. If you sit on the client side which I have many times with multiple PR Agencies, these issues become important, so there are two sides to this coin! Don't kick what you eat as there is seldom a one sided argument and there is no smoke without a fire!

So it isn’t like clients don’t pay. If you think you have an offering that deserves more (and good old vanilla media relations ain't going to hack it partner) Pitch it right, be bold, be brave, and state your value proposition up front, brand your offering and you can get away with a screamer for a retainer!

Lack of Employee Stickiness and Intellectual Capital Capture in Public Relations Firms

The second important aspect one would do well to consider here involves employee longevity. Measures that arrest attrition including real dedication to employee training, specialization in vertical or horizontal practices, succession planning and an ability to see the next step-on-the-ladder.

There are philosophical and conceptual question there - what profitability are you after in terms of a gross margin is something that needs to examined in the interest of growth and scaling up. 'Reverse price arbitrage', this time in favor of employees and an inconvenient analysis of employee cost-to-company, as compared to retainers will show the employee wage bill as a percentage of revenue. What an owner, or promoter forsakes in terms of pay and work environment can only be good for the business but it is a question of rationale and greed. I have seen many owners and promoters lash out about a lack of loyalty and commitment in employees while they themselves have zero empathy in return. Why is loyalty and commitment only an attribute expected of the employee and not the employer? If you want your people to stay please take care of them, treat them like individuals with aspirations and pay them right! Pay peanuts get monkeys - sound familiar?

So that is what I meant by garbage in- garbage out. Although there are good things happening out there in pockets, I am inherently in love with the idea of a consolidation based on market and supply dynamics, big names with standard global practices coming in can only mean better things for the industry and things moving to a new equilibrium.

The culture of crony PR firm associations has no done anything for the Industry or maybe I have not seen it and inconvenient issues never surface as these may not be in the best interest of constituents.

Let us embrace change and not stay shackled to the hackneyed tenets of a accidental birth, as India moves into the spotlight with its integration with the world economy, the future is bright for all of us!

Friday, 29 February 2008

Is Web 2.0 becoming Bubble 2.0; Social Networking becoming Social Notworking?

After doing battle with scaremongering for the last couple of posts, here's me wimping out and spinning my own doomsday special for you. Unusually I have had more than enough sleep so this is not sleep deprivation either. The media is awash with the Union Budget news and I don't seem to agree with anything that is being sold by various economists, interest groups, lobbyists and politicians. As is won't, this promises to be an election budget with populist measures that will whittle away tax payers money (yes this usually represents a third of your income on the pay slip!) in rubbish schemes but nothing can make me unhappy today. I am surprisingly happy considering the fact that there is really no good news!

So to the topic of my post: Is Web 2.0 becoming Bubble 2.0 and Social Networking becoming Social Notworking (sic)? If you've been around as long as I have, you've probably seen the internet bubble of 2000 and its crazy outlandish pony tail visage. Funny part is, nothing was too freak or outlandish to pitch for a business plan if it included a website in it. The market was awash with venture capital dollars and run rate or burn rate were common place terms in those circles. Not much survived that era and the remnants of this internet bubble largesse did not last.

When Google bought a loss making YouTube for USD 1.65 Billion, followed by the crazy valuations at facebook.com and myspace.com, and a seemingly crazier bid of USD 47 Billion by Microsoft for Yahoo, I knew that Free is Back! Recently AOL decided to offer free e-mail, with many free goodies including XM Radio, Anti Virus, 5 Gig online storage, etc, etc. Incidentally the poor cousin Indian version of AOL does not offer these!

There is more bad news on the horizon as Google stock fell 38 per cent on a report by comscore that AD clicks on Google had been flat in the month of January as compared to last year. This was widely reported across the world and created tremors that were felt far away from its epicentre.

