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PR Speak - Interview with Vinod G Nair, Managing Director, Clea Public Relations
11 September, 2008

"PR is not public relations. In India, it only stands for ‘press relations’. And this too is a misnomer, because it is not about relations at all, but is closer to the ‘sales’ function… Even today, the majority of queries or new business enquiries we get has to do with how much media, where all, when, which page…? Top management meetings with us are about the quantity and quality of media coverage. The truth is that the client or the CEO has no clue whatsoever about what value the function or the corporate communication person can add."

Maverick, pioneer, upstart, irreverent, aggressive, bohemian, genius – are some of the platitudes that have been conferred on Vinod G Nair in the last 15-odd years. At the age of 26 he became the youngest CEO of any PR agency in the country. Clea grew to become the largest PR agency in the country and is credited with having pioneered numerous new dimensions and introduced many industry first practices and initiatives in the PR field. Recently, he was chosen as one of the 100 Most Admired Professionals in India and was also awarded the Communication Professional of the Year 2006 Award. He is on the board of directors of over eight listed companies and is on the advisory boards of various institutes and educational institutes. 

In 2000, he became the first independent producer and promoter of music and artists in India, when he promoted India’s first boy band, Band of Boys. He is also the lyricist for all their songs and also writes lyrics for Bollywood films. In 2004, Nair moved into film direction and production when he directed the film ‘Inspector Khatri’ for Zee Television. Currently, he is working on two more Bollywood film projects as director and also on a number of television serials for various channels. 

In June 2005, Nair launched his signature eatery called Nair’s Kitchen in Bandra (Mumbai). This outlet is the first in a chain of low priced eateries that he is planning to launch across Mumbai. Apart from this, he is currently writing his maiden book, a ‘romantic thriller’ set in the myriad bylanes of the great cities of India. He is also working on the screenplay of his dream film project, which he hopes to launch in 2009. 

In this hard-hitting interview with exchange4media’s Pallavi Goorha, Nair minces no words about what ails the PR industry in India and how corporates have under-used or sidelined this industry for long.

Q. How has PR industry evolved over the years?
A. Awareness and acceptance wise, the industry is slowly gaining recognition as an important standalone tool for communication. But at the same time, in terms of its capabilities, depth of utilisation/ contribution to the brand-building or image management process and usage as a strategic business tool, the industry is still struggling to find its feet. Despite its accelerated evolution over the past 10 years, PR is still used only to generate media coverage. Till the time that PR finds its true status as a planning and strategic tool, its evolution is going to be an ongoing and probably never-ending process.

Q. What, according to you, is the outlook of PR in India and globally? 
A. The market in India is immense, thanks to the growing economy and our integration with the world. Hence, one can expect high growth rates in the coming 8-10 years, specialisation into different verticals, movement of qualified professionals into the field, increased penetration into medium and small sized cities, creation of standard operating procedures and templates to address communication needs, greater investments into knowledge banking, larger autonomy and respect for the practitioners with freedom to actually implement what they feel is right and needed. 

The Indian PR profession is plagued by a unique problem vis-à-vis its talent pool. On one end (mostly at the top management level), it has highly capable and qualified people, and on the other end (middle level and lower level), it has absolute riff-raff made up of under-qualified, untrained and incapable resources. Therefore, there is a strong possibility that the profession will begin to attract foreign manpower (expats) as well as Indians returning after their studies abroad. Management graduates are the need of the hour and there is hope that they will soon find the field challenging as well as a lucrative career option. 

With more and more Indian companies looking beyond the borders to make their presence felt, overseas PR by Indian PR firms is a trend waiting to happen. Indian PR firms setting up operations in Europe, the US and other Asian countries is an eventuality. New York, London, Singapore, Canada, Dubai, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Switzerland, South Africa, Latin America, Pakistan, Tokyo, Germany, Spain, etc., are countries that are ripe for Indian PR agencies to spread out to. 

Increased acceptability and respect in the form of higher retainers and fees, which would translate into higher remuneration for its personnel, leading to better quality of manpower and, therefore, better PR is what the future of Indian PR has to be.

Q. Would you agree that PR is primarily considered as only media relations? How can the industry move away from this common belief? 
A. PR is not public relations. In India, it only stands for ‘press relations’. And this too is a misnomer, because it is not about relations at all, but is closer to the ‘sales’ function. A good salesperson will make an excellent PR professional in today’s context of PR in India. 

How can we move away from this? I can probably write a book and so can many other professionals like me. But we will all be espousing ‘theoretical’ routes and philosophies. Make PR more tangible and measurable, get in better manpower that can add more value, improve systems and processes… 

In my opinion, there are two absolutely essential steps that this industry needs to take to gain acceptance as a value creating service (not value adding or contributing). Firstly, it needs to garner self-confidence unto itself. If we do not believe in our own capability, then how can we expect others to believe in us? If all our lives we are letting ourselves be used as media coverage facilitators and nothing else, then that is what we are going to remain. At the senior level, we are happy with the fact that we rub shoulders with CEOs and managing directors. We feel pleased when clients call us for a meeting or two where we express our opinion on issues and plans and initiatives that they are planning. They listen and promptly forget. 

