The road to PRAXIS is paved with connections. Our industry is built on the bedrock of nurturing relationships and the launch of ‘The Pursuit of Reputation’ had on display the power of the connections that Amith and Sujit (the authors) have built over the years. Many friends and well-wishers turned up for both events in Mumbai and Delhi and the gathering felt like a pre-PRAXIS warm-up. I made some new connections at the event and rekindled a few old ones. This journey of connecting continued in the airport and on the flight to Chennai where familiar faces greeted each other with smiles.
Lesson #1 from PRAXIS10 is the power of genuine human connection. In a world racing into a digital and AI-driven future, the cornerstone of public relations is about nurturing genuine and meaningful human connections. The stock price of wholesome face-to-face human connection is going to skyrocket in a world full of online deceit. The bigger the gathering at praxis has become, the harder it is to create new connections. The problem of plenty is fraught with plenty of hellos and hugs but not much deep engagement or real sharing. It’s possible to feel alone in a room filled with over 600 hundred people. A smaller group often promotes more diversity and inclusion when it comes to engaging with people. When there are many options I tend to go for what’s familiar. My company. My people. My clients. My friends. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, but making time to make new friends and get to know new people seems much harder.
I remember the first PRAXIS in Pondicherry – Deepa, Sunayna, Suparnaa and I went out to explore the city and many hours, calories, and drinks later, built a bond that has lasted for 10 years. I now need to try to break out of my algorithmic bubble of connections and find some new ones. Earlier it happened much more organically and if I am not careful, I will be living in my echo chamber and missing out on so much new that I could learn. I am happy to report that courtesy of a colleague, Bhavana Akella, I was introduced to the dynamic Farzana Baduel, CEO of Curzon PR who then got me to meet some of her amazing friends from the UK (Sarah and Stephen Waddington, and Shayoni Lynn). Spending time with these new friends and some common friends with a UK connection (Arun Sudhamun and Ben Smith) was an absolute pleasure and the delicious dinner at Peshawari, a bonus. PRAXIS10 continues to deliver on the promise of forging new connections.
Lesson #2. Get curious and dive a little deeper. One of the interesting things that I was introduced to in conversations linked to talent development and partnering with academia is the learning platform ‘Socially Mobile’. As I spent time exploring it online, I learnt more about “The not-for-profit PR school equipping the workforce of today for the challenges of tomorrow.” Socially Mobile is a Community Interest Company (CIC) that supports and inspires public relations practitioners across the UK to increase their earning potential. Through support and funding, Socially Mobile delivers training to those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, as well as under-represented and under-served groups including ethnic minority practitioners, the LGBTQ+ community, women returners, and those with disabilities. It runs an impactful ten-week programme for future leaders who are aspiring to a management role; returning to work or moving into a new role or considering starting their own PR business. What was a passing conversation, aided with a little bit of effort and curiosity brought me a lot of new learning. With the help of WhatsApp to remind me to look this up later, I made a virtual mental note to read up some more about it. I am glad that I did as it seems to be a wonderful model to address some of the challenges of the PR education system in our country and I am keen to figure out ways to bring something on these lines alive in the Indian context.
Lesson #3. Be open to contrarian views. Roopa Unnikrishnan SVP of Strategy and Corporate Development, IDEX corporation in her keynote said “making change happen is the job of strategy and leadership”. In a complicated messaging world, Tim Cook’s Mother Nature video got replayed in front of an audience of 600 PR people, adding to the 3 million and counting who have already seen it. Taking a contrarian view, Roopa asked the audience to consider three questions “Is it Authentic? Strategic? Sustainable?” And went on to explain how in her view it was none of these. Fans will be fans and there will be many who love it. But what about signals from the edge? Are we listening to the other views? Strategy is evolving and we must be open to recognise what lies around the next corner. Ask the question “What does 2030 look like (for your industry)?” she advised the audience. An example that she shared of what could be a new trend that is coming your way is the concept of “Non-growth”. This is essentially a ‘zero-waste’ idea of what growth could look like, without growth, that is growing in Europe. A perfect reminder to me that the PR professional’s role is to bring the outside in and look around the corners to help business leaders navigate an ever-changing world. To do this effectively I must be open to hearing contrarian views however uncomfortable they may make me feel.
Lesson #4. The glass door effect. Among many other things, Rebecca Wilson EVP International, WE Communication in her keynote “It’s Personal – The New Rules of Corporate Reputation” unpacked the growing importance of Employer branding and underlined how it is now a key driver of reputation. To do meaningful work in public relations her mantra was “Make it brave. Make it real. Make it personal.”. I believe the pandemic opened the door for all of us to truly see and appreciate the importance of engaging with employees as a key audience. For a while, employees became the centre of the storytelling universe. As we head back into a hybrid workplace, the need to keep employees engaged and culturally aligned is going to be one of the big asks. It will also be a massive opportunity to showcase the power of the public relations function, if we approach this keeping in mind that nurturing employee advocacy and navigating employee activism will become central to creating and building a strong corporate reputation.
