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Monday, February 10, 2003

A useful article on Public Relations - Hindustan Times

What strikes me about this debate is that in the battle of two giants, Hindustan Times and The Times of India, not only have the fundamentals of journalism been challenged but also another less-understood but nevertheless legitimate business-like public relations has been trashed. One of the contributors calls public relations a “cheaper alternative” to advertising. Just how wrong this perception is should become plain from the following:

After living in the United States for two decades, studying, teaching and practising journalism, I returned to India to set up IPAN in the late Eighties. One of our early clients was Citibank. Before the launch of their credit cards, a senior executive presented me a fact sheet that detailed the advantages of owning and using a credit card. “We need this to appear on the front-page of every business daily and the business sections of every general interest newspaper,” he told me. The Citibank offering was the first serious attempt to create a credit card business in India.
Somewhat stunned by his demand, I told him he was better off asking an advertising agency to buy space in newspapers and magazines. “We are in the news business,” I told him and explained that to make it to the front pages, we need to make front-page news.

Together, we worked out that the early users would be people who travel abroad and have experienced the credit card culture. I told him that the media would take note if Citibank could persuade Indian customs to accept credit cards in lieu of cash duty payments and if they could convince the Airports Authority to create special lounges for credit card holders in various airports. We further agreed that car owners were another target group and if Citibank could get petrol pumps to accept credit cards, it would further business prospects.

Citibank did all these things and made big news.

This was in 1990 and the rest is history. Car loans, ATMs and various other consumer financial services followed. It was the first ever instance where ordinary people, who had been beaten up by the nationalized banks, were actually empowered. In the wake of Citibank’s success, there was a boom in the automobile and the consumer durables industries — at first in the metros but rapidly in the hinterland.

That year too, a bright young executive from Hong Kong came to see me and asked if I could help him fulfill his mission. He said he represented a company called Satellite Television Asia Region (STAR) and his company’s plan was to beam television programs into India via satellite. He asked for our help in identifying potential cable operators who could transmit the signal to viewers.

We went to work and in six months STAR TV was up and running. The operation ran into all sorts of problems as the government tried to put spokes in the wheel. In the end, because it was a huge business opportunity for the cable operators and a source of entertainment and information for viewers and because we undertook a high-profile advocacy campaign on its behalf, STAR TV survived and thrived and changed the face of television in India.

In 1992, the Indian Soaps and Toiletries Manufacturers Association (ISTMA) approached my firm for help in reducing the prohibitive 120 per cent excise duty on their products. Since 1978, when the duty was first imposed, they had tried in vain to get it reduced. They had used the standard approach of advertising and lobbying.

We persuaded them to use the advocacy approach that targeted editorial space in the media. They agreed and, to cut a long story short, they succeeded. The 1993 budget reduced the duty and subsequent budgets reduced the levy even more. The boom in the business is for all to see including the fact that the industry had enough disposable income to fund India’s hugely successful foray into the Miss World and Miss Universe contests and its support of the surging fashion industry in India.

There are plenty of other stories to tell about the role of public relations in the resurgence of hope in India. Our work with Pepsi not only ensured competition in the soft drinks business but it fueled the boom in cricket. Thanks to ITC, we played a seminal role in the emergence of golf as a popular sport. Also as PR counsel to DHL, we were part of the growth of the courier business in India. We helped PVR popularize multiplex cinema in India.

Equally, we spread the word about the Internet on behalf of Cisco, the productivity of personal computers with Microsoft or the use of computers in schools through the work we did with Intel.

The entry of fixers and ‘suits’ (faux management types) into the public relations business has subverted its original advocacy role. Instead of being advocates in the court of public opinion, many of today’s practitioners operate on the margins of the great media circus. Their antics neither inform nor entertain. These poorly educated men and women “work in PR because they are outgoing and like to meet people”. They believe PR is about knowing newspersons rather than what’s news.

Over the years, thus, PR has become transformed into a commodity offering, which is why perhaps there is this debate. Increasingly, PR companies sell access to the media as their raison d’etre. I believe that this was why some media companies have responded with rates on editorial coverage. It is time for sensible journalists and public relations people to put their heads together to save both their professions from being crucified on a cross of gold.

(An edited version of this post will appear in Hindustan Times, February 2003.)