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!

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