[PR] There’s nothing wrong in lobbying: Sharif Rangnekar

05 Mar,2012

Serving his second term as the President of PRCAI (Public Relations Consultants Association of India), Sharif Rangnekar, CEO & Director of Integral PR has over 20 years of experience in the fields of journalism, communication and publishing, having worked with organizations such as Penguin Books India, The Economic Times and The Pioneer. He attributes his knowledge and information gathering instincts to the experience he acquired working under senior journalists in the news business.


In conversation with MxM India’s Shruti Pushkarna, Mr Rangnekar talks about his transition from a journalist to a communications professional, his views on lobbying and crisis management, on the negativity attached to public affairs, on the need for a united PR body and much more. Talking about social media, he felt that social media is just beginning to impact the PR business and there is a lot of unnecessary hype that is created around it. Excerpts:


Q: Tell us a bit about your journey and work as the Director of Integral PR?

A: The journey has been a little like the market, it’s had its ups and downs. One thing about PR is that if you stay connected with what’s happening around you, you constantly feel that you are learning something new. There’s always a newness attached to everything you do on a day to day basis because you are always dealing with the publics, you are always dealing with influencers such as the media, and the government.


Q: Elaborate for us on the 360-degree approach of Integral PR and Focal Point Management.

A: I think a lot of businesses we are seeing and a lot of change we are seeing is extremely new to India. What you are seeing today may already be old in the next two days, given the speed of technology and the impatience levels of a very young country. So in a scenario like that, your constant engagement with the different touch points that influence your business, makes focal point management – where we put the client in the centre and we look at all the constituencies around him that influence what he does, how he does it and how does he reach out to them ­- extremely important. So it’s a synchronized 360 degree approach where you are looking at government, communities, consumer groups, other pressure groups, chambers of commerce and the media. And we look at our communication outreach along all those parameters.


Q: You have done extensive work in the area of public affairs management. How difficult you think it is for a communication professional to work in that area, given the systems in the country?

A: I think there is a lot negativity attached to public affairs because people assume that public affairs is only government affairs but there is another element attached, which is advocacy. There is the other part of it where you are debating and discussing policy, you are discussing issues that are new to a nation. I don’t think public affairs is as difficult or as tedious as it is made out to be. I think there is a government out there, and there have been governments in the past who want to bring a certain amount of change, and in any democratic set-up there has to be a debate and there has to be a hearing of all the relevant voices. So in that sense, governments have made these efforts, things take longer than people would want them to but then that’s the nature of our democracy. I think problem arises when there isn’t transparency attached to the mandate that you are carrying out or if the benefits of a policy are limited to a very small group.


Q: You started out as a journalist and moved into public relations later. How has the transition been for you?

A: I have been pretty lucky in terms of the transition. I was part of a news and research firm when I moved out of mainstream journalism. My instinct for journalism hasn’t really changed, in the sense that my instinct for news and information hasn’t changed. I think that has helped me because I didn’t immediately take the first plunge into mainstream operational public relations but I had a period in between where I was consulting with Integral PR, so I got a better understanding of what a PR world does. And the training I had in journalism under some very senior journalists has helped me understand the importance of information and knowledge, which has become key to a lot of advice and counsel that one gives to a client.


Q: Do you think PR can be more than mere press relations?

A: It already is, and I think this impression of it being mere press relations comes from the press who only sees the PR agencies dishing out press releases or having press conferences or setting up one on one interviews. It’s the limited view that the media has of PR because that’s all they get to see, the rest of it is quite confidential. There is so much work that takes place in a PR agency, planning a brand, planning an advocacy drive, developing campaigns, doing marketing communications; there is so much of work that goes on behind the scenes including crisis communication. There is a lot more happening out there and I think if people need to know more about it, then the PR industry needs to talk a little bit more about it.


Q: How critical do you think is crisis management to the communications business?

A: I think it’s extremely critical. There are two parts of the business, one is building reputation and image, the other is protecting it. Crisis management is about protecting the image, it’s about protecting a business, its people, its operations, its investment. Crisis management is an extremely important part and, more so today, because there is a greater awareness level amongst the people, there are a lot of new issues out there. In a scenario like that, there is a lot of education that needs to take place.

There are people being deprived of land, or people being moved out from places, there are people who are suddenly realizing that certain corporations may not be giving them what they are looking for, so they are taking to the streets and protesting, or going online and starting campaigns. So there are just so many situations that we are currently dealing with, and a lot of them are crisis related because it’s new to a business, it’s new to the external audience, it’s new to even the internal audience of an organization sometimes.

