What does it mean to delve into a phenomenon called “Big-Fish-Little-Pond”? Ask Nikhil Dey, Vice Chair, Weber Shandwick, India – for that was exactly what he did at the start of his career, when he took the conscious decision to chose PR as a profession. A profession that was at that time, trying to establish that communication is essential for brand success. And, then, discovering success milestones along the way, came easy for him
Recently he was in the news, for having moved from GenesisBCW, after a stint of 15 years, and joining Weber Shandwick. His pit-stop at GenesisBCW (earlier known as Genesis BM), can be traced back to 2004, when he had joined as managing partner, before being appointed president in 2011 and then in 2015, he spearheaded the firm’s public affairs unit.
Tracking his career trail, he served as Vice President Corporate Communications at Fiat India and was also Director at Clea PR. Now, in his role his goal is to “focus on shaping the firm’s employee experience, strengthening existing client relationships and creating opportunities for global clients in India”. Here, in this dialogue, he shares what it means moving out of a comfort zone, his rich innings at Genesis, evolving communication concepts, designing engaging experiences, fake news, what brands need to watch out for in 2019, what he hopes to achieve in the near future and more…
RT: You have had a long innings in the PR world. How did the journey begin?
During my MBA course, I really enjoyed all the marketing and communication classes. When placement season finally came around, the big fish, little fish approach helped me to decide. I could have joined an Advertising agency and been a little fish in a big pond or I could jump into the then relatively unknown profession of Public Relations which was not attracting talent from ‘B’ Schools and hopefully become a bigger fish in a little pond. Luckily, I chose the PR pond because my timing was perfect. The market has really opened up since the mid 90’s when I began. Today the boundaries have given way to one big ocean where the most creative ideas shine though.
RT: You moved from Genesis B-M (BCW) after almost 15 years to Weber Shandwick. What led to this move?
I love the energy and excitement of consultancy life, the width, the variety and the newness of every day. A need to move out of what had become a comfort zone prompted the thought of “what next?”
I really enjoyed the innings at Genesis and was looking for new mountains to climb. Prema was a fantastic mentor and she gave me a lot of latitude to try out new things like exploring Public Affairs, which was a steep learning curve in the initial phase and also some unchartered territory like being part of setting up a newsroom in a PR firm. Most importantly she taught me how to embrace change and keep moving forward. I am grateful for all the learning and for the friends I made. I am equally grateful for the new opportunities to continue learning and reinventing, that the Vice Chair role at Weber Shandwick offers.
RT: With the evolving communication concepts, brands need to adapt to change. What are the new trends that the PR business should keep a watch-out for in 2019?
There are three things that I feel brands need to embrace, that PR professionals could keep a watch out for.
- Say it like it is (and say it soon) – Sincerity, coupled with speed. This means that PR teams need to help the brands they work for, stay more real and in real time.
- Say sorry (and really mean it) – Bad stuff will occasionally happen. When it does, own the problem, own up to your mistakes, say sorry and really work to fix the issue. As a PR professional, hold the mirror up and help the brand decide to do the right thing, not just issue a holding statement.
- Say less (do more) – actions sometimes speak louder than just words. Help brands create meaningful and many mini experiences that tell their story.
RT: As you start your stint at Weber Shandwick, what do you aim to achieve?
I am currently in a listening mode. I have spent the first three weeks meeting team members and some clients in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore to understand what we are doing well and what more we could be doing for them. In line with what I hear from our people and clients, my effort will be to:
- Give shape to our employee experience programs
- Strengthen existing client relationships and
- Create opportunities for global clients in India
I believe there is tremendous potential for growth that Valerie and I together can unlock. Building Weber Shandwick as a strong employer brand and enhancing the culture of creativity and collaboration is something we strongly feel will deliver value to clients and drive growth. Our complementary skills and styles of working are the ying and yang, which make for a truly powerful partnership.
RT: ‘Influencers’ have gained prominence. How can brands evolve in 2019, riding on the use of influencers?
Influencers have always been at the center of our profession. Who these influencers are and what platforms they influence, keep evolving. The current influencer bubble will burst because influence cannot be bought in the long term. It has to be earned. The reason a new crop of influencers started emerging was because they appeared to be honest, unbiased and credible. The minute money enters the equation and influence is on sale, it sadly loses its influence.
The good news is a new tribe of influencers will emerge. Keeping an eye out for who they are and finding ways to build a meaningful two-way engagement with them will always be at the core of public relations. Who is getting attention? Who can I trust? Find the answer to these two questions and you have your new influencer.
RT: Today brands are all about designing engaging experiences. How can PR help brands in their storytelling and create an emotional connect?
Mini meals, made just for me: Healthy snacking is what is currently working. Small, meaningful, intimate experience, designed just for you is what seems to be working. Big budget, big bang extravagant experiences are like those buffet meals at a five star that we all seemingly want to stay away from. The quaint little breakfast place that knows how you like you coffee and makes you feel special is what is working. Build brand experiences on these lines and you will have a queue outside your door.
RT: Fake news on social media is an existential threat today. How will this affect the level of online brand engagement?
Slaying imaginary dragons is hard work. I believe the more important question to ask is what can we do to help address this problem? Companies tend to believe that this won’t happen to them. Off course they have heard of fake news, but it is not a real problem, till it is. A few simple things to start with would be:
- Share local case studies with internal stakeholders to sensitise them on how bad it can get for a brand
- Work fake news scenarios into preparedness exercise
- Establish a working connect with fake news checking sites who can quickly help you create a counter narrative, should your brand come under attack.
RT: In the early 2002, you were Vice President, Corporate Communications, Fiat India. What role did corporate communications play in promoting Fiat then? What is the role that corporate communication takes today, to enhance brand storytelling?
My favourite definition of Public Relations/Corporate Communications is – “Doing good work and then getting credit for it”. I love the equal emphasis on the doing of something good and then using good communication to get that recognised.
During my Fiat stint, one of the examples where the corporate communications team helped catalyse good work was in the area of ‘after sales service’. A year long effort in partnership with the service department to improve customer experience at dealerships, resulted in the brand being rated by JD Powers as having made the most improvement in customer service. This is text book public relations – Do some good work, then get credit for it, preferably from a third party. I believe this holds absolutely true today as well. There may be new tools and new rules, but the game has not changed at its core.
RT: What are your other interest areas, beyond work?
I enjoy playing tennis and I am a keen angler. Tennis happens every week, angling once a year. Family time is really important, we have for the last year made a ritual of going for a Sunday morning walk together. We have really enjoyed exploring the gardens and monuments of Delhi and the quite time with nature. Doggies are another joy. The newest member of the Dey family is Cookie, whom we adopted a few months ago.
RT: What is your advice to young professionals joining Public Relations today?
Ask lots of questions. Be curious. Be genuinely interested in others. Know what you are trying to solve for your brand or company. Most importantly seek to understand the business of the business that you are doing public relations for. At Weber Shandwick we call this “Solve for X”. Once you are clear what problem you are solving for, the rest is about creativity and flawless execution. Find new ways to stretch the boundaries of your sandbox. Get creative with your solutions and your story telling and you will find that public relations has reinvented itself on your shoulders.