Facebook has recently retreated on its aggressive advertising venture known as the Beacon after howls of protest from its subscribers, numbers which incidentally for the first time started to plateau. Google similarly is showing signs of a slow down. All this coupled with the strong privacy issues that have plagued all large players in the social networking are really a cause for worry where the future of the web 2.0 is concerned.

The benefits that it has bought to the enterprise business in terms of collaboration tools like blogs, widgets, twitters and IM as a result of user generated content can not be ignored but at the same time the impact of social networking has been minimal besides online advertising. This is even more pronounced in India due our insulation from the west both in terms of cultural differences and internet infrastructure bottlenecks across 3G spectrum as well as simple broadband. What it can do is hopelessly mix up your personal and professional life and inadvertently give access to people about your personal information, which you'd much rather keep to yourself and your social ilk.

The other is the time spent wasting company resources while on the job doing what is popularly being referred to as social NOTworking! This is a real concern as, while many managements have draconian solutions but it is important for all CIOs and CTOs to consider how much of the technology and infrastructure that they provide is actual used by employees, and how much is in the nature of freeware which certainly brings a lot of productivity to the enterprise including web based e-mail, instant messaging services as well as social networking tools.

Back into the PR paddock in India, I would love to hear from PR Firms who actually have a social media list they actively use, and dedicated resources who are real practitioners, with real customers without getting my bullshit meter in the red.

If you are bleeding from the budget take hope and have a great weekend!

Thursday, 21 February 2008

NASSCOM 2008: The IT Industry Does Some Great PR for itself!

Last week it was time for my ritual yearly pilgrimage to the Mecca of the IT Industry, I am referring to NASSCOM India Leadership Forum, 2008. It was a time of meeting people, some of the faces were old and some were new but the excitement was all very palpable. You can access the NASSCOM 2008 Blog here.

As is the norm, there was a rash of media in attendance to glean updates of Industry biggies both Indian and MNC. This year was big from many perspectives and saw the attendance from the likes of Ginni Rometty from IBM Global Services and Steve Rohleder, COO of Accenture.

NASSCOM has had biggies before but this year was different for its eclectic mix of politicians like a budding Congress leader Sachin Pilot, Civil Aviation Minister, Praful Patel as well Minister for IT & Telecom, Raja. It also had top industrialists like the Harvard educated and always immaculately dressed Anand Mahindra and the scion of the Bajaj family, the very suave Rajiv Bajaj. It was also different because there was less rhetoric and more realism in terms of the stock taking and the way forward as well as some plainspeak instead of the usual geek festival technobable.

The PR consultants as well as their Corporate Communications and Marketing handlers were out in a full out display of strength as they silent worked the lunches, dinners and networking sessions positioning their spokespeople, their brands in all myriad and clever ways possible.

All is well with the IT Industry despite the doomsayers, the projections are hot, traction is back 2 quarters down and Hewitt and Watson Wyatt are hooting salary increases from rooftops and I am loving it as I cock a snook to many in the media, the Industry, as well as peers who cried wolf. If anything, the sub-prime meltdown will bring in more business for Indian outsourcing industry! All is well indeed and I am loving it!

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Days of Information Overload & Insight Scarcity - Crack Research Tools for PR Commandos!

Militant as I sound, it must be the general pall of slow down in Bombay, IPOs tanking, doomsayers with the recession din, the taxi strike, the weather, and the general non happenings of the week.

The only things that I am a little excited about are some tools for research that I have had a chance to play with recently. These have long been used international PR firms and it is quite interesting to to see their slow acceptance and investment in these tools by Indian PR firms too.

We live in a world of Information Overload and Insight Scarcity. Have you ever wondered when a 26-year old from a management consulting company presents at an industry forum, leaving everyone spell bound by trends and the insight he or she spouts? Similarly how investment banking professionals get the detailed information to discover synergies that decide when to merge and acquire companies, or top Sales people to design and sell solutions for their customers? These are the tools that leading professionals use to know about their customers, markets and industry in real time!

I don’t have the time!