So crisis management has become extremely important and if you are not aware, you don’t have that kind of experience, it’s going to be very difficult to give that kind of counsel or manage the situations for a client today.


Q: How do you think social media is impacting the functioning of PR?

A: I think social media is starting to impact and it’s not that it’s universally being adopted by the corporate world. I think what we need to understand is that social media at times is being drawn out of proportion in terms of its importance, because there is always an American influence there. That influence is coming from a society which is extremely wired up, a society which doesn’t engage that much with people. But we are dealing with India where there is so much of diversity, people behave differently, you still have very powerful mediums of communication which reach out to people whether it’s newspapers, or TV and more importantly, people still go out, people meet and people talk.

So the need for the digital space is quite different and unique. Having said that, I think knowing what is happening out there, keeping your eyes on it is extremely important because still a large number of people are getting out there.


Q: Coming back to Integral PR, what are the key areas of growth set for 2012?

A: We are looking at advocacy, the digital space and definitely looking at the 360 degree approach, because we feel that there are more and more companies entering the Indian market or are going deep into the hinterland who will face different types of consumer groups, different types of consumption patterns, political environment, so a 360 approach is going to be extremely important for them when they want to do business in markets which they are pretty unfamiliar with.


Q: What do you think of lobbying? Do you think past controversy has tainted the image of PR as an industry?

A: There isn’t anything wrong in lobbying. It is used in a very negative sense and that might be because of the history that lobbying has had. Lobbying is influencing policy, today the media does it when they have debates, when they have knowledge platforms, when there are seminars and conferences held by chambers of commerce, that’s all forms of lobbying. Today a lot of corporate advertising that takes place is also part of lobbying.

So I think there has to be a difference that people need to know and understand between fixing and influencing or creating a voice so that someone else can be heard on a policy. As far as the recent controversy is concerned, that did taint the image of the industry but I think the good thing of a lot of these kind of things that take place where the media is been bringing out issues about corruption and other related matters, is that it helps clean up the system.


Q: What are your views on PR associations? Do you think a central body is critical in terms of representing the industry as a whole?

A: It’s extremely important because the industry has to get together and address issues that the industry faces as a whole. This is not about business, it’s about industry at large. I think the association also needs to play a role in educating people, it has to play a role in giving a certain semblance of a structure to the industry, it has to play a role in benchmarking, so in that sense the association has to be there, to take these things out to the public, and also to reach out to the government because government is an active user of PR.


Q: Advertising has a strong central body so it seems more united in that sense. But with PR where there are 3 to 4 bodies, it is not as united in that sense…what’s your view on that?

A: I think there is only one PR industry association, it’s the PRCAI. You have another society which has to do with individuals working in the corporate sector, that’s more corporate communications, corporate affairs people, that’s very different from the consultancy business. So in that sense you do have two well-known bodies in this space. It does at times send out mixed messages but I think that’s why it’s important for the two to get together to not necessarily play as one but to have at least singular objectives out there. But I don’t think it’s creating a problem for the industry, just that at times people do get mixed up about who’s doing what but I don’t think that’s coming in the way of our objectives.


Q: What are the critical areas that need attention in the PR industry today?

A: I think benchmarking of standards of service, issues of integrity and most importantly it’s talent and the knowledge levels, I think those are two or three very key areas that most of our members are facing.


Q: Where do you think ‘Brand India’ stands in today’s global scheme of things?

A: Brand India is overstated. India growth story is not the China story where the government has taken the central role to bring change. Here change has come on through individual enterprises largely. So it’s not always been about public policy, and India the brand has suffered a bit over the last one year and half, assuming that there is a brand out there. There is this feeling that things don’t really move, there is a certain sense that you need a lot of patience and with other economies also crumbling at this point of time, people don’t necessarily have the same kind of patience, don’t have the same kind of funds, so in that sense the brand has suffered. But a fortunate thing that India has always had on its side is the fact that it’s a democracy, and that ultimately depending on how long you are willing to wait, things fall into place. People are beginning to understand that for a democracy like India which is extremely diverse, it requires that much more time for certain things to happen. So people are getting to know that and now they are making more informed decisions, more informed choices about doing business out here. So it’s a mixed situation right now, definitely the brand has taken a bit of a jolt in the last year and a half but that’s also because there have been no significant policy decisions for a long period of time.


Q: Your word of advice for future PR managers…

A: I think, just be informed. You have to love the joy of obtaining knowledge, being in the know and you have to be like a really good journalist. You need to have your information, you need to have more sources than one and you should have the ability to comprehend and express and you need to know tactfully how to manage people and work with people. Those are key to becoming a good PR executive, and more importantly, a good PR advisor.


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