Monday, April 22, 2013
Monday, July 30, 2012
Thursday, March 10, 2011
Growing Importance, Declining Values
Speech at Communications Unplugged
A TEDX Event
MICA, Ahmedabad, Gujarat
February 26, 2011
Many thanks to the organizers for this opportunity.
I’d like to talk to you this morning about the history of public relations consulting in India.
My perspective is unique.
The firm that I founded in 1987 was the first of its kind in India.
So the history of the business intersects with my own experiences in the business.
Coincidentally, it also is a history of economic liberalization in India.
Does anyone know how old the business is?
Well, it dates back to biblical times.
The first PR consultant was with Moses, when he led the Jews out of Egypt to escape the Pharaoh’s vicious rule.
Thousands of Jews followed Moses as he led the march to freedom in the “promised land.”
The flight came to a stop at the edge of the Red Sea. With the Pharaoh gaining on, his followers turned to Moses, praying for help.
“Don’t fret,” Moses told them. “I will part the sea and we will simply walk across.”
Everyone was awestruck; religious fervor rose to fever pitch. They hailed Moses as the Messiah. They swore loyalty and fealty and praised the Lord.
Among them was this public relations consultant, who spotted a huge opportunity. He went up to Moses.
“Look chief, if you pull this off, I can get you 10 pages in the Old Testament.”
By comparison, PR is relatively young in India; but the issues are similar: about right and wrong; ethics and morality.
Let’s take a closer look…
In 1988, when I had just launched IPAN, India’s first PR consulting firm, I was asked by a journalist from The Economic Times to explain the essence of public relations.
I held out two identical pencils. “The one in my left hand is made by Tata; the other by Reliance. Which would you pick?”
Guess which one the journalist picked?
Today, he may have picked neither; then he picked the Tata pencil.
Asked to explain the reason for his choice, the journalist said it was because Tata has a better reputation than Reliance.
Since neither company did much by way of corporate advertising, focusing instead on product advertising, it is clear that Tata did all kinds of things that got noticed and met with public approval.
In advertising parlance, these are known as “below the line” activities.
That, I told the journalist, is the essence of public relations.
The job of a public relations man is to persuade his client to do good things, ensure they get noticed and thus win the public trust.
One of the 20th century’s foremost public relations men was Mohandas Gandhi. As such he did not have a client but a higher cause.
His “Satyagraha" was a shrewd strategy that attracted media attention: whether he was burning passes in South Africa or making salt in India.
Familiar with the British press, parliament and courts, Gandhi knew instinctively which buttons to push.
He used the press and the courts to stir British Parliament.
Just how sophisticated was this strategy!
Gandhi figured that non-cooperation would force the colonial government to respond with violence and incarceration.
This made the front pages of British newspapers and forced Parliament to act.
In the end, Indian independence came when the differences between Parliament in London and the colonial government in Delhi became irreconcilable.
It’s too bad that India has deified Gandhi. One of the titans of the 20th century is now worshipped when he deserved to be studied.
But I digress…
I want to trace for you the growth of the business since I founded the first PR consulting firm in 1987.
PR consulting started out with a bang.
The company I founded, IPAN, was first off the block.
One early client was Pepsi that had struggled for more than two years to secure government approval to set up operations in India.
When we arrived on the scene, Pepsi had become the butt of negative stories in the press and questions in Parliament.
Beleaguered, the American company changed partners and roped in Voltas and the Punjab Agro-Industries Corporation.
From January 1988, we went to work, trying to beat back the disinformation spread about the company in the media and in Parliament.
At the time, the soft drinks industry in India was small, dominated by one player, Parle that had 80 percent of the market.
A check with the media and various politicians told us the campaign against Pepsi was orchestrated by Parle.
Our strategy then became not to reply to the negative stories but to show that the entrenched soft drinks lobby was behind the negative publicity.
We also showed that the soft drinks industry in India simply could not meet the demand and that there were huge quality issues.
Then, we highlighted Pepsi’s commitment to Punjab; that they would help farmers build a value-added business of growing potatoes and tomatoes.
Thus, we were able to demonstrate that entry of Pepsi was in the public interest.
We were able to do that once we convinced the press and the parliamentarians that the campaign against Pepsi was simply a market manoeuvre.
It took until September when the government okayed the Pepsi project.
In the flush of victory, many people told me it had to do with my equation with Rajiv Gandhi.
