Campaign India Team
Jul 01, 2013

PR agencies morphing to keep their share of the pot: PR360Asia

‘Grappling’ was the word of the day; ‘No choice but to tackle new technologies’: Mahindra’s Roma Balwani

PR agencies morphing to keep their share of the pot: PR360Asia

The rapid expansion of social media and advances in technology have brought about a sea-change in the PR industry. With PR definitions sitting in morphing spaces due to those, clients and agencies alike are reshaping their businesses and mindsets to accommodate this change.

"Each of us are grappling with the new environment," said Roma Balwani, chief group communications officer at Mahindra Group. "Social media is bringing reputation management to the forefront of our engagement with the audience. We also have no choice but to tackle the new technologies."

An inflection point in public relations is redefining roles in a significant manner. "Communication strategies will impact even company acquisitions, and social media makes it all the more complex," she added. "Now it's not just about a PR professional managing social media, but managing a business perception. We have to make sure we are not looking at just one dimension of PR."

PR as a discipline, in the traditional sense, is becoming complicated. Since 2008, agencies are seeing deterioration of trust in corporations and authorities, leading to a seismic rise in scepticism. "In the old days, we used a triangle model in traditional PR, but now the dispersion of trust makes what we do more challenging," said David Brain, president & CEO for Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa at Edelman.

The erosion of trust means PR agencies need to address problems in society at a deeper level, and they need high-calibre people for that, said Stephen Thomas, group head of corporate communications at AIA. "The world doesn't need more PR people; it needs better ones."

Better PR people, to Thomas, means talents that are commercially minded. Brain agreed. "To sit in with the CEO regularly, that requires PR people to have an understanding of business and not just communications," he said. "The grappling we have to do in our agency is recognising that our business has to change in fundamental ways, and asking are we ready for that?"

Understanding what drivers impact PR value is no longer enough; being able to tie it to tangible business outcomes is important, added Rachel Catanach, senior vice president cum senior partner and managing director at FleishmanHillard. "The higher calling is for us to be solvers of business problems," she said.

According to Thomas, AIA is "entering a very happy place" where public relations is considered a fundamental management competency by the C-suite. "Rather than being at the end of the business planning process, we're at the beginning," he said. "It's a sweet spot to be in."

But Thomas warned the sweet spot may become sour if PR agencies forget business objectives when they are blinded by the lights of social media. "So I don't think being on every single social-media platform is right for every company," he said.

Balwani emphasised the significance of business knowledge, describing the time when Mahindra was trying to enter the US and sparked the beginning of a three-year communication strategy that incorporated more than just social media. "I have to learn about legal processes so whenever I make a statement in public, my words are all legally acceptable," she said. "Only when you have the business knowledge, then can you become a strong PR voice."

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