[PR] Crisis makes the adrenalin flow: Prema Sagar

26 Mar,2012

Video and Text By Shruti Pushkarna


She launched her firm, Genesis in November 1992 with just one client and one colleague, and today it has grown into one of India’s most trusted communications firms in the country. In 2005, Genesis merged with Burson-Marsteller, the gold standard in public relations, to become Genesis Burson-Marsteller. Prema Sagar, Principal and Founder of Genesis Burson-Marsteller spoke to MxM India about the growth of Genesis, issues that the industry faces today and where India stands in the international PR domain today. She also feels that all PR is now actually ‘digital PR’ and integrated communication is the way forward.


Prior to setting up Genesis PR, Prema was the Editor-Publisher of Genesis – The City Guide, a travel magazine, and co-founder of Genesis Printers. An alumna of the Frank Jefkins Institute, UK, Prema has played a leadership role in the industry as the Founding President of the Public Relations Consultants Association of India, Council Member for India of the International Public Relations Association and member of the global Board of Management of the International Communication Consultancies Organization.


Part 1:
[youtube width=”400″ height=”200″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yIhL1PNatp0[/youtube]
Part 2:
[youtube width=”400″ height=”200″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wy7bzvz87LI[/youtube]

Q: Tell us a little bit about the growth story of Genesis, especially post the BM partnership.

Genesis started in November 1992 and many years later there was an inquiry from Burson Marsteller about partnering with them. I always admired Burson Marsteller and particularly Harold Burson, so when they called us we got into an affiliation. And it was for several years that we were affiliated with them and then finally came the big question about whether they could acquire a percentage of Genesis. I was very clear about one thing, that if we have to do a sellout of the company, it had to be either 100 percent or 0. I don’t like joint ventures because there is confusion about who runs the company and who makes the decisions, and so that happened seven years ago when they took the acquisition route with Genesis. Since the last two years we are 100 percent Burson Marsteller.


Q: Did you ever think that Genesis could lose its identity given BM’s larger than life presence?

Not so far.


Q: Genesis started 2012 on a high note; what are the key focus areas set for the year going forward?

Going forward is really about specialization which is something I started a year ago. Deep specialization, whether it’s corporate responsibility, whether it’s consumer marketing, whether it’s telecom and technology, whether it’s corporate and financial, and the new area is going to be healthcare. The fact is that people want expertise, general advice doesn’t work across different businesses. And instead of having one leader in this organization, in these last two years we have created 20. The idea is to create 40 in this year. So it is about creating far more leaders who have not only the expertise and depth but they have the leadership skills and you give them the space to grow.


Q: Given the growing clout of digital media, how does Genesis plan to integrate digital media into its campaigns? Do you think integrated communications is the way forward?

Everybody around the world is struggling with it. It’s very clear that you cannot do PR without digital, so it is really ‘Digital PR’. So when you look at any campaign, for example in the West, 50 percent is digital part and 50 percent is the traditional media. If we look at it here in India, everyday it’s growing. It started with consumer technology where it was a definitive requirement in the campaign plan. So it’s just rolled into the PR campaign just like how from print, television became popular and now digital is popular. I think there is a lot of focus required in digital in India. There are not enough experts, there are a lot of people running all over the place but if you want to see the impact of what digital is doing, there is a journey to be made.


Q: How critical do you think it is to have a strong central body to represent and voice the needs of the PR industry as a whole?

I set up Public Relations Consultants Association in India (PRCAI). I think there is a leadership need where we need to get people from Asia Pacific, not necessarily from the globe but have far more interaction of what’s happening in different markets. A lot more needs to happen on a thought leadership status, that is a long journey that needs to be done. I think a lot of it is very tactical right now and I think the body needs to take it to the next level.


Q: What’s your view on international agencies entering the Indian market increasingly?

