Campaign India Team
Aug 26, 2010

"New media requires a continuing dialogue"

Deepak Jolly, Coca-Cola’s VP for public affairs and communications pushes for sustainability, finds Gunjan Prasad

Spending a couple of hours with Deepak Jolly was as good as taking an intensive crash course in public relations. The interaction was peppered with various case studies and anecdotes from Jolly’s work life, with one common thread running through all of them i.e “How PR had saved the day!”

With over 26 years of experience in public relations, Jolly has worked in diverse sectors including the FMCG, hospitality and service industries. Currently, he heads the public affairs and communications function for India and South-West Asia at Coca-Cola India. There is little in the world of public affairs that he hasn’t encountered; as he likes to say, “I’ve been there and done that…several times over.”

For instance, a recent offensive launched by the Kerala government that blamed Coca-Cola India to have inflicted harm to farming and environment at Palakkad by dumping solid waste, did not get Jolly jittery. “It was just another routine issue on yet another regular day at work for us,” says Jolly. “That said, the way companies respond to controversies has undergone a complete change. From a one-way, high-handed communiquй sent out by an indifferent corporate communications department to the select media, the communication now is polite, immediate and very interactive.”

For the last five years, Jolly has been a part of the leadership council for Coca-Cola India; leading communication initiatives and engagements with various NGOs and activists on issues relating to the soft drinks industry. He joined Coca-Cola at a time when the company was facing formidable community resistance due to the ‘pesticide’ issue. “From a PR point of view, those were possibly the worst times Coca Cola India has seen. However, for public affairs professionals it was a hands-on lesson on how to add value when the company is on an absolute low,” reminisces Jolly.

His relentless engagement with opinion makers, regulatory bodies, media and industry bodies led to a successful mitigation of crisis. He has also been instrumental in expanding the role of corporate communications in general to include areas such as reputation management, crisis management, public policy, corporate social responsibility and consumer response. “Sustainability is the new buzz word in the world of public affairs and a vital job responsibility of an evolved PR person,” says Jolly. “Coca Cola has dedicated itself to environmental protection as a business priority and its corporate social responsibility.”

Jolly has spearheaded a number of water conservation and clean water initiatives such as rainwater harvesting, check-dams and rejuvenation of historic water bodies. He has also mobilized communities with a team of specialists in seven states in India through a 360-degree stakeholder engagement using communication tools for creating awareness as a part of his current assignment. The partners include gram panchayats, State & Central Water Boards and NGOs such as UN Habitat, ICRISAT and Red Cross, amongst others. “All public affairs professionals should develop subject matter expertise. In order to inform and engage with stakeholders, we must understand the issues affecting the industry as well as the business objectives of our companies. Partnering with NGOs, advocacy organisations and third parties is crucial to meaningful collaboration and dialogue.” Under his aegis, Coca-Cola India was recently adjudged the Organization of the Year for PR Excellence by the Public Relations Council of India.

After setting up best practices in all verticals in India and South West Asia, Jolly now heads the Centre of Excellence on reputation management for Coca Cola’s Eurasia and Africa group which comprises 90 countries. He has, indeed, come a long way from his first job as a management trainee with ITDC.

An alumnus of Indian Institute of Hotel Management, Delhi, Jolly cut his PR teeth at Meridian Hotel Delhi; a job that got him hooked to public relations in a big way. “Meridian at that time was shrouded in controversy. In the midst of turbulent times, I discovered my hidden talent of people management,” smiles Jolly.

His obvious flair with people came into use yet again as he took up a challenging role of a corporate communications manager at Hindustan Lever Ltd. “India was still in early stages of liberalization and all acquisitions received a lot of flak from everyone. In the socialist India, most MNCs were equated with the erstwhile East India Company and the public affairs department handled the arduous task of educating and converting not just consumers but also the government officials, investors, opinion makers and the media,” says Jolly. “Those were heady times at HLL, the highlights being the TOMCO merger; buying out of Kissan; launch of Walls, Lipton-Brook Bond merger; Ponds merger, etc.”

In 1995, Jolly joined Pepsi as its corporate communications head. “We felt like the change agents; ushering the country from a pre to a post liberalisation era,” says Jolly. “At Pepsi I learn that integration is crucial. Communications management requires more than just traditional PR approaches. Integration between public relations, marketing, advertising, brand management, CSR, and corporate reputation must go hand in hand.”

Just before joining Coca-Cola India, Jolly did a two year stint with Bharti Tele-Ventures, once again witnessing a metamorphosis of sorts of rural and urban India that came with the telecom revolution. “The kind of response we received from each part of the country where we went to launch Airtel was over-whelming,” says Jolly. “Bharti had a flock of best talent working toward a common goal of connecting India.”

On being asked about his comfort with the new media, Jolly says, “The essence of public relations is trust that people have in media, companies, governments and influential citizens. Now, with the emergence of new media, people have started trusting their peers and friends more than anyone else and thus new media, specially the social media, becomes a very important channel for PR professionals.”

“The new media requires a continuing dialogue. The traditional campaign approach that has a start and end date is now finished as once you begin a social media conversation around your brand, you have to continue and maintain the relationship,” he says.

2005 VP, public affairs and communications, Coca Cola India

2003

Director, corporate communications, Bharti Tele-Ventures2002

Executive VP, Godfrey Philips1999

Executive VP, corporate communications, PepsiCo India1995

Head, corporate communications, Pepsico India1994

Sales manager, HLL, key accounts1991

Communications manager, Mumbai, HLL1988

Assistant resident manager, HLL1987

PR manager, Meridian Hotel1985

Assistant manager, F&B ITDC1984

Management trainee, ITDC

Source:
Campaign India