In fact, Voltas had a “resident director,” Anil Shastri, who went on to become the minister of state in the finance ministry.
Neither of us brought up the subject in our interactions with Rajiv.
No, the approval for the Pepsi project did not result from influence peddling.
What we did was change the focus of public debate.
The domestic sector had raised all kinds of from pseudo nationalistic issues.
We said it was just plain commercial rivalry.
We said it often and with great conviction.
Once that message sank in, we were able to tell the Pepsi story and how it would benefit India, Punjab and soft drinks industry.
Today you know how Pepsi has gone on to become a youth icon.
The company has created thousands of direct and indirect jobs, not just in bottling and distribution but also in advertising, pr and other ancillary businesses including the paanwallahs and various others in the “unorganized” sector.
A year later, there was Citibank. Its local management was charged with introducing the global consumer to India.
At the time, the sector was monopolized by public sector banks that were charged with “social banking.”
There was no sense of consumer banking: no credit cards, no ATMs, no mortgages, and no car loans.
Citibank had applied for licences but was stumped by the government banks and the Reserve Bank.
The idea was to prove to the government that the lobby against foreign banks was sheer ideological bias.
We conducted a survey that showed among the regulatory agencies, there was perceptible bias against Citibank.
Our counsel was to highlight the fact that Citibank that had done business in India since 1902 was very much part of the national agenda.
To this end, we persuaded Citibank to make a strong pro-India statement in response to the US Trade Representative’s decision to name India as an unfair trader under a new law called Super 301.
The bank’s New York public affairs unit submitted an affidavit to the USTR saying their experience was that India is a fair trader.
We gave the story as an exclusive to India’s most credible economics writer.
It made a huge splash and rapidly changed perceptions about Citibank.
In the event, the Indian government gave Citibank permission to set up their consumer operations in India.
The rest is history: what we take for granted now—credit cards, auto loans, mortgages, consumer financing—had their origins in the campaign by Citibank.
Over the years, millions of people in India were empowered: to buy cars, appliances, vacations and homes and also stocks and mutual funds and insurance.
In 1991, a young English guy came and talked to me about a pie-in-the-sky venture called Satellite Television Asia Region, now known as STAR TV.
Promoted by Richard Li, a twenty-something from Hong Kong, the satellite television venture ran into predictable opposition from the information and broadcasting ministry that had a monopoly on television.
By creating a business opportunity for small and medium enterprises, cable operators and equipment manufacturers, we advised STAR TV to challenge the government monopoly by rallying these newly-minted businesses to support them.
In a final bid to retain its monopoly, the government introduced the confused Cable and Satellite Regulation Act in 1993 with view to curb the threat to its monopoly.
We helped STAR TV rally support from cable operators and equipment manufacturers to fight against the bill’s unreasonable strictures on the cable and satellite business.
Today, there are still many flaws in the cable business, which got taken over by thugs and political goons, and has therefore languished in technological backwaters.
In the event, cable has been surpassed by organized satellite broadcasters. And we have global quality direct-to-home television.
In freeing the television business, STAR TV created thousands of jobs not just in their direct operations but in associated businesses.
Though I must add the boom in television broadcasting is not all to the good.
The news element is beset by shrill incompetence.
The entertainment business has revived all manner of traditional practices that have no place in a modern society.
On the whole, though, it has been good for the country.
These three case studies were about success in challenging monopolies.
One of the things we prided ourselves on was our involvement at the very cutting edge of change in India.
As India evolved rapidly into a consumer market, we were there.
Pepsi Citibank and STAR TV changed everything.
The Indian citizen, always beset by a scarcity mindset and a make-do culture, now had choice and abundance.
The next case study is one of which I am very proud.
In 1993, Manmohan Singh, then finance minister, was about to announce a path-breaking budget that dissolved the licence-permit raj.
The previous December, we were retained by the Indian Soaps and Toiletries Manufacturers Association to help their campaign to bring down taxes.
They told us the government was ready to slash taxes on the sector but it was important for ISTMA to handle the “fallout.”
Toiletries and cosmetics were treated as somehow not in sync with tradition.
The sector also was treated derisively by policy makers and their academic fellow travellers.
“You talk about lipstick and perfume when there so many millions in the country who can’t get a square meal.”
This was a typical rejoinder from high-minded mandarins in the bureaucracy and in the academy.
