In Conversation with Madhu Chhibber

Today, we see influencer marketing surging ahead. Bridging the gap, influencers connect brands to consumers in such a way that we are subconsciously influenced by what we see and hear online, ultimately shaping our thoughts, without us even realising it! Madhu Chhibber, Chief Executive Officer, Madison PR puts the spotlight on this as she elucidates on how her firm “uses Influencer Marketing very well” – a significant trend, for the future scape.

With 24 years of experience, that covers successful tenures with Indian and international organisations in leadership roles, she has been a business communications advisor to the leadership of several respected companies/brands, both in India and internationally. With a clear lead on PR & Marketing Communications for a formidable portfolio of over 100 globally respected brands, across seven countries in the Middle East region, Madhu has rich experience in supporting brands in new market introductions across different geographies, as well as developing integrated communications solutions. Consequently, she has worked on many high-profile, award winning campaigns.

Currently, she is completing almost two years in her role as CEO at Madison PR. Having worked on both sides of the table, she was CEO at Perfect Relations, and spent around eight years at the Al Tayer group in Dubai, where she was responsible for all external and internal communications in the Middle East region.

She has also been a Council Member with the GLG (Gerson Lehrman Group, Inc). During the beginning of her career, she spent a decade-plus at Good Relations, where she had joined as an Executive and rose to head the Delhi branch.

In this conversation, she talks to Shree Lahiri about the origins of her journey, taking over the reins at Madison PR, the long stint at Al Tayer Group in the Middle East, the evolution of PR, some campaigns, some tips for youngsters aspiring to join PR and more….

RT: How did your journey into Public Relations commence?

MC: I was working towards pursuing a Masters in International Relations when a chance conversation with Mr Ravi Dubey changed the course of things. Ravi Dubey as you probably know was a Tata Administrative Services (TAS) officer; an immensely charismatic person with a flair for communications, who later went on to head Corporate Affairs at the Indian Hotels Company Limited. At that time he was the CEO of PR firm, Good Relations India Ltd and hearing him speak about the varied and significant mandates that the consultancy worked on, got me interested to learn more about PR and eventually study towards taking it up as a career option. I started my career at Good Relations, which at the time was amongst India’s finest PR firms and had an impressive client roster, as also, work culture. So joining PR happened quite by chance and I’ve enjoyed the journey so far.

RT: After taking over the reins at Madison PR as CEO, how has the journey been?

MC: While the nature of work at a PR firm is essentially the same, some aspects differentiate one from another. Madison PR is particularly strong in sectors like FMCG, Consumer, Retail, Corporate, Lifestyle, Hospitality, Pharma and Healthcare. Being a part of the Madison World gives the firm an edge in being able to offer integrated services from within the group companies. While focus remains on offering a solutions-driven approach as communication partners to our clients, creativity in ideation is held dear. I also see us use Influencer Marketing very well. Considering that one of the significant trends for the future is reported to be about finding authentic ways to create with video based platforms and working with influencers, Madison PR counts this as a strength that we continue to build on. I’m part of a wonderful culture here where learning is encouraged and fear of failure doesn’t keep us from pursuing a worthy idea. Sam Balsara, is an inspiration with his passion for excellence in service and leading from the front.

RT: What were the highlights of your tenure at Perfect Relations?

MC: I joined at a time of change and challenge and with some fine professionals by my side, we made a success of things. Several amazing brands from diverse industries were added during my tenure ranging from Air India to Bank of Baroda to Walmart to Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC), amongst many others. Re-energising and establishing a strong Sports Practice is something I recall with satisfaction as well as integrating the digital component more strongly in our work, a lot of which went on to win top honours at national and international awards. Equally satisfying was delivering well on several large crisis mandates. In fact, managing a full-service firm, counted amongst India’s largest independent firms and, being at the helm of affairs when it transitioned to becoming a part of a larger international entity, was a journey rich in experiences.

RT: You had a long stint at Al Tayer Group in the Middle East. Share your experiences from there.

MC: I feel that moving to another country as an expat makes a definite impression on one’s vision of life and one’s worldview. At Al Tayer my role managed communications support for seven countries, necessitating sound understanding of policy, political environment and cultural nuances apart from knowledge of the media landscape of each. We supported a portfolio of over a 100 globally respected brands across industry sectors, managed solely by an in-house PR team. Exposure to best-in-class systems and processes, as a result of working closely with the head offices of these global brands, was a great learning. Working with a multi-cultural team was interesting and personally enriching. Newer challenges involved leading on communications programmes to support organisational Change Management as well as a large scale restructuring exercise in a multi-billion AED organisation of 8000 employees. During my tenure I expanded and restructured the PR function, with us being acknowledged and awarded for excellence and ‘best in class’ PR work in Asia/ EMEA by several global brands represented by the Group.

I feel PR was interpreted in a broader context with greater integration with the Marketing function. In recent years of course we’ve seen more of that in our work here. Having said that, India is a fantastic place to be for a PR professional, with so much happening in the communications profession and business. I feel lucky to have experienced both.

