The power of Public Relations: Ajay Kakar

26 Dec,2011

By Ajay Kakar


As a marketer, we have many communication tools to capitalise on for the advantage of our brands and our business. To me, these ‘weapons’ (advertising, direct marketing, public relations et al) are very akin to a Swiss army knife; you can use any or all of these weapons, depending on the task at hand.


But in my many years at the agency end, with stints in direct marketing, advertising and public relations, and now as a client, I have found “PR” to be the least understood, appreciated and under-leveraged communication weapon – by both the marketing and (believe it or not) agency fraternities in India. And most surprisingly, the PR fraternity too.


As a long standing convert and staunch believer in this discipline, let me share with you my 20-year-old association with the PR discipline and the reasons why I believe that it is arguably the most powerful communications arrow in a marketer’s quiver. Also the reasons why I believe that the discipline has yet not got its full dues.


So here’s the story of my tryst with public relations, or, if I may so say, the story of public relations in India, over the last two decades.


PR, in fact, changed my life!


PR is actually the exotic siren who first tempted me to leave my career in accounting and audit, to venture into the (for me) unfamiliar and untrodden path of communications.


In 1991, I came across an interview in the Business India, with a person called Steve Lyons (I still remember the name!), who was then the head of a company called ‘Ogilvy PR’ in Singapore.  Believe it or not, until then I had never even thought of the advertising world, or even heard of “Ogilvy”.


The article impressed me so much that I immediately searched out the agency’s address and cold-called the then-MD of Ogilvy and Mather, India, Mr. Mani Aiyer, hoping for a break in his PR unit.


Hearing my motivation for joining PR, he tried to temper my new found passion, but having gauged me as a person who was not going to be swayed easily, he had me meet the head of Ogilvy PR in India. And that meeting shattered all my dreams and illusions.


In 1991, PR, in India was nothing more than “Press Relations” – getting media coverage…lots of it…at any cost.


Dejected, I decided not to pursue this temptress. And when I went back to Mr. Aiyer to thank him for his time, he actually offered me a job in advertising. Needless to say, he made a passionate pitch that swept me off my feet. And on May 2, 2001, I became an employee of Ogilvy & Mather (though not Ogilvy Public Relations).


But fate was not going to let me off the hook, so easily.


In 2003 I was invited to take on an additional mandate at Ogilvy, as the country head of Ogilvy Public Relations, in India. Before the end of 2004, I was the president of the industry body, Public Relations Consultants Association of India. And in 2005 I had switched over to the other side, the client side, where I became an active user of PR.


And today, as 2011 comes to an end and 2012 draws near…


Two decades have passed, but ‘PR’ remains mere press relations – in the minds of the practitioners – be they the PR professionals, or their user base.  Of course there may be a few exceptions. But these are far and apart. “PR = press relations” is all that we care to believe. Unless….

In moments of need, even atheists are tempted to remember God. …. “Forgive me father, for I have sinned”. And when brands have ‘sinned’ or find themselves in a tight spot, they have reached out for public relations and found this discipline to be a saviour.


As an example, just remember the days when colas were synonymous with pesticide and you will know what I am referring to.


But back to any ordinary day….

At Ogilvy, I recollect instances when I presented a Rs5 crore estimate to a client for an advertising campaign (do remember that in the mid-90s this was a princely sum) and got an instant sign off. And then when I wore my PR hat and asked for a Rs5,000 pm hike in fee from the same client (do remember that even in the mid-90s, this was a meagre sum), the client would wear a thinking hat, but refuse to lift his pen to sign on the dotted line…and finally it used to boil down to… “But you guys make so much from us on advertising. So why do you need to be paid, for PR!”


These instances would leave indelible marks of pain on my professional pride. But looking back at all such instances, I realised that I had to ‘forgive them, for they knew not what they did’. Because they knew not what PR is and what role PR can play in their lives and the lives of their brands.


So it was the number of clips that we were measured by. Else, the column centimetres of editorial coverage. Or the rupee value of the editorial coverage. Or the coverage we got (or did not) for the client’s son’s sports day. Media coverage. Media coverage. Media coverage.


This was and still is a malaise that ails the PR industry inIndia. And some parts of the world.


What is PR? What are the key deliverables one should expect? How should the impact of PR be measured? How would you like to substantiate your proposed fee or fee hike?

Ask 5 practitioners this question and in all probability you will get atleast 6 (different) responses. So as a client, how do I value or respect a ‘good thing’ when I don’t even know what it is! Or how to measure it!


This has been a burning need for the industry to rally around and define and ‘standardise’ expectations, industry-wide definitions and measures. But two decades later, the questions remain the same. And there is yet no answer. No understanding. No empathy.