Lesson #5. The role of pattern recognition in public relations. This insight came to the audience courtesy Farzana Baduel, CEO Curzon PR. “Listen to people whose views don’t match our own. Break down silos. Listen to hostile stakeholders. Try and understand it from their point of view.” Most importantly she spoke about the need for Empathy to view all perspectives. To illustrate the role a PR practitioner can play in helping a leader of business get an external perspective, she gave the example of something we often hear clients say “We don’t have any competitors…” and then juxtaposed that with what you hear if you go out into the market and listened to what the external environment had to say, you often get something like “we don’t see any difference between them and a host of others…” PR people can add value to organisations by helping them understand what tomorrow will look like and by spotting patterns in the environment. 5 things to do that she left the audience with – “Make horizon scanning part of the process and embed it into company culture. Keep an eye on competition. Work with internal comms. Assemble a horizon-scanning task force. Change your mindset by changing your news diet.”
Which brings me to Lesson #6. The idea of a health news diet. World Public Relations Forum is technically not PRAXIS but after I met Isabel Lara, CCO, NPR on the WPRF stage and listened to her talk about the importance of #ResponsibleCommunication and a healthy news diet, this topic stayed with me on the side-lines as PRAXIS unfolded. The more I reflect on the idea, the more I am convinced that like healthy eating there is no one right diet. Some people like to consume different kinds of content to get both right-wing and left-wing perspectives. Others want to block out the negative news and focus on consuming only information relevant to their interests. Yet another set wants to break the bubbles that algorithms create and go in search of serendipitous content that could lead them to new spaces and places. Being mindful of the quantity and quality of news consumption is a good place to start. Make aware and informed choices about where you get your information and who shapes your views. Make healthy news consumption a priority and you will find the right news diet for yourself.
Lesson #7. Understanding humans is at the core of the PR profession. Shayoni Lynn, CEO and Founder of Lynn (a behavioural science communications company) asked us to focus on “Why people do what they do”. She also reminded us that as PR practitioners – Persuasion Vs. manipulation is a big responsibility. She then brought alive the nudge theory with these simple examples of everyday life “Met someone for the first time in a pub. They buy the first round of drinks and you feel inclined to buy the next. In a train, a stranger asks you to keep an eye on their bag when they go to the loo. You are Extra vigilant. Head to a new restaurant in a new location. You check out Trip Advisor which lists the top 10 and this informs where you eat.” All of these are ‘nudges’ that impact behaviour. She reminded us to focus on deepening our understanding of “what is the problem we are trying to solve” and “what are the barriers?” Bringing this all together she ended with a lovely case study related to health communication. “Do it for yourself…” positive reframing of the message related to the Covid vaccination, linking it with personal benefits. “Take the vaccination – So that you can go to the pub. So that you can Go on holiday…” And so on. So, what? These kinds of PR campaigns delivered outcomes not outputs. In this particular case 77 percent improvement in a particular age group taking their vaccination which was very significant. A perfect reminder that the power of PR comes from understanding humans and then framing campaigns to drive change.
Lesson #8. Misinformation and Disinformation makes PR more important than ever before. This too from Shayoni’s keynote, was a timely reminder about the distinction between these two types of fake news. Mis-information is without intent and disinformation is done with malicious intent. Dis-information is organised. Dis-information is systematised. Dis-information is funded. It’s a serious threat and also a huge opportunity for public relations professionals to address in an equally well-organised, systematised, and funded manner. The relevance and need for Public Relations is only going to grow with technology allowing bad actors to manipulate media at scale. We are best placed to help the world counter this challenge.
Lesson #9. We must be the change makers. Farzana in her Q&A with Arun Sudhamun underlined this point. If we want public relations to live up to its potential, as practitioners we must push back when the gap between reality and the communication we are being asked to deliver is visible. We must have the courage and confidence to stand up to anyone asking us to whitewash or greenwash. Powerful PR is rooted in doing what you say and saying what you do. The Professional PR person’s role is to make sure there is no gap. We must call out overstatements, be the author of action, and the custodians of keeping it real and relevant.
Lesson #10. Mental Wellness must remain centre-stage. Mental health was once again missing from the agenda. A topic that PRAXIS brought to our notice in 2018 at Goa, courtesy of a fantastic session that Dr. Samir Parikh of Fortis hosted. The pandemic brought home the importance of mental wellbeing and it got a lot of much-needed support and attention. Maybe we don’t want to deal with this difficult topic anymore or maybe we are just tired of it. While it may not have been a point of conversation on the main stage, in many of the individual chats with people, it’s evident to me that the scars have barely healed. People are hurting. People are searching for answers. The need to create a psychological safe space for all those in need to heal and hear themselves is of paramount importance for a high-stress industry like public relations. I do hope that this topic finds its way back onto the main PRAXIS stage in the next edition.
In conclusion, PRAXIS10 underlined for me the power of showing up. There were 19 of us who have managed to show up for all 10 editions. I have had the pleasure of attending the first 6 along with my lovely wife Deepa (that is us at Mysore on September 25th, 2015 knocking heads with some of the best brains in the business was the photo caption as FB reminded me). I hope we are able to find our way to PRAXIS11 in Pune as a couple. Cheers to all of us and to every delegate, speaker, and sponsor who has made their way to any one or more of these wonderful get-togethers.
According to the website, “The purpose of PRAXIS is to offer the fraternity a platform to gather, learn, share and engage. In Latin, PRAXIS means ‘to act’ or ‘to do’.” Take a bow core team PRAXIS and volunteers, you put together another class act for the world of public relations and you do the Indian PR industry proud.
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