In the PR business, whether it is preparing for a meeting with your client; writing a new business pitch or presentation, or writing a pitch note for the journalist, there is always a chronic shortage of time. In a landscape dotted with delivery milestones, reviews, internal processes and various other mundane activities that are urgent but not important these reserach tools come really handy. They help save time in searching for information, time which is then saved for analyzing and surfacing insight to finally arrive at a positioning statement or stance in the media. It further helps do a snapshot of where a client is at, and where he aspires to be in terms of peer group companies and competition. If you have the first two licked, finding a workable communication strategy to reach these objectives finally comes on the horizon.

What is required is actionable intelligence to optimize your communications strategy, this intelligence today is not just about the good old print medium but requires media analysis across traditional and social media. The ability to benchmark competitors, find PR weak spots, defining focus areas-which sectors, which markets? Finally an ability to track the drivers of your clients’ corporate reputation!

I am referring to the information databases, news aggregators and news wires, prominent among which is Factiva, a tool that is an effective news aggregator and search tool. Besides the latest news on a Company or topic that you may be researching across sources of media reporting on a company or topic, the issues at hand, stick price changes, key executives and a lot of other information it would take you weeks to gather from multiple sources. In addition, Factiva has something known as Search 2.0 that throws up graphs and through other pictorial visualization tools like heat maps really useful to depict trends. Trends that can help you understand the success of your PR campaign; the effectiveness of your spokesperson and measure your success to show bang for the buck!

There are others such as Datamonitor, Hoovers which are again general business research tools. In addition, you will discover deep dive tools for different domains such as a Gartner, Forrester, IDC, for Information Technology, and Ovum for Telecom related information. Similarly for information of a financial nature there are tools like a Dow Jones, Reuters Knowledge, Thomson Financials, and Bloomberg. I can go on and on but will close here to say that there are best-in-breed research tools out there for pretty much most domains and these can change you life if your information needs are critical for your business decision making and survival in reputation management.

In a time often replete with 25 hour work days; these tools help you climb a growth curve which would be pretty much uphill if not impossible as a PR professional, without the help of these tools. In these days of consolidation in the PR space, it may well prove the magic bullet to enable the local tigers and independents to hold their own as they scale up the ladder to compete with their MNC peers who are old users of these tools.

The challenges in adoption are of overcoming inertia and building a research-based PR culture besides of course having some bean counter sign a cheque. Mind you some of these databases do not come cheap but the benefits in time saved and the value of the information that news aggregators provide, more than justifies the investment.

The information age is here and the question is does your organization have an information strategy and tools to take the next big leap?

Friday, 1 February 2008

Specialist vs. Generalist PR, Independent vs. Global Network Player, Consolidation Imminent for the Indian PR Industry!

This post seeks to address the genesis of PR Firms in India, their move towards specialization, and then back towards a generalist positioning. It further seeks to explore the interrelationship between global and organic Indian outfits and motives for their speedy polymerization. Finally it seeks to draw parallels in trends between the state of the Global PR business and a growing similarity in the Indian PR Industry.

Most Indian PR Firms first cracked on the scene somewhere between the late 1980s and early 1990s, which I really see as the time when Public Relations consulting evolved somewhat from cult led spin-doctors to consulting organizations. I employ the caveat, somewhat, because even today many if not most continue to have a similar architecture, with a single personality or two providing the thought leadership, most of the others never really making it beyond middle or senior management, till they either decided to start their own little PR Firm! Those were the days of IPAN, Good Relations, and Genesis (Now Genesis BM ) to name a few, as they were very few. Some of these are still around, some with international affiliations and some with name changes after being acquired but do they remain the gorilla on the hill? I think not!

Here again, while we are on the topic of genesis, it is important to separate the also-rans from the connoisseurs. Disregarding honorable exceptions on both ends, on a general cliché, stand-alone PR Firms, grew organically, built scale and proliferated, while the PR’ divisions and the PR’ arms, mostly of advertising networks or agencies took a step forward and two backward, mostly playing a game of snakes and ladders. Evolution does strange things and many organizations that were once infallible are today extinct or alive in a dysfunctional sort of way, impossible if not hard to imagine back then.