They are already here, they are all here, in whatever form or fashion and a lot of them are even very small. One of the international competitors who asked me that what my advice to them was when I was at the World Economic Forum last year, I said to them take one, build it brick by brick. Don’t try and do everything in one go and hire people and run after clients, you have to show value, it’s a service and that is still my advice.


Q: Where do you think the Indian PR industry stands today in the international arena?

It’s very interesting that yesterday we met a very big multinational company, and they rung me up this morning and said that we are confused because everyone who has presented, has presented fabulous stuff and we didn’t know that the PR industry in India was so advanced. I was worried in one way thinking that I was way ahead but on the other hand, I was very proud that somebody had to say that about India.


Q: How big a challenge is attracting talent into the business?

Talent is moving too fast particularly in the middle level. I think a lot of people come here to learn and when they reach the middle level, a lot of the corporates pick up the middle level people and without further training, they are corporate communications heads. It doesn’t matter because at the end of the day it is happening to every industry in India and it’s the same story internationally. So we have our own GBM School and we keep training and looking at developing future leaders. I don’t think we should worry, I think we should invest in people, in team bonding, in leadership skills, those areas definitely need us to make that investment in them.


Q: What are the other challenges that face the industry today?

I think it’s all going well, I won’t worry too much. We just need to stick to ‘ethical’ influencing because influencing is part of life. We all influence each other in one way or the other and I think doing it the ethical route is what we need to stick to. We are at the threshold of announcing Public Affairs Forum of India. I think this association should make that difference now in India for the future about ethical influencing. So those are the challenges, and I think that’s always the challenge in any service business, to stay the course in terms of ethical influencing.


Q: BM is primarily known for its crisis management and political lobbying. How critical do you think is crisis PR? Also, what are your views on lobbying?

We love the issues in crisis because it takes us away from the day to day campaign planning and execution, issues in crisis makes the adrenal flow. And we really do feel that we made a difference and that’s the challenge, whether we helped in a positive way or not. On lobbying, it’s a part of life. As CEOs say it’s not just a lobbyist, the CEO is also lobbying. Within politics there is lobbying, within the corporate world there is lobbying. Everybody is lobbying for something or the other and I think we need to confront that. It’s a part of life, it’s nothing sleazy, it’s just a word from the dictionary, it’s interpretation of how you are doing lobbying.


Q: There are some who believe that the PR industry itself needs a bit of PR, given all the bad publicity it’s received: Niira Radia, the Times of India management saying Medianet is a result of PR folks bribing journalists etc.?

These things happen in the service industry particularly. On Niira, who knows what was right or wrong, how much is the truth, what is not the truth, all of those things are going to never be known. But having said that it is good that all of this is coming out because I think India is in that gold rush stage and the fact that journalists are bringing these things out in the open, is really a good thing. If it didn’t happen, we would have gone the wrong way, and civil society is putting the pressure and it will change, change for the better.


Q: Is measurement a good thing to talk about, but difficult to implement?

Not at all, because if you meet Aseem Sood of Impact who does the measurement and research analysis, there is a way in which it can be measured. And that too a third party has to do the measurement, you can’t measure yourself. There are agreed parameters with the client, and we have something called the Service Quality Index which is put out to the clients. What they have to do is, to assess the team for the results that they deliver. And this measurement and analysis provides absolute results, so you can see whether you have achieved what you set out to achieve. You have to set a measurable goal, only then can you evaluate whether you met that goal or you didn’t meet that goal.


Q: What’s your view on PR awards? Did Genesis participate in them?

We try and participate, we have not been very active on that front but going forward, we are definitely going to participate more. I think it’s a good thing to have. I need to just see on what basis do the juries evaluate, is it just a discussion or the parameters are very stringent. It would be good to tie up with some of the international awards, and to learn from what they are doing and how they are doing it. I was on the jury of PRWeek Awards and I know the stringency with which they select the winners. I do believe that even they are not perfect but we certainly have a journey to make and we should develop much more stringent parameters.


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