Few people tire of pointing out that India is a country full of paradoxes. This also applies to the country's PR industry, where pockets of dazzling sophistication co-exist with the most time-honoured of media relations techniques.
Recent events have only accelerated the importance of communications, a discipline that – according to many observers – remains undervalued in India.
In early 2009, the Satyam accounting scandal broke - putting the country's much-vaunted IT outsourcing sector firmly under the spotlight. Already staggering from the tragic 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks, India began last year in a fragile mood.
That soon lifted. The country's Congress political party ran an inspired election campaign, ably assisted by Hill & Knowlton Ipan, to retain power in a thumping general election victory.
Congress' victory, based on a platform of stability and social inclusion, was followed by indications of a suprising resilience in the Indian economy. Markets rebounded and, as the country celebrated its 60th year as a republic, optimism once again reigned. 'The fact is, India has been protected more from the recession because there is a certain self-sufficiency about the population,' says H&K Ipan president Radhika Shapoorjee.
The actions of the country's colourful business titans continued to engross, with the dispute between the super-rich Ambani brothers - Mukesh and Anil - rumbling on. Reliance, the country's largest private sector enterprise, was split between the duo in 2005. 'It continues to dominate from a corporate saga standpoint,' says Genesis Burson-Marsteller CEO Ashwani Singla. Both sides make savvy use of PR counsel, with Vaishnavi Communications assisting Mukesh, and Anil abetted by his right-hand man, Tony Jesudasan.
Elsewhere, Nandan Nilekani, ex-CEO of the country's most successful IT firm Infosys, moved into a government role to oversee the gargantuan Unique ID national identification programme. 'The appointment of Nilekani was clearly a game-changing decision, particularly in the sense that experts were for the first time being drawn into governance and showed that the government was serious in its intent,' says Nandita Lakshmanan, founder and CEO of The PRactice.
Often described as undervalued, India's PR market remains difficult to gauge accurately. A 2008 report from the country's Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry places the size of the market at an ambitious $3bn, and forecasts an equally unlikely doubling of size by 2010.
The ICCO World Report classes India as a 'fast emerging market' and points to energy, healthcare, retail and telecoms as some areas with strong growth prospects. Specific practice areas that are expected to grow include consumer marketing, financial, public affairs and technology.
Talent remains the critical commodity, with high turnover levels particularly evident among younger PROs. 'It is the most significant issue both in terms of availability and cost,' says Singla.
'Most of the challenges facing the PR industry are legacy issues such as the gap between demand and supply of quality talent, adequate investment into building consulting strength, including training and research, and a lack of standards laid down by the industry,' adds Rishi Seth, co-founder of Six Degrees PR. 'During the past year with the slowdown, some of the progress that had been made by the industry on pricing and standardisation rolled back as budgets got cut and everyone tried to hold on what they had under any circumstances.'
India bucks the trend among media markets in more ways than one. For one, print readership levels are rising, thanks to a relatively small base, which nonetheless makes the country one of the world's biggest print markets. Moreover, while India is surrounded by a variety of state-controlled media landscapes, a diverse and vibrant news environment contributes to a famously free media.
The Times of India (TOI) may be the world's bestselling English-language newspaper but its 13.3 million readers puts it well behind local-language titles such as Dainik Jagran and Dainik Bhaskar.
The country's 26 states and 29 official languages mean that media, inevitably, are skewed along regional lines. 'Generally, local language media have gained importance and strength. Greater power is moving to the states and regions owing to coalition politics, as well as greater literacy, readership and buying power from consumers who rely on local language media,' says Seth.
Business media, adds Shapoorjee, drive sentiment, led by newspapers such as the Economic Times and the Business Standard. Particularly influential is Mint, a joint venture between the Wall Street Journal and HT Media. Politically, the India Today weekly magazine remains a key shaper of opinion. Another weekly - Tehelka - deserves special mention, for investigative abilities that once claimed the scalp of India's defence minister.
TV has seen explosive growth since Star TV became the country's first satellite offering in 1991. Public broadcaster Doordarshan continues to reach some 400 million people, but it is in the satellite space where rapid development is occurring. News channels - led by the likes of NDTV, CNN-IBN, TimesNow and Aaj Tak - have proliferated. Soaps and gameshows, meanwhile, make the country's 'GETV' channels particularly popular among female viewers and, correspondingly, consumer brands.