Specializations are a factor of consolidation and pretty much follow the need for differentiation and domain expertise. At different points of time in the evolution of the PR story in India, tangents have proliferated in the form of Technology PR, Financial PR, Corporate Affairs, CSR, University PR, ‘this & that’ PR, etc. Have these always been deliberate attempts or single projects turning into templates that gave the financial logic of a practice or a critical mass that justified a specialist structure? There have been so many instances that have polled for or against the trend so the truth is somewhere in the middle.

The question in my mind really is what works best in the long-term, a generalist approach, or the specialist path? While I have had the good fortune to work for both specialists like Text 100 and 2020 Media, I have also witnessed their forays into the non-tech arena, the former through a proxy agency called Vox PR and the latter directly, when generalists started to eat their lunch. The smaller reasons for this were various including client business conflict, retainer pricing, and sometimes plain ego clashes. The positioning conundrum clearly follows the way of the market shift. The shift has not been smooth, some may call them works in progress, others a fear of losing what they already have in existing clients due to an apparent positioning preference as opposed to other client portfolios that they desire.

There are of course international specialist PR brands that have come in and opened their doors for business to get a piece of the action like APCO, Lewis PR, but for every specialist, there are an equal number of generalists rushing in with names like Fleishman Hillard, Brodeur, Manning Selvage & Lee and scores of others.

Interestingly one space that has stayed relatively virgin is the Financial PR marketplace with a few like Adfactors PR which have stayed ahead of the game and hedged their bets in other specializations while clearly holding on to a very lucrative Financial PR (read IPOs) pie. Others in the game include names like Concept PR, Pressman PR and the Financial PR practices in some of the larger generalists but with a low critical mass as a part of their revenue base. This remains one of the most lucrative spaces in Indian PR and already there are overtures from many international PR firms that work the Financial PR or Investor Relations space for a piece of the action. I know that they are biting at the hooves and I’d just love any M&A gossip there!

While specialists and generalists keep moving towards each other in shenanigans that defy logic, in the final analysis with a few exceptions, most home grown specialist outfits may or may not last long. Large global mandates will force an ongoing consolidation as the Indian PR Industry becomes pregnant with the FII money and the burgeoning weight of its booming middle class marketplace.

The Holmes Report makes for great reading for those interested in delving deeper into the holding patterns, revenues, market statistics and other insights into the global PR business. It is interesting to note that globally a majority of PR firms are controlled by 4 holding companies or networks: Omnicom, WPP, Interpublic, and Publicis.

Either which way the Indian PR Industry cookie crumbles, the traditional approach of developing a specialization to carve the melon will increasingly become harder as entry barriers to opening up or sustaining organic PR shops will get way higher than they used to be for the last decade or two. PR Firms that have shown amazing organic growth in the comparative short term like a Vaishnavi will become rarer. Independent firms of course remain more than capable of competing with network players for clients, both network clients or restricted to geographic location.

The Indian PR Industry soon promises to map the global PR Industry, and while a consolidation is imminent, all that is open to debate is the when and at what valuation. While isolated accounts may remain in silos but clearly the end of cult and personality led PR is around the corner. In all this mayhem, the largest benefactor is not a single entity; the entrepreneurs have their happy exits, the employees-growth, while slowly but surely the fight is hotting up for the Indian PR market pie and it’s time for the big guns to battle! These remain exciting times and all this can only mean more professionalism and better prospects for the Indian PR Industry: The King is dead, long live the King!

Friday, 25 January 2008

Smoking is making the Indian PR Workplace Unhealthy and Unproductive!

