The Reputation Today list of India’s 30 Top Corporate Communication Teams – 2017 was released in the first week of May. And, as a sequel, some leading teams got together to open up a dazzling dialogue on how Public Relations and Corporate Communications have evolved and what is trending today in this space.
On July 12, at the millennium city, Gurgaon, it was a peek into the looking glass, Alice in Wonderland style – with the spotlight on PR as the Top CorpCom teams had a Day-Out. Despite the cloudy skies and bumper-to-bumper traffic jams, more than 20 leading teams joined up, to discuss what was top-of-mind – corporate communications.
There were many reasons to cheer as the Corporate Communications professionals got engaged in a conversation about the business of communications. Rachana Panda, Chief Communication Officer, GE South Asia set the mood by declaring that it was an occasion to celebrate PR, pointing out that at GE failures were celebrated too, along with success. She minced no words in declaring: “PR is very credible. We are at the right place at the right time.”
What are the areas that stakeholders see value?
The debate took off as the teams tried to dissect the very business of communications. Team GE was unanimous in their take on its importance. “What works for our team is that we are seen as a trusted advisory”, said Shashwati Chowdhury, Senior Communications Leader at GE Technology Centre accentuating the aspect of telling stories, and, the very act of communicating. Agreeing to this was Rohan Jain, Communications Leader, Digital & Brand, GE South Asia who said, “We bring in a lot of communication connect, bringing in value leading to business outcomes, and with digital communication targeted at a niche audience, the same concept of trustworthiness comes in.While Rajiv Arora, Internal Communications Specialist, GE South Asia noticed that the word “employees” was missing from the conversation and emphasised the same.
Targeting the right messaging to the right stakeholders was of essence here. Aditi Chada, Director Communications, Viacom said, “It’s not only the ‘What’ but the ‘How’ which is taking centre stage now. It’s a question of how we line our message to the right stakeholders and the expectations from the team are very high”! Michelle Francis, Deputy General Manager, Corporate Communications, Godrej Industries exclaimed, “It’s high time we do PR for PR”. Recalling that she has seen changes happening with PR, she observed that there is the need to add value right from the beginning, and that we have to bring value every day. Then the question came up: how do we create the halo for the master brand?
Understanding the evolving times and building solutions was the need of the hour. And, was it a question of artfully fine-tuning the thought process. As the environment is changing, the space is changing, and it’s important for the communications team to add that stature to the function, noted Poonam Kaul, Vice President, Pepsico India. A lot of thought leadership is involved, said Ajay Arora, Channel PR & Partner Communications Lead, Dell EMC Asia Pacific & Japan –“Times are changing and we are at the forefront with PR. We as communicators must bring a lot of value, driving campaigns end-to-end”.
Evolution was the theme that was taken up by Rajat Mukarji, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, Idea Cellular as he informed how the brand Idea had evolved and how they catapulted to become a national player in 2008; yes, and certainly, communication has changed from what it used to be, when the brand was born regionally. On building and handling reputation he felt that “the reputation of the organisation rests on our shoulders and we can truly call ourselves ambassadors”!
Another factor that was prominent was the question of credibility. Prateek Chatterjee, Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications & Marketing, NIIT Limited was quite categorical in his statement: Credibility is important for our customers. We are competing for somebody’s career. So, from the company’s perspective PR is important and the role we play is a critical one. “It’s about constant engagement, and for us, PR is the centre of what is happening,” he quipped.
Admitting that he was not a traditional PR or Communications person, Ishteyaque Amjad, Vice President, Public Affairs & Communications, Coca Cola India exclaimed, “I am a strong believer in anonymity”. One of his early learnings, he confessed was – “practice by fire!” What is missing is that we tend to look at it as a support function, and somewhere we have to make it support plus governance. Elaborating on his three learnings, he explained that his first learning was that there are times in the communication exercise, when we have “to take a step back and use postured silence in communication”; the second was – how to move from PR to advocacy, as advocacy gives more credibility (and vanilla PR is in-your-face); and thirdly, we work as a mouth-piece but also as an ‘ear’. Go to the management, he urged and say – “It is time to change the discourse, and have a ‘public perception code’ in place.
With challenging times, come opportunities. What’s more, a young team can encash on this, it seems. Rashmi Soni, VP & Head, Corporate Communications, Vistara observed that they were a young organisation, which is a “challenge and an opportunity – to educate our stakeholders so they can view us as partners.
Again, playing the “youth” card was Aniruddha Ghosh, Vice President, Marketing & Corporate Communication, YES BANK. “I have been fortunate that in our bank, corporate communications and PR have been most important. Being in the business of public trust we have learnt it the hard way, but thought leadership and visibility remains high. As a young team, we are constantly learning, and it also gives us the ability to be nimble and come up with new things”.
Putting forth the fact that he would bring in another perspective, was Nitin Thankur, Director – Brand & Communication, Max India Ltd. He went on to explain that while managing a company’s reputation, deep understanding of how the business operates is a cause for ‘customer delight’. From traditional media knowledge, delight is to have an individual who can seamlessly handle reputation across the government, new age media; and from handling a crisis well to actually anticipating a crisis. To walk the right balance and not have negativity – that’s delight! “I think what PR needs more as a function is ‘rebooting’. PR needs to go back, bring in the right expertise and give us the confidence back to get us on the high table”.
Seema Siddiqui, Associate General Manager & Head PR and Corporate Communication, Schneider Electric India observed she was seeing the value of PR as a soft landing space; and she has also seen the acknowledgement coming from business, “It is heartening to know when people come to us and credit the win to us!”
Corporate Communications: making enough noise?
How much of noise was being rustled up by communication when brands were communicating from different playing fields? And, how much of communication was enough or was getting noticed?
Opinions were varied. “We need to stop underselling ourselves”, implored Ajay and added, “we are the filters, the counsel for leadership and perceptions are high”. “We are the cool guys”, said Rohan. We are a function that has close proximity with the senior management, said Deepti Shetty, General Manager, Corporate Communications, Godrej Industries. And, she confessed that we are not leveraged at forums like these and went ahead to suggest that we can take it one level up and involve leaders too – like CEOs.
Extending this concept, of training talent, the discussion moved on to mentoring. Poonam pointed out that the way this space is changing, silence is not an option. The consumer does not give you that option. So, she brought up the issue of how much are we investing in training? We should build smaller groups and mentor them. This is the beast in town, all of us are learning! There is space for mentorship and if you can invest in training the younger lot, it would be great.
Communication is an activity by design. That’s the impression we got. “We are not communicators by accident,” said Aman Dhall, Group AVP & Head of PR and Communications, Policybazaar.com. The CEO education is very necessary he added as in many cases, leadership does not understand what we do. Branding internally is what we need to focus on, he advised.
Communication is not just about design, but needs to be measured too. Introducing the concept of ‘measurement’ to the discussion, was Rajat who highlighted the fact that a lot of what we do is soft, and difficult to measure. “Develop a measurement tool”, was his earnest request.
So, it sure looked like these leading Corp Com teams have paved the way for a lot of action in the near future. And, the road ahead? Wait and watch – that seems to be the catchword now.