India's growing economy presents opportunities - and challenges - for the global PR industry.
The schizophrenic dynamic of modern India isn't hard to see. It's in the shacks of the destitute squatters who are camped on the side of the road just outside the walled-off oasis of a luxury hotel. It's in the calm faces of the cows that rest serenely in the middle of jam-packed bustling highways. It's in an economy that grows and attracts businesses partly because many of its own people are impoverished.
But there is no denying India's importance. The world's second-most populated country, its economy is poised to become one of the most important on earth. The International Communications Consultancy Organization (ICCO) held its global summit in New Delhi this year for the first time, a tacit declaration that India is a key point of focus for the PR industry.
International PR agencies have been in India for years, but the competition has never been as intense. "It's probably fair to mirror the kind of growth we're seeing in the PR industry with the growth that's going on in India's business generally," says Text 100 CEO Aedhmar Hynes, whose agency has been in India for a decade.
Hynes says two factors make communications work in India unique: First, the consumption of traditional written media in the country is increasing as the literacy rate rises, rather than falling as the Internet saps readers.
That means the media landscape is more akin to that of the US before the digital revolution began eroding the influence of traditional media. Newspapers' power varies widely across the country; among English-language titles, The Times of India rules in the North and West, and The Hindu in the South.
In addition, papers in Hindi and other native languages dwarf English papers' circulation across the board, meaning that all media relations programs must be multilingual, multiethnic, and tailored for specific geographies. But when it comes to high-level international business coverage, wire services like Reuters and Dow Jones are still deemed most important.
Second, corporate communications work is rapidly shifting from a national to a global model, raising expectations among large clients and shifting business toward experienced pros.
"CEOs were often seen as the ones holding the media relationships" in the past, says Pradipta Bagchi, GM of corporate communications for Tata Consultancy Services. Now, companies are instituting more rigorously planned communications programs, tightening the ship as India emerges on the world stage.
A growing market
As large US-based firms increase their focus on the Indian market, they also accept a level of responsibility for ensuring PR in India adheres to global standards. Porter Novelli CEO Helen Ostrowski says via e-mail that "ensuring source transparency" among PR pros, the media, and the public in India is "absolutely essential to our continued success as a profession."
"These issues have proven to be a problem even in the US," she notes. For large international firms such as PN, she says "the ability for more mature PR markets to share best practices in areas like technology-enabled communication will also help markets like India move faster along the continuum toward their own maturity."
For homegrown Indian agencies, the industry's growth is a quandary. Business is booming, of course, and now is probably the easiest time in history for them to cash in by selling their firms to a multinational; on the other hand, entrepreneurs could be better served in the long run by growing their firms organically and riding the wave to success.
Jai Xavier Prabhu David, founder and CEO of the homegrown firm PRHub, is betting that independence will pay off. He started his agency in 2001 after the tech bust sunk an Internet company he started, believing his experience as an entrepreneur would pay off in the communications space.
"I'm a first-generation entrepreneur in the truest sense," he says. "My family has literally no idea what the business of PR [is]."
David, who now has three offices across India, says he has encountered many of the familiar problems of a young PR market. They include extreme differences in service across the market, as well as a business that is sometimes far more personality-driven than quality-focused.
However, he says that the IT sector, which has always been a global business, is bringing best practices into not just its own business, but also into the work of PR firms that serve it. That means more professional work for other PR growth sectors in India, including retail, healthcare, entertainment, and real estate.
Ashwani Singla, CEO of one of India's top agencies, Genesis Burson-Marsteller, describes the country's PR industry as "at the cusp of change from being nascent to becoming young." He predicts that M&As in the industry are "the next logical steps" and says that they will raise the overall level of quality.
The talent question
But perhaps the biggest stumbling block the industry faces in India is a widespread talent crunch. By all accounts, finding adequately trained workers to fill both the lower and middle ranks of agencies and corporate PR departments is difficult, as PR education has not kept pace with increasing demand. Genesis, for example, pays for a full year of training for fresh graduates within the firm before they begin client work.
While smaller, newer firms scramble for young talent, larger ones owned by holding companies wrestle with it, as well.
"[The talent issue] is huge," says Melissa Arulappan, a VP at Corporate Voice Weber Shandwick. "I don't believe we have the training grounds for good PR professionals in the country."
Arulappan tells of visiting a graduate communications class to deliver a lecture and finding that only three or four students out of 40 actually wanted to work in PR instead of advertising. If PR is to continue to thrive in India, she says, it will have to face the same problems so familiar to those in the US.
"Here's an industry that is so exciting, so buoyant, there is so much opportunity," she says. "But I do not believe it is being communicated."
Selected PR firms
Corporate Voice Weber Shandwick
The PRactice Porter Novelli
Hill & Knowlton
Hanmer & Partners Communications
MelCole Public Relations
Adfactors Public Relations
Good Relations India
Synergy Public Relations
Concept Public Relations
India's largest companies
Company Rev. ($bn)
Oil & Natural Gas 36.5 (est.)
Reliance Industries 22.3
Tata Consultancy Services 18.3
Infosys Technologies 17.5
Indian Oil 14.6
Bharti Tele-Ventures 15.4
Icici Bank 12.3
Source: Forbes Global 2,000, 2006 edition