Smoke

This afternoon at lunch, I could not help sporadically eavesdropping into a conversation between two girls sat at lunch, at a table adjacent to mine, in a restaurant in downtown Fort that I tend to frequent for mid-week inspiration. I didn't really intend to but the profanities yelled on the cellphone and the incessant chain smoking made for distraction and so did their loud chatter; of course they were from a PR Firm. As I sat there pretending to eat, mostly I gleaned involuntary knowledge and smoke from the poison duo.

It took me back in time, to a not so distant period of time when I yet smoked, spoke loudly on my cellphone in public, I suspect my language is still peppered with the occasional swearing but I guess being put on a spot so often has made me a little more careful, a wisdom that springs from being toast. Now that I have quit smoking, on my third attempt that is, I realize how offensive smoking can be others in an ambient public environment.

Coming in to work and departing most days, I see young executives, fresh of the pan, with their flash MBAs and shiny diplomas, these ostensibly outstanding people, so sorted in their heads otherwise with ambition written large on their confident faces, strangely gathered in stairways, flicking ash from their cigarettes in these dirty ghettos, soaking in a perverse bond of cheap cigarettes, and an angst borne of real, apparent and sometimes imagined grouses. Across the world, young people and some times not so young people, with their heads screwed on the right way, when measured in all other criteria, seem so strangely out of character as they brave rain, bone numbing wind, searing heat, humidity and other adversity to waste their time in stairwells, street corners and other dives of the corporate underbelly, hooked to that nicotine fix.

Unhooked

It often confounds me on why they just hang around sucking cancer sticks as time ticks and deadlines bomb all around them. It is beyond reason why they are not in any rush to get home to spend time with a loved one or get a life and do whatever it is that PR consultants do beyond running the corporate rat race. This yoyo act of the pilgrimage to and fro from the dive to the desk and back continues till late afternoon at which point in the script the reality of the days' unshakable deliveries starts to become rather stark. This then produces a frenzied nightmare where work gets produced in bum rush fashion; an output that is mostly shoddy and of piss poor quality. The mute look of incomprehension on the faces of most client servicing and account management types (we seem to share this fraternity with other brethren in advertising and market research) when a client yells their tonsils off, is sometimes in my mind directly attributable to smoking and I am not talking about smoking anything beyond tobacco!

I have often wondered in amazement at how information aggregators like Factiva from Dow Jones have used the time saved in research multiplied by cost of executive time to show savings to an organization. In a similar fashion, the cost of an executive smoking multiplied by what he or she bills per hour, wasted in this mindless pursuit, I am sure will produce some pretty damning statistics. Continuing in this direction, I am wondering if Covey ever realised the big impact this activity would have on his quadrant of time management for effective people. He did capture some other low hanging fruit like gossip, trivia, being busy doing nothing, etc.

Although the dangers of tobacco use have been recognized for over half a century, and in an increasing number of countries have resulted in the banning of smoking in enclosed spaces, I want take a minute and talk about the costs to health due to smoking both physical and psychological from nicotine dependence, including its contributing to burn out and general depression. The costs in quitting are also not insignificant.

Smokers who have attempted and failed to quit will agree, will power; by itself is often not sufficient and smoking cessation aids are often needed. Estimated to be worth just $213 million 2006, according to a new report from independent market analyst Datamonitor, the prescription nicotine dependence market is set to grow strongly at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 16% to reach $4.6 billion by 2016. Nicotine dependence continues to represent a serious public health problem. Indeed, smoking is a major contributor to illnesses such as lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease and stroke, and is one of the world’s leading causes of preventable death.

Datamonitor estimates that nicotine dependence affects almost 116 million individuals across the seven major markets (7MM) – France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, UK and US – in 2007, says Datamonitor central nervous system (CNS) analyst Charlotte Mackey. “Despite the currently high prevalence of nicotine dependence, evidence suggests that only a small proportion of individuals actively seek help from their primary care physician (PCP).” Imagine the statistics, in India, in proportion, if the US and most of Europe account for 116 million people! The adoption of nicotine patches is unheard of in India and I can"t begin to think of anyone consulting their doctor if they wanted to quit. The corresponding costs in healthcare that the smoking pandemic in India will cause in the immediate future makes me shudder!

