Archive for December, 2010

December 31, 2010

2011 Trends from Inc.

Very interesting and intriguing, particularly the smashing of Facebook, the growth of e-commerce and the way websites are pushing for sale, rethinking retail, and above all the ‘double bottomline’ which is to look not just at financial success but brand social commitment and the value rendered through this.

December 23, 2010

"Crony Capitalism"? Incorrigible Capitalism?

In the Economic Times (20.12.10) Arun Maira, Member Planning Commission and a management consultant wrote a lead article on “representative institutions” and “participative processes”. The problem with these articles is that a great deal of theoretical cogitation goes on in them,  some analysis which is almost like a revisit, but no new intellectual pathways are created. I guess the same could be said of those of us who have the temerity to blog on these matters!!

The burden of this article is that more economic reform is needed to give business the freedom to self regulate itself. A grand idea if ever there was one. As far back as one can remember, those of us who came into regular contact with the corporate world and had to deal with the fallout of their sundry ‘misdemeanours’, we felt that hiding behind statutory requirements was never enough. Going beyond what was mandated to set a more ethical, more caring, more concerned and even a more humane behavioral framework that took the real needs of ALL stakeholders into account, was a moral reponsibility.

Arun Maira quotes Richard Reich from his book ‘Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy and Everyday Life’  that democratic societies must have strong institutions to represent stakeholders. In the world today the economies that are sustaining themselves adequately are those where institutions exist that can support the representation of diverse interests and work for consensus. Theoretical analysis of the reasons why self interest is the ruling motivator of the business world in India is good but not enough.

I fully endorse his view that ” Policies and plans must not be made by the government for industry as it used to be in the license raj. They must be made with industry.” Business must participate. Industry associations must see this as a core mandate. All other stakeholders must be brought into the mix.  Stakeholder representation and a common platform should be used to move the government in a direction that works for business and the public. This could perhaps lead us out of the current morass into something closer to enlightened capitalism.

December 23, 2010

Public Relation, Public Affairs…..Whatever. Who takes us seriously?

The ambition was to position us as central players and respected partners in a company’s quest for a great brand reputation and a shining brand image.

Some twenty year down the line most of us are still measuring column centimetres of free media space. Public relations delivery and impact is measured by the thickness of the monthly clippings dossier. Today, our only measure of success is the advertising cost equivalent of media coverage. We have earned no respect in all this time and we are still seen as back room flunkies who will do as they are told.

In all these year we have failed to establish the value of public relations communication as a business tool. We have said “Yes” when we should have “No” to unworkable short term ‘get me more media’ fixes. We have failed to establish with client companies the meaning and value of “strategic” advice.  

The first generation of PR experts in India were people who made lateral shifts into this profession largely from media and advertising. It was learning through trial and error. There were no templates anywhere in the world that were significantly better one from the other. Those of us who spent time in multinational PR organizations knew this to be true even if some international colleagues erroneously believed they had a lot to teach the natives.

Did we do enough to create a talent pool that could take our learnings to the next level of proficiency? Not really. While our challenges in the market have grown, our talent pool has not grown. We will likely see more and more expats taking over as the multinational PR firms, almost all of whom are now in India, with more waiting to enter. It will be interesting to see how they meet the challenge of low value, high volume media coverage being the only game in town! Although it must be said that media relations continue to be core to all PR programs anywhere in the world. BUT….they are not as poorly paid and DO NOT form the core of the business/brand communication strategy.

How much longer will we continue with this street level scrabbling for low value, high volume media relations work that clients throw at us?

This piece is intended to be an invitation to all PR professionals to come together to frame the issues which must be fed and shaped so that we move forward towards consensus on where to take the PR industry in India.

