Always on the communications trail, he has never shied away from plugging in his business skills, as he was well aware that communication plays a key role for any organisation. N S Rajan, Global Partner and Managing Director at Ketchum Sampark has clearly made a name for himself in playing a leading role in redefining financial and corporate communications in India.
Rajan started his career with the Associated Cement Companies (ACC), and then moved to Essar Group, where he spearheaded their strategic communication policies, transforming the group’s reputation from an up-and-coming Indian business conglomerate to one of India’s largest industrial businesses with interests in steel, oil, shipping and telecom.
In 1994, Rajan partnered with Bela Rajan to launch Sampark Public Relations. In 2011, Omnicom Group’s Ketchum acquired a majority stake in Sampark PR and he developed and executed distinctive, high-impact global communications campaigns – to strengthen corporate reputation, outpace competition and dominate the marketplace. His contribution is significant in building and nurturing several global and Indian brands such as – DSP Merrill Lynch, ICICI Prudential, Fitch Ratings, ICICI Venture, Bajaj Auto, Tech Mahindra, Hutchinson Max, ABB, Exide and Lafarge.
Here, he shares his views with Shree Lahiri on what 2019 has in store, the digital revolution, the evolving world of PR, investing in a school of PR in his personal capacity and more…
RT: After Ketchum, acquired a majority stake in Sampark PR, in 2011, how would you describe your journey?
We have been working together with Ketchum for over 15 years, first as preferred partners for seven years and now as a JV for over eight years. We match perfectly in terms of culture and business philosophy and are able to offer our clients an amalgam of solutions based on best of global practices and our deep understanding of the domestic market.
RT: On the growth perspective, what would you look forward to in 2019?
We have a great franchisee with long relationships with several clients and have been successful not only in building brands but also categories. Almost a fourth of our clients are over a decade old and many of them are 15 – 20 year old relationships. The challenge is to continue to be in sync with their dynamic needs and be relevant in their growth strategies.
We are deeply integrated with the global network and in the last few years we have adopted a more cohesive approach with Ketchum / OPRG in servicing clients both at the global as well as regional levels. Given that good talent is at a premium, we continue to evaluate hire-to-acquire strategy which has secured us quality talent besides clients in the past.
RT: How, according to you is digital changing the way PR functions?
Digital technology has changed almost everything about modern life from the way we buy our stuff to how and where we work. The digital revolution has had more impact on the practice of PR. In fact, I would even say that what PR professionals do today is a whole different practice from even what they did five years back. Social media and blogging have blurred the lines between earned, owned, and paid media, and conversations relevant to brands happen on more channels and more frequently than ever before. More and more marketers are learning the truism that the story your consumer tells about your brand is far more powerful than the story you tell about yourself.
RT: You started your career with the Associated Cement Companies, and then moved to the Essar Group to spearhead its strategic communication policies. How would you describe that experience in the corporate world?
These were perhaps my most fulfilling years in terms of learning. I had a ringside view of the business with all its complexities across various functions and made me realise that practice of PR cannot be in isolation but it has to facilitate the business in attaining its objectives and goals. These learnings have certainly helped and kept me in good stead in dealing with the accomplished and highly successful corporate leaders we work with and having a deep-rooted and long relationships with them.
RT: PR has been evolving with time. Where do you see it heading in the future in India?
We are living in challenging times. India is going through a rapid change. At the macro level changes in regulations, consumer preferences and competition / consolidation has brought huge headwinds for many companies including leaders till recently. Disruptive technology including AI is redefining businesses in many segments which necessitates the leadership, including the communications head, to be on their toes or risk becoming irrelevant.
The practice of PR has assumed its own complexities. Today news travels at supersonic speed through a multitude of channels and is nearly instantaneous–it’s online, mere moments after it’s picked up by a media. It leaves very little time for PR practitioners to respond through a statement or even a social media post. A small number of opinions can go global and become a worldwide view, so managing these in the traditional and digital media has become essential and herein lies the challenge.
The bigger challenge for a PR professional today is that every person with a social media account is a potential opinion maker, and his or her story could potentially outsell any newspaper’s front page, or any channel’s breaking news! This awareness has led to a dark citizen initiative of ‘fake news” that looks for those few hours of fame … and doesn’t go away from easily.
RT: What was the thinking while investing in a school of PR in your personal capacity?
The talent crunch in Indian PR space is well chronicled so I won’t dwell deeply on this. When we recruited from many of the communication schools in the past I invariably had to suggest to the new joinees that they unlearn much of what they learnt and get themselves familiarised with the real world. It was perhaps easier to hire graduates or management students, who could be moulded to fit the roles we had in Ketchum Sampark. I always felt that the profession needed a good finishing school which would churn out students who are PR-ready and could seamless fit into a role from day one. I do believe the School of Communication and Reputation ( SCoRe ), the first PR school in the country, has taken baby steps to convert that vision into reality, thanks to Amith Prabhu and Hemant Gaule and supported by the who’s who of PR business.
RT: What are your hobbies that help you spend leisure time and ensure a work-life balance.
Whenever I can squeeze time, I go to the jungles which rejuvenate and recharge me. During weekends I try and catch a round of golf besides spending time with Dodo, my 15 year old Labrador, who brings great joy and is a stress buster. I wish I could have more time for my others interests – reading and photography.
RT: What are the most important areas that PR professionals need to focus on today?
Creation of meaningful content using smart data to engage diverse audiences within the framework of a firm’s messaging will be a key to rise above the clutter and succeed in today’s highly competitive environment. This is all the more important in a country like India, with its regional and linguistic hues. Also content will have to be visually engaging and interesting because attention spans are reducing by the day! Of course, the person or organisation making it must be credible enough to create the right impact.