Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Ailments of the PR industry - What can we do about it?

[At the very outset, I must strongly state that what ails the PR industry can be mostly attributed to the agencies themselves. As each agency strives to achieve better results for its clients, educates those who are not aware and trains the professionals continuously, we will see the industry become better. This, of course, is a well known and well accepted fact. In this piece I have focused on those things that can be bettered outside the agency set-up.]

It may not be a stretch to say that the maturity of any industry is reflected in the maturity of its stakeholders. This barometer would be a direct reflection on the most important four stakeholders of the PR industry. In our case, the four main drivers for this ‘barometer’ are, the type of people that PR is attracting, PR industry’s focus, the academic rigour of the educational institutes conducting the courses and, finally, the scope of work that the clients are demanding.

Let us consider our four metrics of the PR industry barometer.

Who is entering PR sector today?

As much as any other industry is, the PR sector too is facing a severe crunch in talent. There are just not enough people out there. Some years ago, the industry only knew of professionals who had casually ‘come across’ a PR related course or job and therefore had taken it up as a profession. Today, of course, the situation has changed considerably. A very positive sign is that we have numerous examples of MBAs, BPO professionals, entrepreneurs, marketing professionals, engineers and other functional experts from areas even as esoteric as Supply Chain take up the PR profession.

The current change in trend is that that the PR sector is being more & more seen as business consulting for stakeholder communications. Here we face the basic problem that every industry faces – not enough hands to go around.

Since lack of professionals is the bane of every sector worth its salt today, the only way that talent can be acquired is by weaning away better talent from other traditionally popular sectors. And if that is to be done, it is essential the industry get together to sensitize the next generation about the potential of Public Relations. Education, Awareness and counseling is required at the grassroots to bring PR among the top 5 professional choices for anyone searching for a career.

PR Industry focus

One of the widely know facts is that, a strong industry forum reflects a strong industry. (vice-versa is also true). Unless there is an unbiased, credible & focused industry association cutting across size, geographies and personalities, all efforts to create change for the industry will get dissipated. We have some associations which are yet to gain universal acceptance and a part-time association will only give part-time results.

Setting standards for minimum professional conduct, control oaf malpractices, and setting standards for academia will help in developing a more robust agency outlook. If a PR industry association were to fulfill the intrinsic need felt by most agencies (A start point may be in PR association getting together in an all agency meet to understand what the industry needs) and the benefits of the actions accrued to all agencies alike, not only will the PR industry gain salience, but so will the forum.

Academic needs

The lack of people getting attracted to the industry is at a basic level, but there is yet another aspect to consider for those who come to the academic institutions for a PR course. In the few good institutions that exist in the country, the course content and the need of the industry are poles apart. This calls for the PR academia to critically relook at the way they are fulfilling the needs of the industry.

I remember a unique experience over two consecutive years of fresher interviews we were conducting at one of the reputed academic institutes for PR. The first year interviews when we asked the students to define PR, none of the students gave a satisfactory answer. And, in the second year when we repeated the question, everyone gave the verbatim same answer. I think about this and still don’t know which was worse!

The academia needs to have a long term approach to the PR courses that they offer and there must be minimum standards that they give a degree to. Formal industry interactions will also help develop better courses and course material.

Clients and their needs

The most important and relevant changes occur in any sector only when it is driven by the clients needs and demands. Lack of a dedicated PR resource at the client’s end is the beginning of all the problems. And this becomes worse if different functional experts are given this subsidiary responsibility - if the client interface is a sales person, all the PR agency will be asked to do is to contribute to sale, if that interface is HR, the agency focus gets limited to recruitment and retention.

A PR professional with sufficient experience at agencies at the clients end can provide direction and rationale to the agency’s work. Further, the corporate communication needs to provide the agency direction, contribute to strategy and also streamline the messaging across the various marketing communication agencies, and it is therefore imperative that they come with more than a few years of experience. Else, as everyone in the agency will endorse, their lack of experience can be a hindrance rather than a help.