So while the PR industry keeps asking “why are we paid peanuts”, the user industry keeps answering “because we (think we) are getting monkeys”. This never ending coffee-toffee debate needs a closure. Soon. And I do appeal to the industry to claim their rightful place under the sun. At the earliest. By first addressing the basics. The questions that we cannot wish away. And then, of course, delivering on them.


Until then, it is to our collective disadvantage that PR is considered a mere commodity. And we are seen as under cutting each other to win mandates. These mandates are soon lost, when the client is not in a position to evaluate or measure our success. Or the lack of it.


The client base of the public relations industry is increasing by the day (there will never ever be a shortage of clients). But the number of satisfied clients? The number of clients making use of, and benefiting from PR in all its glory? Who is counting!  And therefore it hurts the believers, when India wins a PR Lion at Cannes. Because it has been won by an ad agency! Not a PR agency.


So is there mere gloom and doom in the PR industry? Not at all!


There are various case studies where PR has hit the bull’s eye and demonstrated it’s true potential and power. Let’s visit some of these and take inspiration from them.


Today’s exceptions, tomorrow’s rule…

It would be right to cite a few examples here that could redefine the way PR is perceived.

We all know of John Travolta as an actor, singer, dancer but do you know that he is also a licensed pilot? So when Qantas, the airline from ‘down under’Australia, wanted to reach out to as a relevant airline for European markets, they actually got John Travolta to fly their planes to these destinations. The kind of coverage that this exercise got in local as well as world media was mind-boggling. So Qantas used this “a facet of John that you did not know”, to express “a facet of Qantas that you did not know”.


Cadbury’s was hit by a crisis – the worm infestation case – that nearly threatened the very existence of the brand in India, as mothers questioned their generations of trust in Cadbury’s chocolates. At Ogilvy PR I had the opportunity to partner this iconic brand and their leadership team on the exercise that is now a case study for Cadbury’s, worlwide.

Customers. Channel. Influencers. Regulators. Government. Employees…all these key stakeholders had to be reached out to, repeatedly and regularly. And the media was only one of the bridges to reach out to them. It was “public” relations at play. And not mere ‘press’ relations.

Today Cadburys keeps scaling greater highs. It not only won back the trust of a nation. But also its loyal customer base and their sales graph. And this incident appears to be a distant dream. But in those days, every day appeared to be like a never ending nightmare.

As an agency and team, we had the opportunity to get into the hearts and minds of the senior management team on an ‘online real time’ basis. Every day. For weeks.


Gillette is another company that has realised and capitalised on the power of PR, year after year. You will remember their W.A.L.S (Women Against Lazy Stubble) campaign. And now the Shavesutra campaign.  Their movement has resulted in 12.2 million Indians casting their vote for a clean shave. It also led to rise in sales and popularity of the product and also bagged numerous awards…their sales going up by 500 per cent, market share up by 400 per cent, an entry in the Guinness book of records…and over $ 2.5 million worth of free media coverage.


The Body Shop is another classic example of a brand that has enjoyed the favours of PR. No advertising. And still, it’s a global brand with very strong bondings with its consumers, as an eco friendly company.


Or, the mother of all “PR” campaigns… Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom struggle. He influenced an entire nation to realise the power of self rule… and got ‘results’ in the form of India’s Independence.


So, while PR is about press relations, it is also about influencing the influencer. It’s about creating credibility and about credible ways of influencing people to act. It is not only about journalists but about customers, employees, shareholders, channel partners and other key stakeholder’s perceptions management. It is a weapon that can do wonders in not only the brand’s good times, but more so in the bad times too. It can give business solutions and tangible results.


So if you ask me, PR is about ‘Public’ and not ‘Press’ relations. It is about ideas that influence and engage my ‘public’ and something that has a multiplier effect. The credible way. And my belief is that if you capture the right essence of PR, you will not need to chase the media. The media will come chasing you.


From a client’s perspective, if my PR agency helps me achieve my KRAs in a simpler, cheaper and faster way, then why will I not chase you? If as clients, we earn a fixed and variable salary, then why shouldn’t my PR agency also be assessed and remunerated that way? And that the variable component should be based on tangible results.  My belief is that this is one industry where the potential of an agency’s variable earnings outstripping the fixed component is very high.


If PR can demonstrate how it can help me increase my profits, customer base and revenues, in short help me achieve  my KRAs, then forget peanuts, I weigh them in “gold”.


Towards this destination, two points to ponder:

  • We need talent that can deliver on this potential. Talent that can claim to be a “strategic counsel”. Talent that only handles the number of clients it can give the requisite attention to.  Today, when it comes to advertising, we can even put faces to the next generation of the industry.
  • There is so much (though still inadequate) talent. But when it comes to the PR industry? I am sure that we have many unsung heroes – be they agencies, professionals or success stories. Can the PR industry do its own PR, so that we all have role models that inspire us and we aspire to emulate?


Ajay Kakar is CMO – Financial Services, Aditya Birla Group


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