What to watch out for in PR in 2013: MSLGroup report

22 Jan,2013

Extracts reprinted with permission from Public Relations in India: Inside the Industry’s Mind and the 2013 Outlook, Published by MSLGroup India.


The public relations (PR) industry in India is on the cusp of a profound change. As it finds itself speeding past the Information Age and into the Conversation Age, its scope is expanding well beyond media relations. Its strategic value is finally being acknowledged. As businesses realise that one-way marketing communications have limited value and that engaging stakeholders through new tools like storytelling and thought leadership is the key now, PR is finally coming of age. Therefore, it is important to understand the industry’s state of mind, what it considers to be the biggest hurdles to its evolution, the greatest opportunities and how it sees itself. It is important to give the industry a voice.

It is precisely this that our report aims to do. In an industry where such studies are rare, MSLGROUP India conducted an India-wide survey – and, importantly, across the executive hierarchy – to ensure that PR practitioners have their say. From growth prospects to the way new business is being generated to the hottest new trends, the study covers it all. The results, as you will see, are heartening as well as revealing.


What to watch out for 2013

It’s been a difficult year. The economic slowdown, amplified by policy paralysis in the government and a volatile political situation, hit the PR industry hard. Communications budgets were slashed and many corporations preferred to work on ‘project’ basis rather than on retainers. Given the tough business environment, those that persisted with retainers demanded more bang for the buck.


While the PR industry managed to keep its head well above the water, 2012 was a tough year.


Will 2013 be better? Given the government’s renewed vigour for economic reform and India’s inherent economic restraints, the outlook remains optimistic despite the uncertainty created by political turmoil.


Digital communications – dominated by social media – constitute the biggest opportunity for 2013 and we’ve dedicated a separate chapter to it later in this report.


While the survey earlier in the report identified major trends, there are others that MSLGROUP India has identified.


Among those that you can’t miss is the evolution of content as a branding and communications tool. Industry experts believe that nothing sells better than a good story. However, they caution, it’s not just about telling a story but about engaging your consumer. The key, they say, is to make your story his/her own story. Storytelling is also important as the realisation grows that it’s not enough to have profit as your sole objective.


Businesses need a greater purpose. The community expects that if you’re making millions, you need to make millions happy as well. Consumers today relate to brands that show heart. Social responsibility has moved from mere support for projects to working towards social sustainability.


Brand journalism

For PR professionals, 2012 marked a widening of the scope of work and a deepening of the partnership with business leaders, decision makers and subject experts to benefit from the new wave of communications.


In 2013, more organisations will recognise the need to marry marketing with reputation management. Engagement has always been a key component of the PR business, but in the Conversation Age of today communicators are moving from monologue to dialogue.


The cornerstone of this engagement is content. Not just creating it, but also managing it. Content that informs and encourages conversations is relevant to the target audience. It is shareable and it strengthens customer loyalty. Corporations as well as PR firms are now employing teams to specifically produce high-quality content.


Shashank Sinha, general manager and head (marketing of direct sales), Eureka Forbes, said: “Communication is the fine art of ‘storytelling’. Telling a good story first involves understanding the person listening to it – their interests, worries and their lives. Listening is the first step to good storytelling. Unfortunately, most of us seem to have no time to listen. This is the key for the PR industry.”


It is the digital revolution that has changed the way companies are communicating. Consumers today ‘experience’ products and services online before buying them. From researching a product’s specifications to looking for reviews, consumers rely on the online space.


It gives them a sense of empowerment as they now have a forum to share their experiences and at the same time become influencers for a brand. PR firms are producing a variety of content, from social media campaigns to white papers and online games, to shape this consumer experience.


Earned media is now making way for owned media, enabling companies to take control of their brand story rather than relying on traditional media. CNBC TV18’s Ghosh said: “A PR agency mirrors the personality of the brand it represents and is a responsible brand custodian. The need for the agency to exhibit immense agility and alertness in today’s dynamic times is critical. As disseminators of information and trends, PR needs to always be several steps ahead and demonstrate thought leadership and innovative solutions that will help differentiate their clients’ marketing efforts in a crowded space.”


Consumer marketing and corporate reputation building will no longer be mutually exclusive as consumers have greater access to information about the companies behind the products they buy.


Globally, we have already seen several brands, such as Volkswagen, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Pepsi – as well as non-corporate ‘brands’ such as NASA – using engaging content tailored to their purposes to reach out to stakeholders.

In India, this is nascent, though automobile-to-software conglomerate Mahindra & Mahindra and the Tata Group have taken an early lead in this.


Businesses with a purpose

Carol Cone, global practice chair of Edelman Purpose, told the Holmes Report that ‘purpose’, which she defines as “an organisation’s values in action, manifest through a variety of actions ranging from materials sourcing, supply chain partners, CSR reporting, ethics and governance”, will be increasingly important in 2012, with companies focused on how purpose can be “strategically integrated and operationalised” throughout their organisations. This is expected to take on a much larger scale in 2013.