How many of our opinions or counsel are really implemented or tried out, other than those related to editorial media? Should it be a press conference or an interview that should be used as a tool or should there be a launch event? On issues such as these, the client will probably listen to us, but what about more important issues? Issues that are unrelated to media coverage, but involve the brand or the corporate as a whole? In our heart of hearts, we need to accept that there is very little that we say or advise that gets listened to.

Q. Ok, so that is the state of affairs, but what are you doing about it? 
A. We still give our advice and still attend the meetings and still provide services to the clients. We still pretend to be happy and satisfied with our work and defend our contribution and importance in the overall scheme of corporate success. The problem is that we don’t fight. The problem is that we don’t assert ourselves. The problem is that we don’t insist upon being given the opportunity to prove that we are right. The problem is that we do not take the risk of a showdown. 

Advertising has a budget, HR has a budget, marketing works on budgets – all of which are planned and allocated on a year-on-year basis. But, does PR have a budget? Can any brand or client stand up and say that they have allocated a budget for PR activities? The truth is – no. And we professionals have been unable to assert our right to be given this privilege. This is our failure and this is why we will always be editorial space realtors. Can we not assert ourselves more? Can we not say no to those clients who want to use us as brokers for column centimetre output? Can we not demand that we be utilised better? 

Secondly, we need to come together as an industry to educate the client. What value we can add, what role we can play, what should be our scope of work, how can the client get the best out of our services and capabilities, etc. This will go a long way in helping the industry and the profession gain respect, stature and acceptance beyond being editorial brokers. Even today, the majority of queries or new business enquiries we get has to do with how much media, where all, when, which page…? Top management meetings with us are about the quantity and quality of media coverage. The truth is that the client or the CEO has no clue whatsoever about what value the function or the corporate communication person can add. If you take a look at the list of services that a PR agency offers, you will find terms such as Image Management, Perception Management, Stakeholder Relations, Corporate Reputation Management, Brand Reputation Management, Issue Management, Public Affairs, Change Communication, Market Entry Strategies… and so many more bewildering terms. What percentage of our revenues come from all these services as opposed to the single service called Media Coverage (I am not even calling it Media Relations)? The truth is – 99 per cent. Ergo, the need is client education. 

Q. Coming to broader issues, where would you say the PR industry stands today? 
A. The market in India is immense, thanks to the growing economy and our integration with the world. Hence, one can expect high growth rates in the coming 8-10 years, specialisation into different verticals, movement of qualified professionals into the field, increased penetration into medium and small sized cities, creation of standard operating procedures and templates to address communication needs, larger autonomy and respect for the practitioners with freedom to actually implement what they feel is right and needed. As of today, the industry is desperately seeking good people, good clients, respect and better remuneration. 

The truth is that good PR professionals are better than the best management consultants. This is because not only do they understand the business of business – including corporate finance, marketing, brand building, employee relations and HR, industrial relations, investor relations, management decision making, policy formation, corporate governance, legal issues, ethical issues and bottomline management – we also understand the business of communication. This makes us well-rounded professionals, who can, if called upon, analyse, study and provide educated inputs for every single aspect of running a business or managing a brand. Yet, we are paid less than an advertising agency and are considered tactical service providers who are nothing but a support function. This is not true for the West or for other developed economies where PR professionals are board members and are considered valuable allies who can help the management perform better.

Q. Essentially, what is the key communication plank for Clea PR? 
A. Clea has many USPs over any other PR firm. What kicks me the most is the fact that the CEOs and senior people of most PR firms in India are ex-Clea. This, despite Clea being one of the younger players when you look at the top PR firms. What this implies from a client perspective is that Clea has the best manpower and professionals who are trained and made into cutting-edge service providers. 

Secondly, over the years we have developed some of the most sophisticated and scientific tools that help a client measure the effectiveness of the communication they do through PR and help them to actually quantify the impact. Service Excellence, Media Exposure and Effectiveness, Editorial Share of Voice, EOTS, and so many more quantitative measures have been developed in-house, which remove any doubt that a client may have that PR is intangible or does not work. 

Clea is the mother-lode for all systems and processes that every agency in this country follows today. Despite the entry of international firms and their know-how, most firms still follow the templates and systems that were introduced by Clea and continue to swear by them. Hence, once again, from a client’s perspective, he gets the original thought process and the best strategic inputs for his communication needs. 

Fourthly, Clea has the most extensive network of over 45 branches across the country that cover every significant media centre. Every state capital, every large town and city that is of any communication significance is part of Clea’s network. And unlike what many firms may claim, this network is not through associates or stringers or third parties. It is a Clea-owned network and, therefore, that much more committed, accountable and effective. 

