India embarked on a program of economic reform and deregulation in 1991 that has transformed the country's fortunes. From what was once a highly regulated and controlled market, India has become a predominantly open economy and a hotspot for foreign investment. The burgeoning economy has spurred growth of the PR industry, as corporations seek to carve out a positive image in an increasingly competitive market.
Previous economic policy focused on a drive for self-sufficiency, with Soviet-style central planning for industrial development and a minimum of foreign participation. The result was protectionist policies and a large, inefficient public sector.
The Indian economy transformed from primarily agriculture, forestry, fishing and textile manufacturers in the late 1940s to major heavy industry, transportation and telecommunications industries by the late 1970s. The main industries are now textiles, steel and aluminium, fertilisers and petrochemicals, and electronics and motor vehicles. Agriculture now accounts for less than 33 per cent of GDP, but employs the majority of workers.
There is major government investment in the science and technology sector, and there is much investment in research and development in the defense, nuclear science, space and agriculture sectors. India's IT exports increased 45.6 per cent in 1999-2000. Bangalore is the hub of India's technology industry.
Deregulation has benefited the private and public sectors alike. 'India has evolved from an agrarian economy to become one of the world's largest manufacturing nations,' says Good Relations India chief executive Alpana Kar. It has not done so overnight, and the government's measured approach to liberalisation has been widely applauded.
The consensus of opinion is that India's policy of not overextending its economy too quickly is very shrewd. 'We are taking sure but short steps and making steady movements forward,' says Ashwani Singla, Genesis PR partner. India now has a population of 986.9 million, and inflation of 8.9 with GDP growing at 6.7 per cent.
The PR industry was practically non-existent before 1991, as most industries were dominated by government-controlled monopolies, and the market was closed to investment by foreign businesses.
Since then the need for communications as a marketing discipline, especially in corporate image and brand building, has vastly increased and with it the number of indigenous agencies and global players with Indian operations.
The need for companies to communicate to the masses has become of paramount importance. As business journalist TC Malhotra notes: 'Even politicians are reported to have hired PR agencies for image building during elections.'
Expanding PR opportunities
All disciplines are booming - from corporate communications to hi-tech and investor relations. Singla foresees substantial growth in healthcare PR due to the opening of the insurance sector, which has attracted global companies like Royal and SunAlliance. That is but one sector; more than 170 Fortune 500 companies now have an Indian presence.
The Indian PR scene is divided into three kinds of firms: small agencies that form the backbone of the country's regional activity; subsidiaries of multinational communications groups, such as WPP, Interpublic and Omnicom that dominate national campaigns; and large independents that harness both regional and national strengths.
The industry is not concentrated in any one region or city, and growth has been fairly consistent across the metropolitan centres. Almost all of the country's larger PR agencies have a presence in the major cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Calcutta and the rest.
Genesis, for example, started off eight years ago as a regional office based in Delhi. It now employs 120 people in six offices across the country.
Leading agencies include: Perfect Relations; Good Relations; WPP's IPAN (Indian Public Affairs Network), which is an associate of Hill & Knowlton; Roger Perrera-Burson-Marsteller; Ogilvy; LinOpinion; Shandwick and Text 100, which established itself as India's first hi-tech specialist in 1996.
The country's PR industry still lacks a trade association. The much vaunted Public Relations Consultants Association of India (PRCAI) has been due to be launched in 'a couple of months' for a couple of years. However, several of India's most prominent players, such as Genesis PR managing director Prema Sagar, are making strident efforts to bring about its birth.
When it does eventually launch it will have two key missions: to encourage and facilitate the growth of PR and to enhance it as a profession.
East and West are generally perceived to be poles apart -- in terms of culture, language and religion, not to mention history, climate, geography and population density. Naturally PR clients in India have the same agenda as those in the US or anywhere else: ultimately, all want to sell products or perceptions or both. However, India offers a unique combination of challenges.
A large proportion of the population is illiterate. At the same time, the country boasts some 32,000 publications. Add to that the fact that there is no one India: there are 34 federal units and effectively 34 different Indias with unique - frequently conflicting - foibles. PR agencies must take local sentiments, sensitivities and customs into account.
Virgin Atlantic Airways provided a recent example with the launch of its flights to India in July. Founder Sir Richard Branson flew into New Delhi, donned the attire of an Indian prince, danced a Bhangra and rode through the streets on an elephant. This stunt provided an image that could be used nationally and could be adapted to appeal to consumers on a regional level.
Kar says: 'Any recommendation that we put to our clients is always passed by our regional offices as well as a vast network of affiliates that we have in smaller towns across India,' she says.
Singla agrees: 'Any communications process will have to learn how to deal with the huge diversity that unites the country.'
Political PR is already making an impact with state governments, for which image management is a mammoth challenge - particularly when facing all too frequent natural calamities.
The state of Andhra Pradesh provided a case in point following its recent floods. The chief minister Chandrababu Naidu generated massive national media coverage, which resulted in several measures for the rehabilitation of flood victims from the federal government.
The future of India's PR industry is undoubtedly one of growth. Indigenous business is growing, as is interest from multinationals. Superior communications skills will be of paramount importance.
Singla predicts that if it is aggressive in its development, the industry will experience 30-40 per cent growth over the next three years. Indications are that there will be two types of players: strong national players with an international reach, and strong niche players with regional expertise. The flowering of the country's economy - and with it the PR industry - has taught India many things, perhaps most importantly that people are upbeat about the prospect of communication.