December 16, 2010

If you have the clout, you can flout any rule

Anyone who says Indians are new to ‘lobbying’ or that they need the US to teach us how to lobby just needs to think back to the days of the licence raj. The lessons learnt in those days by the minions who roamed the corridors of power knocking on doors for favours heaving large cases filled with money must be laughing at the fuss being made today over the 2G fiasco. As some of the largest business houses in India openly claim getting and receiving government favours through payment of money is no big deal. It has always been done. And chances are it will continue to be done.
Business interest versus the current regulatory framework, when neither need be in the interest of the people, is a social tragedy growing into almost unmanageable proportions.

In the recent 2G imbroglio every question was asked except the right one. Why was lobbying needed? But there are no answers forthcoming.

Naive of me to even ask it, some would say, because don’t we know that democracy is a multilayered political and social construct, made up of warring vested interests, with multiple groups jockying for power and position and so ‘lobbying’ is inevitable. Therefore legalize it and provide a framework and lay down rules and regulations. Other countries have these regulations and every one there is happy with the civilized way in which business lobbies government. Really? Unless of course what we mean here is that in a legalized setup we at atleast know who the players are, where are they playing, whose facilitating who is obstructing and how the other shoe will drop.  And certainly it becomes easier for everyone to speed up the process of give and take! 

As the triangulation of company, bureaucrat and lobbyist plays out, sitting in the middle confused and dismayed and perplexed and eventually angry is the common citizen. Every time government and business collude in this manner – and it is collusion of the worst kind – what is destroyed is the good of the people, the very constituency for whom both exist.

Media are either making headlines and selling more copies or writing long articles on how lobbying should be made ‘legitimate’ as if an activity which is in essence no more or less than a company or two or an industry asking government to revise policies which are probably completely outdated and not in the public’s interest.

Industry associations believe thay are best equipped to take on this interface. And they are probably right. Large corporate groups believe they have a god given right to buy out politicians if they can. And they do with impunity. Journalists who have always seen public relations people as dogs with no teeth are suddenly found collaborating with drooling haste. Media, the keepers of the nation’s conscience, are no longer concerned with right and wrong but what will sell the paper next day. Since they have all been converted into commercial products their responsibilities to the public seem to have changed. What a mess!

And what should We the People do in the meantime? Stop buying propducts and services from dishonest, unethical conniving business houses for a start.

Finally: is lobbying another name for funding political activity since there is no legal way for business to contribute to political parties? So if the players in the 2G scam understood the dynamics of this situation and then played out the game as per their rules the only loser here was the Rule of Law.

December 12, 2010

Brand in Crisis……Shut Down Media

Is that all it will take to get the brand out of trouble? No. So why do so many senior experienced management executives want this done FIRST?

A brand crisis is not in the first instance a communication problem. It is a corporate problem with technical and functional components. 

There is a class of vulnerabilities that requires very high-level strategic business decisions to fix at a very high cost. There are others that need localized adjustments at minimum cost. And there are a host of others that fall somewhere in between. All such points of vulnerability are potential ‘crises’. Unfortunately when big brands invest in brand building, they do not spend any money or not enough to audit and track inherent vulnerabilities, or emerging stakeholder concerns or shifts in the social, economic environment where points of stress are created. Each and every one of these points has the potential of pushing the brand into a CRISIS.
The role of communication during a brand crisis sits inside a far bigger circle that includes issues such as management culpability, concern with business ethics, concern for consumers, honesty with other stakeholders.
Crises can be anticipated. Plans can be made to handle each in a strategic way. Crises that occur through lack of anticipation and are then mismanaged through lack of planning are misfortunes, which a company calls upon itself. Lack of crisis planning constitutes criminal corporate negligence. 
Remember the public threshold for tolerance on corporate culpability is narrowing fast and as consumer sophistication grows and the right to information plus the right to a fair exchange of value become entrenched in the general consciousness, companies have to accept that they can get away with almost nothing. The litigant stakeholder is about ready to arrive in India, if she isn’t already here. Moreover the ‘ethical’ consumer has already arrived. Loyalty to brands embroiled in controversy is fast eroding and will soon begin to have impact on sales. 
Ironically, in a crisis you have the potential to do two things equally well: completely destroy the reputation you built over years of careful corporate action and articulation or add greater luster to an already bright corporate reputation through saying the right things at the right time. I think we need to recognize, without meaning to sound at all cynical, that in a crisis to be seen to be doing the right thing is as important as to do the right thing. 
Most often within an hour of an “adverse” occurrence and even before senior management is fully aware, the media is already on the job of seeking answers to tricky questions. Often what goes into an first holding statement is an insult to even the most gullible. PR professionals contribute to this insult by helping companies write “smart” inanities that are supposed to parry questions and curb curiosity. At the minimum this initial communication must accept, acknowledge and/or state just what has happened and inform about the first set of actions the company has taken.  
At the end of the day how engaged we appear to be with the problem that we know affects stakeholder groups, how intelligently we conduct this dialogue between the brand and its well wishers as well as its enemies is the true test of a well managed crisis communication plan. Did we get the benefit of the doubt? Were our explanations accepted?
December 12, 2010