MSLGROUP’s PurPle is one such initiative. The group believes that the meaning of being a good corporate citizen has changed from Green (environment) to Blue (sustainability) to PurPle (purpose + people). Tomorrow’s successful PurPle brands will be the ones that work collaboratively with communities, governments, customers and organisations to co-create solutions to the world’s toughest problems. Moving from corporate social responsibility (CSR) to collaborative social innovation will drive more rapid and meaningful change in society and in business, because with collaboration and co-creation comes shared value and a mutually beneficial shared purpose.


The intersection of three shifts in the business environment has made it imperative for organisations to bring purpose and people together:

  •  Trust deficit: People have access to more information than ever before and there is a lack of organisational trust. In fact, trust in all organisations, including corporations and governments, is at an all-time low. Most organisations realise that corporate reputation and consumer activation are interlinked as consumers become critical of communications campaigns that are not rooted in authentic, long-term commitment.
  • People power: People have new sources of power and many believe that only they can come up with innovative solutions to our most pressing problems, not governments or corporations. Building and communicating purpose-led business strategies must put people and co-creation at the centre.
  • Quest for meaning: People are searching for meaningful connections with communities and organisations around a shared purpose and expect organisations to enable such connections. Organisations need to inspire, organise and energise all stakeholders to collaboratively work towards their shared purpose.


In the Information Age, a product doesn’t always speak for itself. The greater a company’s transparency, the more connected its customers feel. It is this connection that makes consumers believe in a brand.


Liz Kaplow, president of New York’s Kaplow Communications, said in the Holmes Report: “The modern consumer wants to know the brand behind the product and the company behind the brand – and they have the resources to find out. This means that companies now have to ask themselves ‘who are we and what do we stand for?’ Naturally, this has made authentic CSR an integral part of a company’s forward planning and initiatives.


“Authentic CSR means it is integrated into the company’s corporate DNA, so that it is evident in everything the company does. This includes marketing and social media, CEO thought leadership, employee relations, and more. Authentic CSR is not about whitewashing a company’s image. It’s about supporting humanity, being passionate about a cause, and connecting emotionally with consumers who at the end of the day want to know that companies care about the world and the people in it.”



Healthcare is expanding swiftly in terms of revenue and employment in India. According to ‘Healthcare in India – Emerging Market Report 2007’, authored by PriceWaterhouse Coopers, “during the 1990s, Indian healthcare grew at a compounded annual rate of 16%. Today, the value of the sector is more than $34 billion. This translates to $34 per capita, or roughly 6% of GDP. By 2012, India’s healthcare sector is projected to grow to nearly $40 billion. The private sector accounts for more than 80% of total healthcare spending in India.”


Globally, life expectancy is on the rise and with growing awareness about healthier lifestyles, healthcare products are striking gold. It helps that healthcare is a priority for the government


For PR companies, there lies a great opportunity to partner with healthcare firms – as well as allied verticals, such as diagnostics and pharmaceuticals – to bring about a lifestyle change in customers.


Pascal Beucler, senior vice-president and chief strategy officer, MSLGROUP, wrote: “Firms in the healthcare sector at large need to not only rediscover their social purpose, but to also put it at the core of their businesses, and to consider it when engaging with all stakeholders.”


MSLGROUP recently conducted the survey ‘You Share, We Care!’ that outlined the views of 70 managers across Europe. The importance of digital communications came out strongly in the survey. Managers were aware of its impact on their industry, and believed that companies needed to become storytellers – creating contexts to explain to people what they do, and to highlight the company’s social values. These managers want to become protagonists in the debate about health. The findings showed:


  • Nearly two-thirds of the managers interviewed thought that social media offered an opportunity.
  • Most managers believed that the web will dominate healthcare conversations in the future.
  • Patients are key stakeholders in the healthcare ecosystem, thanks to the digital revolution.
  • In this vein, 61 managers out of 70 thought that digital communication offers a great opportunity to help improve medical treatment/therapeutic adherence. Twitter, in particular, can play a role in the dialogue between doctors and patients as it represents a tool for faster connections.
  • Most managers also viewed blogs as important in healthcare communications, potentially impacting how influential doctors and key opinion leaders are on the web.


A corporate communication head (name withheld on request) observed: “Specific to healthcare, there will be more pressure because of changes in the regulations that govern the sector.


Communication will be scrutinised even more and it will be a greater challenge to drive the PR agenda using traditional media.  Building credibility will be tougher than ever.”


If high-level appointments are any indicator, the healthcare opportunity is clearly evident at a global level too. Recently, Shellie Winkler was named as MSLGROUP’s North America practice director for health and corporate practices, while Amanda Sefton was named global healthcare practice director at Ketchum. Meanwhile, US-based Finn Partners launched Finn Partners Health, a dedicated national practice led by Miriam Weber Miller, a 20-year veteran of healthcare marketing and communications.


It won’t be long before high-level appointments are made in India too to lead the healthcare practice.


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