Traditionally, January is the time of the year a lot of people resolve to quit smoking. I know it can be done as I finally managed to do it an year ago after 2 previous failed attempts, so can you; in the process saving yourself a lot of agony, time, money and health related problems, besides mitigating your colleagues, friends, family and loved ones from passive smoking. I have no doubt that it will also boost your avenues as a more effective and successful PR Professional by far, so quit now while you are ahead!

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Indian Automobile Marketing Gravy Train; Where's PR in The Game?


I am writing this fresh from my trip to the Auto Expo 2007 in New Delhi, and what a trip it turned out to be! New Delhi in all its winter glory, the excitement in the air made it easy to ignore the traffic nightmare and the smog.

The parties, the awards, the models and the car models all made for a very heady trip.

Tempted as I am to offer my opinion about the Nano, all I can proffer is that while it might be great PR for a prototype to get such turgid hype, I'd much rather reserve my comment when hype translates into sales as and when the rubber hits the road, one lakh or not.
What I am not going to do is plug for the automobile manufacturers and their new models as that has been done to death but instead talk about the hype surrounding the automobile industry and the mechanics of its construct.

The key orchestrators of this construct are the usual suspects, yes, the marketing types who practice every well honed trick in the book for eyeballs with their bevy of deep pockets that fund the PR Firms, Advertising Agencies, Event Managers and Celebrities, Models and what have you. They all play their roles in producing the apparition that makes people buy things they don't really need.

The role of PR Firms in influencing the emotional decision that is the trigger for writing that fat cheque by a consumer seems a bit suspect to me, yes even now!

The PR firm toolkit has remained stuck in time with the usual boring repository of junkets, sordid and dry press releases, press conferences where the sole purpose of the PR Firm is to corrall the hapless media. Where they don't get to sit in is at the board table where such nuanced finery as positioning and strategy gets perfected and agreed to.
This also then directly affects the apportioning of the windfall of budgets that the Automobile marketing is suddenly turning into a gravy train making several vendors really rich. The lions share has gone to advertising and event management agencies, round one to advertising, will PR ever get there? To be fair the show saw some pretty global standards in production values, professionalism and exhibition design. The show gets bigger every year and the participant list includes most global Automobile manufacturers which till recently ignored the Delhi Auto Show.

The Auto journalist who was up until now a largely ignored breed of animal suddenly finds a rush of demand for their tribe with the ferocious proliferation of automobile programming and content in print, online as well as television. This in turn has raised egos, not to mention salaries and designations all around. After being on the pasture so long, who can grudge them their riches? Their open contempt for all people in PR firms sometimes mimics that of page 3 and celebrity hacks but the mutual greed facilitates an uneasy truce given to sporadic bouts of grief and blind rage on both sides. Marriages made in hell but marriages all right.

Having said that, the Automobile media have played to the gallery too, and one rarely sees an inconvenient story. This crony game is bad for the consumer at the end of the day as it allows for the machinations of the marketeer to succeed regardless of the quality of their product and the veracity of their claims. There are no rules for accepting largesse or junkets and the results are all around us to see in print, TV and online.

From a time when the Autocarindia magazine constituted automobile journalism and a couple of other old fogey aristocratic pretenders, the names of whom I dare not take, today's Automobile journalism space somewhat resembles the Telecom spectrum rush!

There is a rush of magazines some with foreign labels, from a couple of television shows the canvas has exploded with every channel now offering mandatory Auto programming. This has gone one step further with the hype of live Auto Industry Awards: CNBC AutoCar, NDTV Car& Bike, Overdive, Business Standard Motoring, everyone and their mum now has an award. While the awards have been there for sometime but their use to buttress claims in full page advertisements are something new to this game. The dawn of the age of automobile consumerism has finally hit India.