RT: With over two decades of experience how would you describe your career?

MC: In one word – fulfilling! I’ve been fortunate to experience working in different geographies, different business sectors as well as seeing things from both sides of the fence, having had an in-house role as well as in PR firms. These tenures have allowed me the opportunity to work with some of the most respected brands in the world; interactions with leadership of several global entities; mandates that vary in nature, scope and complexity, and a host of opportunities to continue being on the learning curve, shaping me into the professional I am.

RT: How has PR evolved over the decades you have been part of it?

MC: Things have changed a lot while remaining the same in some ways. Smart, credible content is still a strength and campaigns with strong creative ideas continue to distinguish themselves and resonate with the audience. However, we now live in times where we are witnessing an unprecedented pace of technological change; imaginative new ways of creating content and a very diverse stakeholder community to be engaged with. All of this impacts the way we communicate.

Today, the PR vocabulary includes terms like Artificial Intelligence, Podcasts, Video Storytelling, Fake news, Data and analytics, SEO, Web Analytics; clearly technology is impacting the way we share and receive information. Sharing a light-hearted example -when I started my career, TIME Magazine’s Person of the year was Dr Ho, a scientist who’s done pioneering work in the treatment for AIDS. Cut to 2018: TIME’s 25 most influential people on the Internet, 2018 includes Miquela Sousa. A 19-year-old Brazilian-American model, musical artist, an influencer with over 1.8 million Instagram followers,‘she’s’ acomputer-generated fictional character who works with fashion magazines and advocates for social change. Need I say more about how much has changed?

RT: What are some of the challenges facing the PR business today?

MC: The lines between PR, marketing, digital marketing and advertising are fast blurring, making it imperative for us to work more closely with these functions while developing a PR solution. The art of storytelling is witnessing a change. Now it’s also about message delivery in a snackable way that catches audience attention (across social media platforms) as well as effective utilization of the video format, thus making learning and upskilling a constant need. The lack of timely adoption of tech by firms/ individuals could become a challenge for them. An always-on world, with breaking of news and information share online, puts pressure on PR professionals to deal with something that may yet be unfolding and which might have the potential to impact brand reputation. Impact of communication efforts on business outcome is more important than ever; outcomes rather than output is increasingly being asked for and this means that the business needs professionals, who are committed to continued learning and upskilling. While the bar is rising higher with reference to the task from PR, attracting the right talent into the industry continues to be a challenge.

RT: How do you spend your leisure time?

MC: I love reading, experimental cooking, pottering about as an amateur gardener in my garden, painting and the occasional travel getaway, ideally to a place with really poor network!

RT: What are some of the memorable campaigns you worked on?

MC: There are several! One from the recent past involved crisis communications support over an extended period of time for a reputed Atta brand. A malicious video claimed that the Atta from that brand contained plastic; that if the dough made from it was washed several times in water, it resulted in an elastic like substance (claimed to be plastic) which caused panic and confusion among lakhs of viewers. A protein, ‘gluten’ naturally found in wheat flour was being misrepresented as plastic in the branded Atta. Multiple videos making similar claims, mushroomed across the country by consumers. It took a regionally differentiated strategy to address each of the local & hyper local markets that saw the issue erupt. Swift and decisive actions from all stakeholders involved led to ensuring that the desired communications objectives were accomplished while the issue was contained effectively. This reputation management campaign went on to win top honours at several PR awards.

Picking a second and different example, I was also involved in the development of the retail marketing communications programme for the market introduction (in the UAE), of the first and only Bloomingdale’s outside the U.S. Starting from a national scale brand awareness audit; to consumer focus groups; to pre-launch vendor engagement communications; to a gala business event in the brand’s home market (U.S.), culminating in a high decibel launch in the UAE – there were several layers to the market entry strategy of the brand in the country. This highly successful integrated campaign made the brand a consumer favourite in a highly competitive retail environment, in no time.

RT: What is your advice for youngsters wanting to enter the world of PR?

MC: Young people today are savvy with effortless adoption of the latest in Digital / Social media, which is great. However I believe that somewhere the habit of reading is getting neglected. No matter how good we are with modern tools and platforms of communication, I believe that the love for reading, writing, an eye for detail and an ability to express one’s point of view with conviction, are key attributes for someone wanting to take up PR as a profession. You’re going to need to stay tuned into not just sector specific news and happenings but also national news and world affairs.

Also, there is perhaps a greater impatience amongst young people than ever before to get to the next thing; so I’d say please commit to spending quality time in a job/industry absorbing, learning, perfecting before moving to the next. And the next.

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Shree Lahiri
Shree is the Senior Editor at Reputation Today and hopes to move from one focus area to another in the editions that will be released this year. Having worked in Corporate Communications teams, she has experience of advertising, public relations, investor and employee communications, after which she moved to the other side – journalism. She enjoys writing and believes the power of the pen is indeed mighty. Covering the entertainment beat and the media business, she has been involved in a wide range of activities that have thrown open storytelling opportunities.

She can be reached at: @shree_la on twitter

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