Recently, Clea has developed one of the most effective online servicing systems that help a client monitor, measure and plan a PR campaign. Called ICICLES, this system is a world-first. 

Q. What kind of vision have you outlined for your agency? 
A. Clea will be India’s most expensive PR Firm and will choose whom it wants to work for. Clea will continue to act as the training ground for all those people who want to learn the art and science of PR. Clea will neither be the best nor the most admired nor the largest – it will be the most coveted firm for clients and the most hated firm for its competitors.

Q. What are the new developments taking place in the field of PR? What are the future challenges? 
A. While most people may disagree with me, in my opinion, the PR profession in India is not developing. On the contrary, it is regressing. While the Top 10-12 firms may be making a lot of effort to take PR in India to its next level, their efforts are negated and probably overwhelmed by lack of effort from the vast majority that constitutes the smaller PR firms. As I have said earlier, the market is growing at a tremendous pace, but this not because the PR profession is getting better. It is due to the fact that the Indian economy has grown and the business climate is positive. Brands are spending and, therefore, want more and more avenues to spend. The media space has been booming with new channels, publications and radio. Internet is permeating slowly and steadily. All these bode well for the PR industry as they create the demand for our services. So, like many other industries, we too are riding piggyback on the boom. Our efforts to grow the industry have been minimal at best. 

The biggest challenge of the future would be to sustain this growth. Even as I speak, the Indian economy is shaking and forecasts are gloomy. The inflation monster can swallow entire sectors. There would be nothing to piggyback on. Therefore, how do we build our own momentum such that our services and contribution are valued enough to be able to survive budget cuts, lower corporate bottomlines and the doomsday razor. Obviously, this can only be done if we are able to deliver value to our clients beyond mere media exposure and contribute to his core business and not just to his communication needs. This is the time and this is the opportunity. 

For this, the biggest imperative is talent. We need to train our people across all levels and make them into thorough professionals who can create value for the clients. We need to set aside our egos and come together to address this issue on a war-footing. I know of many professionals who, given half a chance, would willingly leave this profession and devote the rest of their lives in training and preparing well-rounded professionals. So would I. So what prevents us from coming together? Consider this a clarion call.

Q. Do you think PR firms or corporate communications departments of various companies in India have been able to handle crisis communication effectively? Could you give some specific examples?
A. Yes, most crises have been handled admirably and with magnificent skill. To find this out, all you need to do is to scour through the newspapers of the past one year. Read the breaking news and exposes and controversies that have been reported. What happens post this initial reportage. The issue is dead and gone. This is crisis management! 

An ineffective BMC (Mumbai Municipal Corporation) that cheats and fools its taxpayers year after year, corrupt politicians and political parties, ineffective state leaders who amass disproportionate wealth and suck the life blood of this country, corrupt bureaucrats, scam-tainted businessmen, share manipulating corporates and business houses, fraudulent companies, non-performing corporates that still garner attention and media space, hundreds of family managed groups that have eroded their historical wealth over the years but still have the respect of the media and the people, scam-tainted stock brokers, free-roaming murderers, corporators, criminals, conmen, etc., are living proof of the fact that PR firms and corporate communication departments and professionals are highly successful in managing crisis. Of course, it helps that the media is a self-involved and a morally corrupt entity that abets this crisis management.

Q. In these competitive times, it has become very difficult to retain highly skilled staff. What role can PR play in stemming attrition? 
A.Communication between the employee and his/her boss, the management and its employees, inter-department and cross-functional communication, etc., are keys to harnessing employee loyalty. While it is true that ‘money’ can take anybody away and that no amount of ‘soft incentivising’ can hold an employee back, one cannot say that these ‘soft incentives’ do not work. A PR consultant can help study these communication nodes and define better communication, improve communication effectiveness, set in systems and processes that will neutralise ‘negative’ communication and help to build an overall ‘positive sentiment’ about working in an organisation. While a large part of this will be done in partnership with the HR department, there are portions that need the involvement of the top management, divisional heads, nodal opinion points, influence propagators, and the like. 

The role of a PR firm or a corporate communication professional is to build ‘pride of belonging’ through communication. Unfortunately, most corporate communication professionals I have met are so unrecognised and so frustrated with their own lot that they themselves do not have a ‘pride of belonging’. The fact that they are used as mere ‘media brokers’ and/or quasi admin personnel leaves them with a bitter feeling inside, which, given their communication skills, they are able to communicate better than most. Corporates should take note of this. There’s nothing more dangerous for a company than a disgruntled corporate communication person! Not only is he or she unhappy, but has the capability to influence others into a similar state.

Q. What has been your most exciting experience? 
A. In retrospect, everything has been exciting. At that moment, everything was tension, pressure and fraught with possibilities of failure. In my mind, nothing stands out, yet everything stands out. In essence, I suppose the entire profession has been exciting.