Opinion: Why PR in India must grow up

Girish Balachandran, chief strategy officer at Avian Media, says its time Indian PR agencies took themselves more seriously, and lists three ways how.

Girish Balachandran
Girish Balachandran

It’s time we stopped obsessing with the pimples. Our biggest challenge in India is right here in front of the mirror – how we view ourselves. Like second class citizens in the marketing mix. To be told what brands want to do and how much they’ll pay us for it.

We’ve allowed ourselves this fate through years of scavenging at the bottom of the food chain delivering ‘coverage’ and patting ourselves on the back for creating some semblance of an industry we call PR – our profession.

It’s time for a more confident approach. We are in the business of ideas. Good ideas help brands connect with customers by creating a sense of belonging and a unique way of being.

Bad ideas focus on measurability through AVEs, page views, shares, tweets and retweets to draw conclusions on brand impact, making communications a commoditised industry. It’s this aspect that is easy to strip out and cost up on a time-based model.

But how we do put a fair price on a campaign like ‘Tobacco Free Bihar,’ conducted by the Cancer Awareness Society, that’s helping deliver generational change around a challenging issue? The truth is we don’t.

The truth is every year, the PR industry in India squanders away thousands of ideas in pitches with the strategy being given away for free. If that’s not enough, we’ll even throw in a free market audit.

Should consultancies still charge clients fees based on timesheets or are we, as an industry, ready to embrace a new world view on pricing? One that puts a premium on ideas.

Ideas that help brands stand for something relevant for stakeholders. Ideas that are based on insights that connect with a basic human truth that moves people and helps shape a culture.

Here are three ways to begin:

1) Ideas first, channels next 

It's not PR and/or digital. In India, even with the bulk of our population in rural markets, the all-pervasive nature of the mobile revolution means we're learning how to reach consumers through offline and online channels in an integrated way.
It's the duality of our online and offline lives meshing together that means there are so many more exciting ways of getting a message across.
What we need is better understanding of the context (local insights into what influences perception and drives behavioural change) within which content will be received and engaged with meaningfully.
Brands need insight driven ideas that connect with consumers emotionally, with purpose, so they care and feel compelled to share. The channels, through which we bring those ideas to life, come next.  

2) Be bold. Stand for something

The PR industry in India is drowning in undifferentiated agencies where innovation, authenticity and originality are secondary to playing catch-up with legacy players. We’re all award winning, got the best people and the dots on the map to signal geographical reach.
In India, we need to move beyond the vanilla generalist agency offer that started in the early 90s and choose a focus. Something we’re passionate about, that only we can do better than anyone else and that customers care about.
We need to articulate that offer simply and consistently. And, we need to get better at saying ‘No, I’m afraid there’s a mismatch in your ambition and budget and I’m afraid we won’t be able to deliver the quality of service our clients are used to within your given budget.’ 

3) Don’t pursue brands. Pursue ‘fits’ with culture and ambition

The only way to stop the beauty parades in agency pitching is to start with a conversation. This is true the world over - clients who are made aware of a challenge they’re facing are more likely to become clients for life.
For us to shift perception as outsourced ‘arms and legs’ for client teams, we need clients to look at us as advisors they can turn to, to navigate what’s ahead.
It’s easier when we ask the right questions that help them look at their business differently. With the right questions, a conversation can tell if we’re a good fit for the brand much before a presentation.

If we’ve got this far, we’re already in a good place. The challenge now is to resist giving away our ideas for free. Would an architect, a lawyer or a management consultant give away a plan without payment?

Start valuing work based on differentiated expertise and we’re already changing the game for PR in India. It’s time to grow up. It’s 2016.

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