But Singh saw the merit in the ISTMA argument that reduced taxes could help the sector boom and provide jobs and additional revenue from increased sales volumes.
Our effort to handle the “fallout,” began with the prejudice issue; we asking well-known women across the country to sign a petition that said toiletries and cosmetics were in fact a part of the Indian tradition.
On the taxation issue, we made common cause with many economists who showed how lowering rates could boost tax revenues.
Finally, we worked with consumer groups such as Common Cause to highlight how high taxes bred spurious and pilfered products that posed a hazard to consumers.
It was with great satisfaction that on budget day 1993, we found the finance minister had used lines from our petition to announce a huge cut in tax rates on the sector.
Since then, as we all know, the toiletries and cosmetics business boomed.
And the boom energized the beauty sector and made India into a super power, winning back to back titles in the various contests such as Miss World and Miss Universe.
In recent times, we’ve dealt with the commissioning of the Bandra Worli Sea Link.
You may know that there were several contentious issues that swirled around the project that was built by HCC, a Bombay-based infrastructure company.
One was about delays and cost escalation.
Another was about the sustained opposition from so-called activists.
By positioning the bridge as the icon of 21st century Bombay, we gained support from the media, political leaders and prominent citizens.
Tools included a National Geographic documentary that highlighted the state-of-the-art technology.
Also the bridge was offered as a backdrop to a Times of India promo featuring Amitabh Bachchan.
We also helped the company set up an experience center at the site.
This became a good way to educate media and others about the project.
On June 30 2009, when the project was officially commissioned, political leaders, bureaucrats and prominent citizens literally fell over each other for an invitation to the function.
The Bandra Worli Sea Link is a boon to Bombay’s frazzled commuters and is an indispensable part of the city infrastructure.
It is well on the way to replacing the colonial-era Gateway of India as the icon of 21st-century Bombay.
In “breaking news,” our most recent project is the Lavasa Hill City that is coming up near Poona.
The first of its kind in independent India, Lavasa is a new-age concept that uses the principles of the “new urbanism” in which urban areas are planned so that people can live, work and play there.
Under assault from Luddite groups and an ambitious union minister, the project is currently stranded.
I can’t tell you much more than that.
Except the Lavasa project has challenged the notion purveyed by various activist groups that all development is bad.
That in fact, development is a carefully considered choice in which growth and environment need to be balanced.
In the nearly 25 years of its existence, the public relations consulting business has grown in importance.
In the early years, it played mainly an advocacy role, helping international and domestic companies pioneer new businesses in India.
Later, it became an adjunct to corporate marketing departments, focused mainly on media relations.
Now it has assumed a management function, helping newly empowered corporate communications department meet the growing demands for advocacy, media relations, media monitoring, training, cyber PR, government relations, recruitment, and CSR.
There is however a darker side to our discipline.
And it needs to be addressed squarely else we lose credibility as a 21st century discipline.
As it has grown in importance, professional values and ethics have become somewhat blurred.
This has become painfully evident in recent months.
I refer here to the telecom scam and role played in it by a PR consulting firm and its chief executive.
It is amazing that a single person, with no previous experience in the field, climbed to such dizzy heights using influence peddling techniques.
As such, she was entrusted with the responsibility to manage corporate communications for India’s two largest conglomerates.
It is even more amazing that the heads of both these behemoths heeded the advice of an untrained and inexperienced person.
The 2G scam dented many individual and corporate reputations.
My concern here is to make a clear distinction between the practice of professional public relations and the kind of influence peddling that was revealed in the scam.
We need for the profession to embrace some sort of a pledge like the Hippocratic Oath in which, among other things, the practitioner pledges “first, do no harm.”
Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011
Friday, May 21, 2010
The Oberoi Hotel, New Delhi
May 21, 2010
Thank you, Anurag and your team, for organizing this PR Summit. I hope that over the years it grows and becomes a major platform for dialog within our profession.
I have titled my remarks: “We Are Also Part of India’s Democracy.”
I have stated my SOCO up front. As PR professionals, we are as much a part of India’s democracy as we are of its economy.
But PR is also about telling stories. So I’m going to tell you a story that I hope will give you a perspective on how our business has grown and developed and the challenges it faces.
Many years ago, when I came to India to set up IPAN, I used to tell the story of how PR became the world’s second oldest profession. We all know what the oldest profession is.