Many a morning I have opened a business newspaper and have been startled – to put it very mildly – by a front page story on a client which to the best of my knowledge had no basis in reality. On investigation in almost all instances the story went as follows:
Reporter calls company’s CEO: “I have some significant news about your company, I cannot reveal my sources, I want to speak to you or your Finance Director right now or in the next half hour to confirm or deny. I file my story this evening in any case.”
CEO replies: “ Please speak to our PR representatives.”
CEO tells PR firm: “This Reporter will be contacting to you. We want you to make sure he does not put this story out tomorrow. We are not ready to talk. Some critical details are still being worked and we need to get a sign off from the board. We need five more days. And we would prefer to share this news more widely rather than run with an exclusive. In five days, post the general release I would like you to arrange a meeting with this writer. Just make sure this happen.”
The PR firm goes into a tailspin. They of course had no idea that any such thing was brewing in the company. In house corporate communications never said a word. Chances are they did not know themselves.
So now it is between the PR executive and the reporter. These two know each other very well but this time their confrontation is likely to be bitter and pointless. The reporter sees most PR executives as “miserable blockers”, the executives see all such uncompromising reporters as “irresponsible.” So the evening comes and goes with a lot of phone calls back and forth and many tough words. The next morning the front page has the story as promised. The leading business daily is the only paper with this news. This is a scoop. Unfortunately much of it is inaccurate and premature.
The CEO is now up in flames. And burning with him is his Finance Director. In essence this is embargoed information. How did it get out? Media moles inside the company? Entirely possible. Moles inside the regulatory body? Completely possible. Net result however, a scoop but not the whole truth.
The CEO rings up his favorite scapegoat, the head of the PR firm and blasts away. The PR firms rings up the reporter and says that the company has just told them that what was published is almost all entirely incorrect. They will now be sending out a general release to set the record straight. When the real story comes out your paper will have to carry a rejoinder since you did not carry the real facts.
When the real story is told there are elements of truth, some incorrect figures some faulty assumptions but directionally all there. So the paper is satisfied that it was not entirely wrong. The company is angry at the inability of its PR firm to manage the media. The PR firm wonders whether they should be entertaining this writer some more. The writer is probably unfazed as is the editor….rejoinders can be given on page thirteen.
My question to the media is: can scoops, speculation and sensationalism be managed a little differently?
My plea to CEOs is: could we at least consider some of the urgent demands of media with greater alacrity, because often we hide behind embargoes when we don’t need to.
My words of caution to corporate and other moles is: this strategy of keeping key media persons on your side can turn around and bite you one day when you least want it.
Question: do the new breed of debate and discussion based television programs have a point to make?
On the face of it they appear to be in a shocking state of incoherence. Powerful subjects, strong charismatic anchors and yet a viewer is often left with an impression of almost non-stop babble. The thrusting and parrying and finger pointing make for incredible drama but little or no intellectual sense. Could it be that the participants are chosen only for their public profile and less for their argumentation and articulation skills?