The sheer number of media sources sounds complex, but Shapoorjee points out that approximately '20 per cent of the media shapes the other 80 per cent', for any given story.
While digital is as much of a buzz word in India as other countries, the country's internet penetration is just five per cent. 'Having said that, the connected population has stronger buying power and access to resources,' says Seth. 'Therefore, this medium holds relevance for categories that want to reach out to an urban population with a specific youth focus.' Seth also notes the internet's viral impact.'If something starts to gain momentum online, it spills over to the real media world.'
Rapid online growth is centered around social networking sites such as Orkut, Facebook, BharatStudent, LinkedIn and Ibibo. Twitter counts five million users in the country, while there are approximately 250k active blogs. 'Conversations are driven by auto, finance and travel,' says Shapoorjee.
India's 500 million cellular subscribers make mobile a key driver in terms of connectivity and word of mouth.
India has no shortage of brands that display a sophisticated understanding of how to engage their audiences. The country's IT industry - led by the likes of Infosys and Wipro - used PR to good effect in their efforts to conquer global markets over the past decade. Other key spenders include major conglomerates such as Tata, Reliance and Bharti.
Automotive giant Mahindra was recently named Brand Communicator of the Year at the 2009 Asia-Pacific PR Awards, and is set to enter the US later this year. Singla also picks out retail player Future Brands for attention. 'Retail had a hard time. Everybody got screwed, but they didn't.'
Tech brands such as Nokia, Google and HP also attract plaudits, in part because of their ability to match reputation with reality, in an environment where corporate scrutiny is becoming increasingly intense.
Social responsibility, say many observers, is particularly important for business in India. A good example is the e-Choupal rural initiative by conglomerate ITC, which connects farmers to global markets. Development in this area, adds Shapoorjee, is being fuelled by greater public-private collaboration.
Global players have made aggressive moves into India in recent years, acquiring agencies to gain a foothold in a market of obvious strategic importance.
Burson-Marsteller made the biggest splash in 2005, when it acquired one of the country's biggest players, Genesis. Edelman arrived earlier, buying out PR veteran Roger Pereira, and pumping in significant investment via a new management line-up.
MS&L bought the highly rated Hanmer & Partners in 2007. Hill & Knowlton, meanwhile, ended its lengthy search for an Indian presence by taking over the management of Ipan from sister ad agency JWT.
Weber Shandwick currently counts a 40 per cent stake in Bangalore-based Corporate Voice | Weber Shandwick, although there has been considerable speculation that it would like to buy out its Indian partner. Parent company Interpublic also owns LinOpinion.
Fleishman Hillard signalled a different approach when it launched a start-up in Mumbai in 2007. Text 100 was perhaps the first international player to make significant inroads into the country, although the agency has been weakened by numerous senior departures from its New Delhi stronghold. The agency has, however, pioneered the concept of PR outsourcing to India.
Porter Novelli affiliate The PRactice, meanwhile, is often touted as a prime acquisition target for the global agency groups.
Several key agencies remain independent, including Perfect Relations and financial specialists AdFactors and Sampark. Vaishnavi counts important relationships with Tata and Reliance, and surprisingly hired the UK's Jonathan Shore to head the agency in 2008. 20:20 Media is a heavyweight tech presence.
Entrepreneurial spirit means that smaller start-ups are common. Six Degrees and Alphabet Consulting are both led by ex-Text 100 executives, while Comma Consulting, and Blue Lotus also catch the eye. Gutenberg PR, meanwhile, counts a burgeoning overseas presence - rare among Indian agencies.
Seth notes that the balance of power is shifting towards international firms. Regardless, sheer volume puts the local/global ratio at approximately 2:1.
India is starting to shed its reputation for what Seth calls 'suitcase-based lobbying'. Shapoorjee still likens the area to 'the Wild West', noting that 'there are no rules and it is difficult to navigate'. Still, everyone is alive to the opportunities for growth that public affairs offers.
'It is going to grow strongly as government adopts a more regulatory role, rather than being a player,' says Singla. His agency, Genesis B-M, is one of a handful, along with such agencies as Counselage, Perfect Relations, H&K Ipan and Vaishnavi, that are prominent in this space.
Political communication is often rudimentary, although Seth notes that political parties are starting to spend more on PR. Government spend on PR, adds Shapoorjee, is 'sporadic' with several sources noting that better engagement with professional firms is urgently required.