It is ironic that while these are the very suggestions that the PR agency may give any client, (take for example the Dewang Mehta intervention for the IT industry) were they looking at building the industry into an iconic status – these are the very strategies that are not getting implemented in our own backyard.

Am reminded of the old saying as a closing quote:‘Good intentions are not enough. It is good action with good intention that will lead to good results.’

Learning from adversity

Morbidity and Mortality analysis helps in systemic correction leading to growth

Popular theory has it that the IQ of a person (or corporate) falls to 10% when faced with acute adversity. Is there a way that we can add to the intelligence by learning from adversity? Is there a way that we can end up adding IQ points when faced with a situation of adversity?

When any company loses clients, markets, mindshare or reputation, it is unfortunate that very few do a serious introspection to understand what really happened. A parallel analysis, termed as termed Morbidity and Mortality in the hospital environment, is a common feature when an adverse event happens in a hospital. Not only has it helped improve efficiencies, but in the hospital context, the M&M analysis has actually helped saved lives.

I categorize experiential learning in two categories, subtle and gross. Gross learning happens by pure observation of something new. On the other hand, subtle learning happens due to experimentation or observation of mistakes and critically analyzing the mistakes. It is the way that humans (and animals) are programmed to learn. The learning-adversity connection in the corporate environment often gets missed as these environments witness a continuous intermeshing of casualties and growth. While learning is a continuous process, momentous adversity (e.g. client disengagement) can provide enough fodder for learning, improvement, and growth.

Let us use the example of one such adverse situation such as client disengagements and analyze the same to draw learnings. First fact - In more circumstances than not, clients are genuinely interested in continuing the existing relationships. In truth, they work quite hard to maintain them and there is an intrinsic client resistance to changing the agency especially since the client goes through the pain of having to re-engage, re-educate and re-orient the new partner.

The insight derived thereof is that, contrary to popularly held belief, no disengagement is a single step process. And therefore, naturally, there are signals that demonstrate the erosion of the relationship in parts. Unfortunately, even though these problems could have been corrected by a timely intervention and improvement, the client signals are not understood, or perceived and necessary steps are not taken because of ignorance, complacency or misplaced attitude of the agency.

Let me put down four simple change related aspects that I have learned in my study of failure and how we can avoid them.

1.Recognize change-steps: See change and anticipate new needs – works like mantra to. Some changes are not difficult to see, and are like step function changes (for example, a change in the contact person you are interacting with or a change in client ownership). In such cases it is imperative that the full effort of engagement be put back into the relationship. The incumbent agency must take the effort to re-engage the new team and reorient them into the strategy, activities and results. Also equally important is to integrate the thoughts of the new team to the existing strategy and working methodology.

2.Addressing invisible changes : Recognizing continuous change is not always easy and therefore adapting to this invisible change can be quite a daunting task. Often even the client may not be consciously aware that aspects that have changed dramatically over time. Therefore some process which identify the manifestations of change become imperative. Typically these are manifested through visible in changes in vision, mission & business objectives. Shifts in the ethos of the company and the communication methodology is also something indicative of such change. A good barometer to measure these changes is a dipstick audit of people, policies, processes and technology.

3.Change in expectations: Mismatched expectations can have disastrous effects and will only aid failure. Setting mutually comfortable expectations is a continuous process of negotiation - you give some and you take some. Open forums discussions held between the client & agency on expectations, outputs and outcomes are often a very good tool to calibrate mutual expectations.

4.Perspective change: It is said that perspective has an IQ of 80. Once the agency perspective changes to results from effort, a significant impetus is infused into the relationship. Also, this change in perspective adds a whole new dimension to the way the servicing team handles the client account which in turn may bring a complete change in total working style of the agency.

All adverse situations inherently have a capacity to teach important lessons. It is entirely upto the individuals to learn their share. A proximal analysis and an open mind are all that are needed to ensure that similar adverse situations are avoided by revisiting history and learning from it.