So back to my point on what PR Firms are not doing to get their place on the gravy train. Garbage in; garbage out is a favourite saying and someone, somewhere needs to make an effort to learn more about the Automobile domain, schlep with the domain experts and make that investment of time, money and effort so that they can make sense of what is going on around them. Taking the time to research a brief is what the advertising boys have done right and now they are tasting that sweet billing. If you do your math right, a quick comparison between a full page advertisement or a 30 second commercial on prime time TV to what a PR Firm will average as a retainer billing for a month, the writing is on the wall. Right now domain expertise in PR Firms is confined to reeling off relationships with key Automobile media!

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Top 5 Predictions for Indian PR Firms in 2008

These are heady days. As India moves forward with a constant surge, it’s pretty much never say never; be it the stock markets; the string of acquisitions hitherto thought of as impossible. Clearly it is a time for innovation led consolidation.

The PR business as a microcosm of Industry and it too has had its share of innovation led consolidation too, and among the other notables have been a string of acquisitions, the latest being of Hanmer by Publicis. Things in general have been good with the entry of several brands as well as value corrections in revenues for most major firms or networks for existing business.

2007 was a year of slow tectonic change, 2008 promises to have far greater velocity and the trends point to some trends that would go down as big shifts in my opinion:

A Holistic Brand Experience Inclusive of Web 2.0 & Social Media Properties

Social Media in India has been a long time in the coming and 2008 will see a greater adoption of the social media and the whole web 2.0 space not just by PR Firms but also its use in a integrated marketing tool kit, using a combination of online PR / Advertising, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for a holistic brand experience that will use both traditional media as well as new media. What does this mean? Simply that, just like we have had domain specialists with financial, investor relations, issue based and other specialist skills, in a similar fashion, online and social media skills will become more mainstream as must-have necessities and not as isolated asks. You can look at the Le Web 3 conference online to look at the plethora of applications and paradigms in Social Media evolution so far.

Larger Offering Differentiation

Vanilla Media Relations serves as the mainstay for the PR business but over the year it has steadily devalued both in terms of revenue as well as in its effectiveness to be the answer to different communications problems. This commoditization has led to a desire for offering differentiation to go up the value chain in terms of dealing with complexities as well as higher paid quality work. Investor Relations, Government Relations, Corporate Affairs, Corporate Social Responsibility, Employer Branding are all different offerings that will find higher definition and better honing as practices.

2008 to be the year of Telecom & Auto

As India moves towards hectic telecom consolidation and the spectrum war gobbles up space in the media, this will mean an increase in specialisation by PR Firms. Similarly the small car explosion that is going to hit us in 2008 only will means higher levels of specialisation in Automotive Industry as a domain. The stakes are large and so are the budgets. Retail on the other hand has simmered, petered out and then simmered again, so the jury is still out on that front.

IT and IT Services to Stay Prominent

This space will continue to bring in good results and PR promises to be a tool of choice much more than traditional media. The BPO and IT Services business has weathered several storms and yet come out on top every time. The desire for brand differentiation has pushed many of the brands in this space including TCS, Infosys, Cognizant, and Wipro into running large branding campaigns. This is the fight for mind space both for business as well as talent where the competitors include the likes of IBM, Accenture, EDS, Deloitte, and Capgemini.

Emphasis on the Environment

Global warming seems to finally have arrived on the scene in the media and the din is getting louder. Everyone is talking green and hybrids are being talked of in a car market that has yet to get the basics of ABS and Safety equipment like air bags as standard fitment for most manufacturers selling in India. The Reva continues to survive as a green brand and even has export ambitions. Plastic bags are banned with lesser resistance and effluent treatment and water pollution have becoming real issues. As the glaciers melt, Tsunami’s strike and our carbon footprint becomes increasingly menacing, I don’t think it’s a year too early!

Finally, it promises to be one hell of a year to start your own business or company as people lose patience with traditional mindsets and opportunities explode. There has never been a better time to be an entrepreneur since the dot com bust. Happy New Year!

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