It has to do with Moses, who led the chosen people out of Egypt with the Pharaoh hot in pursuit. They found themselves stranded on the banks of the Red Sea. This was a huge problem. So Moses got his core strategy team together to look at the options.
There seemed to be none. His defense guy said they should stand and fight. His finance guy, who understood the salubrious impact of money, suggested the possibility of buying them out. But in their heart of hearts, his key advisers knew only a miracle could save them.
“Don’t worry,” said Moses, “I will part the sea and we will walk across to liberty. At that point, his PR guy spoke up, “Sir, if you can do that that I will get you ten pages in the Old Testament.”
So Moses performed the miracle and got his ten pages in the Old Testament.
I told this story 20 years ago, when PR consulting was a little known business. Times were simpler but mindsets were rigid. The press (and it was just the print media those days) did not entertain any releases or information from the corporate sector. For its part, the corporate sector saw PR as a free advertising.
Meanwhile clever operators like the public sector and some private sector firms managed to play the press like a fine-tuned fiddle. Just think, the public sector delivered very little but no questions were asked. It was the holy cow. I can remember the PR strategy of a Calcutta-based public sector firm: “Kill the story and I’ll get you two tickets on the Rajdhani.”
Some private entrepreneurs also cultivated friends in the press to oppose liberalization and reform. The notorious Bombay Club fought tooth and nail against foreign investment and against any changes in the license-permit raj.
Fast forward two decades and we find that the media are friendlier; our profession is recognized in its own right and is a significant player in the fast growing economy.
Recent developments have however cast a shadow that could affect our standing. I am referring to the current media attention on the role of PR firms in influencing choices in public policy. It is not at all surprising that the telecom sector is the source of stories about corporate sleaze and government corruption.
Why do I say it is not surprising? Let me digress a little: to the early 1980s, when I lived in the US. We had formed a group called India Forum that met weekly to consider developments in India. All of us were struck by the emergence of Rajiv Gandhi. In the event, many of us including my good friend Sam Pitroda took our first tentative steps to engage with India.
Our focus was on telecom because that was Sam’s field. At the time, the sector was in a primitive state. There were not enough phones and existent phones rarely worked. It was a project to make long distance calls, impossible to get connections. In fact, it was said that the entire telecom bureaucracy made money from providing out-of-turn connections.
We took the matter up with Rajiv Gandhi. The task was to convince him that the sector was vital to economic growth and to change political mindsets that held telephones to be a luxury. As such, Rajiv put his heft behind our recommendation that India should go in for digital rather than analog technology.
The rest is history. But the baggage is still there. The telecom sector seems to be a magnet for sleaze and murkiness as the recent controversy shows. And our profession risks being stigmatized unless we make some forceful interventions.
In a recent email interview to a leading financial paper, I was asked about lobbying and what the reporter saw as concomitant sleaze. She did highlight my responses in her front-page story and I believe I may have even helped her re-look at the lobbying controversy in which it was alleged that a PR firm tried to influence the choice of telecom minister and subsequently telecom policy.
There is nothing wrong in trying to influence public policy. Indeed, in a democracy, everyone has the right, nay the duty, to challenge wrong-headed legislation or to advocate for new policies to deal with changing situations. Over the years, I have chalked up many, many case studies in which we actively influenced government decisions in areas as diverse as consumer products; financial services; cable and satellite television; power generation; water management; public health and primary education.
Our strategy was to win media support, raise the debate in various public forums and to seek out articulate spokesmen and credible third-party endorsements.
To ensure that our profession does not get besmirched by the dirt and corruption of illegal methods, we need to make the following assertions:
1. Lobbying is a legitimate activity. It does not mean the exchange of money and favors to achieve a desired outcome. Bribery and corruption are illegal.
2. Lobbying is not relevant in India because of the sheer lack of transparency in government and politics. Legislators do not have backup policy staff; bureaucrats are too control-minded to be open to legitimate suggestions.
3. An advocacy strategy may be the most effective way to influence public policy. This involves working with the media and other influentials to advocate our views to policymakers.
4. The claims in the media are wildly exaggerated. I find it difficult to believe that a PR executive can influence the selection of cabinet ministers.
5. The gratuitous remarks by civil society activists about the pernicious impact of lobbying should be dismissed out of hand. They are themselves power brokers and fixers. Their prescriptions have crippled the economy, especially in the areas of infrastructure and agriculture.
