Varsha Chainani is Senior Vice President, Group Communications at Mahindra & Mahindra. Prior to this she has held senior management positions at Abbott Laboratories and IBM India. A senior marketing and communications specialist, she has the ability to foster culture change and apply and translate business strategies to target audiences.
In conversation with Reputation Today, she discusses the importance of reputation management and specialist communication.
RT: What are the challenges that face the PR business today?
VC: Challenges and opportunities are two sides of the same coin. I see three large areas in the Communications and PR business to focus on. The first is the trust deficit that is rising in our society. Our stakeholders, especially customers are becoming increasingly distrustful of several institutions in our society and are demanding transparency and authenticity before they begin to trust. Everyone is looking for credible partners who they can trust. The second is the rapidly changing media landscape in India. Print publications, particularly in urban areas are seeing depleting advertisement revenue stream and are moving towards establishing a balanced business model for their online portals and social media. It becomes critical that we anticipate and deftly move our attention and skill sets to accommodate these mediums in our mainstream strategy and plans.
Equally important is for us practitioners to move towards storytelling. We have to build our brand narrative using stories and experiential mediums to subtly weave in the Company’s brand attributes.
RT: How important is reputation management to solve a company’s business problem(s) today?
VC: Reputation matters more than ever before in this VUCA (Volatility Uncertainty Chaos Ambiguity) world. There isn’t an iota of doubt that a strong reputation is critical to the long-term success and drives stock stability of any brand, locally or globally. Effectively communicating how your company is innovative and hence relevant to your customers, your company’s philosophy and action in the areas of corporate ethics and governance, employee
practices, sustainability and CSR, helps to build and sustain good corporate reputation. That is what we at Mahindra are maniacally focused on.
RT: Do you agree that this is the era of specialist communications? What are your views on this?
VC: As a function, we are specialists. We are the custodians of our organisation’s reputation in both enhancing it and protecting it. Our core competency is to be the ambassadors of our organisation, understand its needs, develop sharp and focused key messages and deliver them through the right channels, speaking directly and powerfully to your target audience.
However, to thrive we need to be generalists, especially as you gain functional expertise. We have to balance multiple skill sets and gain experience and expertise in matters of corporate communications, reputation management and corporate brand positioning.
RT: What are the activities that Mahindra has undertaken at the corporate level that other brands can learn from?
VC: The Mahindra Group is a USD 17.8 billion federation of companies with 200,000 employees across 100 countries, enjoying a strong presence in diverse industry sectors from automotive, agribusiness, financial services and vacation ownership to energy, and from logistics, real estate to aerospace and defence.
Being able to create a pull for the CEOs and leaders across the federation as a counsel is what I would say is critical. Federation, unlike a conglomerate, does not have a centralised structure and hence one has to create value for the businesses/companies to subscribe and support your offerings.
We also refined our group messaging to being more innovation and technology led, global and caring.
RT: There are a number of niche or boutique firms emerging in India. As a senior communicator, what is your advice to them?
VC: PR consultancies are our partners and their skill sets and competencies complements and/or supplements in-house talent. Given the changing media environment, the largest need is for niche boutique consultancies to strategically lead with social media within the media mix. Unique storytelling and hence content creation and curation are key here.
RT: You moved from Abbott India to Mahindra. How has the experience of the last one year been?
VC: I moved from a highly regulated ‘pharmaceuticals’ industry and leading India as a region to an industrial group with many diverse businesses and a global role. It has been an incredibly exciting year filled with incredible experiences as I learn about the size, scope and complexity of the Mahindra Group. I am also deeply impressed by the culture at Mahindra which is empowering, caring and inclusive, and of course, its inspiring leaders.
RT: Do awards in the world of communications really enhance a career graph? What is your opinion?
VC: I think that depends on the credibility of the award but more than awards it is the quality of your work, passion for your craft, zest and drive, your integrity, and your commitment that will help to enhance your career graph.
RT: You moved from being part of an airline crew member and the hotel industry into the world of communications? How was that transition?
VC: I thrive on ambiguity and have the openness to learn and unlearn. I am also my own worst critic and keep challenging myself to do more and better at every step. Cathay Pacific helped me hone problem solving skills, ‘own’ the company approach and presented me with the passion to deal with people across cultures, ages and background and relate to them as equals. From operations, I moved to establishing communications at the Taj Group and there was no looking back thereafter. IT was getting to be the sunrise industry in the year 2000 with Y2K and as luck had it, IBM India came my way then. After 11 years, I moved to Abbott in India setting their Public Affairs function and now the Mahindra Group.
Life has been kind to me. I am on an exciting journey of opportunities and experiences, with all its highs and lows, working with some of the best global brands and amazing people.