Guru Speak – Atul Ahluwalia

Atul Ahluwalia, is the Founding Partner of First Partners, a premier communications consultancy which focuses on driving business outcomes through communications. Over a 25-year long career in public relations, Atul has spearheaded many award winning PR campaigns in the country, for companies in industries such as FMCG, aviation, banking, consumer electronics, hospitality, technology and telecommunications. Atul is the former Vice Chairman of Weber Shandwick, India and a Founding Member & Ex Chairman of the Constitutional and Advisory Committee, Public Relations Consultants Association of India.

In a candid talk with Shree Lahiri, he speaks extensively on how PR has evolved, issue management and public affairs methodologies, integrating digital media and more…

RT: According to you, two areas which need strong focus are – Issue Management and Public Affairs. Please elaborate.

AA: Issue management and public affairs methodologies are increasingly becoming central to all strategic PR programs today. Many use public affairs and government relations interchangeably which is not correct. At the heart of a public affairs programme is the need to shape public opinion. This is becoming relevant even in case of traditional specialisations like consumer PR or technology PR. There is growing consumer activism and mistrust in the consumer space too, which eventually impacts the sentiments of stakeholders other than consumers, and thus business success. Practitioners who keep an eye on the big picture, on how public opinion is shaping as a result of day-to-day campaigns will bring greater strategic value to the function.

RT: How have you integrated digital media with the operations of your PR firm?

AA: I am amazed at the speed with which digital content has been replacing traditional delivery vehicles in India as well. Today, there is a growing segment of businesses, who accord higher priority to digital visibility than print as their customers are there.

At First Partners, we had the opportunity to re-set the mix from the very first day to make digital communication core to everything we do. We believe digital and traditional skills should not be represented by separate teams and hence all our members are encouraged to think in a media agnostic manner.

RT: It was after a long haul of more than two decades in the business, that you departed from Weber Shandwick, India. How has the shift been, after you set up First Partners with PR veteran Dilip Yadav?

AA: It has been an exhilarating journey for us so far. We expanded the founding team by acquiring Go2Media founded by Santanu Gogoi and have been able to grow quickly.

Our vision was to start a firm which took PR to the next level and addressed existing gaps in the business. Towards this end, we believe that PR must drive business outcomes and not bring about perception shifts alone. This is when PR would be valued as a first-level function. This is why we named our firm First Partners!
First Partners team comprises senior professionals who have a good understanding of business needs as well as communication. To complement this, we have built a team of Domain, Research, Content and Digital specialists who work together with one mission – to help drive clients’ business outcomes.

RT: What are the challenges of the new-age professionals, who have entered the workforce – the Millennials?

AA: The new-age professionals are very good in embracing technology and can relate very well with the behavioural context of the new-age consumer. However, to be successful in a country as diverse as India, where the mass market is still traditional, they need to be cautious and not get overtly swayed by the new age.

I hear from several clients that while they are happy with the digital communication recommendations of the younger members they miss the traditional media inclusion which is still core to many. A good PR professional needs to be well-rounded and be able to respond to all kinds of situations. This requires getting one’s feet onto the street, understanding the traditional audience as well and building relationships at multiple levels.

RT: What would you outline as the key growth drivers for your firm in 2017?

AA: On the business side, our firm’s key growth driver would be our “Business Outcome” model. Given our extensive experience over the past two decades of some of India’s most memorable campaigns, we have evolved an advanced model for driving business outcomes through communication.

On the talent side, we have pioneered a unique entrepreneurial model where we provide a platform to like-minded senior PR professionals to independently operate as entrepreneurs and manage their practices. Our own experience told us that after a successful run in the profession many senior practitioners miss being able to stay close to what they enjoy most, like creating path-breaking campaigns, as they get drawn into other issues. However, there are few options which offer them the security of a big firm as well as the freedom of an entrepreneurial set-up. This is where the First Partners model has several firsts in the way we structure our association with our partners.

RT: How has the world of Public Relations evolved over the years?

AA: Over the last decade Public Relations has evolved both as a discipline and a practice. The discipline has gotten better integrated with other communication functions. In many instances PR has acquired the lead communication role, which was earlier the prerogative of advertising. As a practice, PR has become more creative and compelling with the inclusion of sophisticated skills in content development and production. With the advent of social media, PR today has become all-encompassing and powerful.

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