On the other hand, the media also have much to answer for. You would think triviality is the first as in the sad spectacle of Sania Mirza; Shashi Tharoor; Lalit Modi; the IPL. Obsessed with trivialities, the media and their concomitant sources, the pr guys, tend to hijack the public debate.
There are other issues such as the nexus between the marketing people of corporations and the “brand managers” in the media. Just recently, The New York Times ran a story about how the major media are selling editorial space and time.
What’s happening is a travesty. If you undermine Indian democracy, you take away a major advantage we enjoy in the world.
On the economy, while I lament the Leftist thinking that still dominates intellectual life in India; I have to say that rampant commercialism is a bad thing. If we acquiesce in “treaties” and “packages,” we are selling our profession short, making it the equivalent of advertising.
It’s not just these subversive agreements, we are all called upon to measure our contribution in terms of advertising spends.
Our profession has its roots in Mahatma Gandhi. He used an advocacy strategy in which he staged events to influence the press and the government and petitioned the courts to in order to assert his rights under the law. That defeated first, the racist government in South Africa and then the colonial British government in India.
His SOCO: it is possible to change things.
I know there is a deep-rooted cynicism in the public debate that the only way to get things done in India is to bend rules, pay bribes or resort to blackmail.
Of course, these things happen. But if we are ever going build our profession as a legitimate part, not just of the economy but of India’s loud and raucous democracy, we have to stand for skepticism not cynicism; debate and negotiation, not surrender and compromise. Above all, we must stand for transparency.
This may sound impractical given the fact that media are willing to sell editorial space for a consideration. But then, I for one did not come to India to spark the PR consulting business only to see it flounder in murk and opacity.
I repeat: our business is squarely rooted in the Gandhian tradition. This sounds so idealistic that many of you would be blameless if you think I am naïve. Thank whatever Gods there be, our founding fathers who wrote our Constitution were not cynical. Else, we would have been like Pakistan, or Iran or any of the multifarious countries who are called the developing nations.
Remember the SOCO; our profession is as much a part of our democracy as it is of the economy.
And by the way, the term SOCO was invented by my team at Hill & Knowlton in Chicago in the early 1980s.
Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
New Delhi and Bombay, India
In the 17 years that he steered IPAN to the top slot in the PR consulting profession, Mr Desai played a key role in the entry into India of Pepsi in 1988; in the launch of Citibank’s global consumer bank in 1989; in the rapid popularization of Golf, a 1990 campaign on behalf of ITC (Wills Circuit Golf); in the entry and launch of STAR TV in 1991; in the incipient technology boom for companies like Microsoft, Cisco and Intel in the mid 1990s; as also in the opening up of the telecom sector for companies such Nokia, Hughes, Alcatel, BT and BPL Mobile (the first cellular service).
Over the years, Mr Desai also established a parallel career in journalism as a columnist on public affairs. His commentaries have featured in publications all around the world including The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, The New York Times (Syndicate), The Times of India, Hindustan Times and various magazines. He is a frequent commentator on television news shows and has appeared on NDTV, CNBC, BBC and other channels. In 1999, Mr Desai authored a book, Indian Business Culture, published by Butterworth-Heinemann (Oxford) that one reviewer called “a very high level discussion of economic policy.” He wrote a weekly column for the Bombay-based Daily News and Analysis newspaper and is a member of the advisory board and contributor to Education World, a Bangalore-based magazine. He is the founding editor of India Tribune, a 30-year old community newspaper in Chicago.
Active in public affairs, Mr Desai served as media adviser to Rajiv Gandhi in the 1989 and 1991 parliamentary election campaigns. In 1993 and 1994, he was an adviser to the UNICEF representative in India and was active in the advocacy campaign to further the cause of compulsory primary education in India. In 1997, he was appointed by Sonia Gandhi, President of India’s oldest and largest political party, the Indian National Congress, to its serve as counselor in the Media Department. In 1998, he was involved in the development of the Delhi’s government’s community initiative called “Bhagidari” (partnership). An active member of the Delhi’s government’s “sister cities” project with the city of Chicago, he was the moving spirit behind the first in a series of blues and jazz concert performances by Chicago bands in Delhi.
Educated in the United States, Mr Desai’s academic credentials cover mechanical engineering at the undergraduate level plus master’s degrees in journalism and in political science. He recently completed a course titled “Intellectual Property Rights and Information Technology in the Internet Age” from the Indian Law Institute in New Delhi.