Curiosity killed the cat, so we have heard. But for Rakesh Thukral, Managing Director, Edelman India it is a different story. It was his “constant curiosity” and “love for information” that led him into the world of PR. A world, where “One of the biggest learnings has been the constant need to create value”, he points out.
A community veteran with an experience that spans over two decades – in public affairs and communications, he joined Edelman India in 2010 to set up the firm’s Public Affairs and Advocacy practice. To his credit, it was here that Rakesh successfully built the Public Affairs practice which grew to be one of the largest in the country.
Before joining Edelman, Rakesh Thukral was the COO of Comma Consulting and with IPAN. He was also on the governing board of Sarthak, an organisation that worked towards the cause of mental health, and was an Outreach Consultant at the Bureau of Energy Efficiency.
In this interview with Shree Lahiri, he discusses how he got into the PR profession, the digital push, how social media has helped storytelling, challenges met by PR today, the state of trust in India and more…
RT: Backed by over 20 years of experience, how would you describe your journey?
It’s been a great journey! This profession has helped me quench my entrepreneurial spirit – something that I inherited from my parents: the desire to create, build and grow.
My curiosity gets the better of me. How do you create something without being curious? I feel if you remain curious, you’ll have the ability to create immense value by connecting the dots for yourself and for others.
I tell myself every day – keep learning. And that’s what my last 28 years in this profession have been; I’ve been on a constant learning curve. My learning comes from the youngest colleague at work, what I read, my 13-year old at home, my peers, my clients, all of them. One of the biggest learnings has been the constant need to create value. And I strongly believe that in PR, we create value at every step; whether it is for our people, our clients or the larger environment in which we operate.
RT: How did you get into the profession in the 90s?
I’ve always been interested in news. As a child too, I would be interested in reading newspapers and listening to the news on the radio to know and understand what was happening around me and in the world. This constant curiosity and my love for information got me into PR, albeit with a part-time position where we gathered, processed and managed the storage of news and information for clients. I liked what I got as work, it involved reading. Every day, I would read a lot. And the experience helped me understand the media landscape significantly. With time, I worked with new technologies to manage the information; I began to have a better understanding of organisational issues, public affairs and appreciating clients’ problems, looking at both from a solutions’ perspective.
RT: How has the digital push heightened the importance of PR in the business ecosystem today?
The digital push is not limited to Public Relations; it is everywhere. Digital is the new invisible tissue connecting the economy and now many social interactions. There is a clear impact of that on every business, including the PR business. But what is different with PR is that we have to think digital first. That’s the big difference that we see the way our profession is evolving. Digital first is not an option but a necessity and will change the way communications is done. The change is already underway, and the pace from here on will be rapid.
RT: Share with us your thoughts on how social media has helped in story telling?
There are two aspects to this. Looking at the positives, we can say with certainty that social media has made story telling more instant, more interactive and visual. It has also become somewhat measurable. But on the other hand, social media has also made storytelling fleeting and transitory. It is a moment in time – not because of the value of the story being told but because of the diminishing attentions pans. News cycles are short and snappy, thanks to consumers of news and information lacking patience in a fast-paced world.
Having said that, we must bear in mind that several things are happening in tandem that are changing the way we tell our stories. On the one hand, internet users in India are rapidly increasing with numbers expected to reach 627 million in 2019 and there is high data penetration in India thanks to the cost of data coming down. Demographics of social media audiences are also changing. We now must reach out to a wider, more varied audience on social media where storytelling has to be evolved and pointed.
RT: How do you see the dovetailing of general communications support along with Public Affairs and Advocacy in the future?
The issue is not about the dovetailing of general communications support with Public Affairs (PA) and Advocacy, it is about communications, with PA and advocacy getting linked, thanks to digital playing the role of the connecting tissue. Today, if heads of state or governments talk, their first port of call is social media. If some CEOs are admired or recalled more than the others, it is because of their social media presence. From policies to politics, everything is being discussed on social media, and everything has a digital focus. The reputation of an organisation is reflected in the Digital Reputation it enjoys. And, advocacy has a strong social media stream to it.
RT: What are the challenges faced by PR firms today?
I see two clear challenges facing PR firms today.
First, PR firms need to be more profitable, by adding more financial value to the business – firms need to charge more, pay more, profit more and reinvest in the business. We need to up the value chain!
Second, is the crisis of talent. It is not very different from other sectors and continues to plague our profession. We face challenges in attracting domain experts, long-term talent, and in retention of talent. The advent of digital has made the talent cycle shorter – the nature of the work keeps evolving, often outpacing the rate at which skills can be developed.
RT: Comment on the state of trust in India as revealed in the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer.
As you may be aware, for nearly two decades now, the Edelman Trust Barometer has explored critical aspects of the trust people repose in four significant institutions – government, media, business and NGOs. The results of this year’s Trust Barometer for India came out in January. It is extremely relevant to mention that the survey findings vis-à-vis trust in government, which was high, found reflection in the results of the general elections held a few months later. The survey results show that trust in business in India is also high. Trust in media & NGOs has seen ups and downs and people are extremely concerned about the scourge of fake news. But the single biggest thing that stood out in this year’s findings was the trust reposed in employers.
This year, apart from the four institutions mentioned above, we measured trust at the workplace, and it turns out that people have huge trust in their employers.
RT: What is the future of Trust in a fragmented world?
Globally, there is a divergence in trust between the elite and mass population. But the world is united on one front—all share an urgent desire for change. Only one in five feels that the system is working for them, with nearly half of the mass population believing that the system is failing them. Instead of looking at the future, we need to address the present crisis of trust that is prevalent globally across institutions. This crisis in trust needs to be contained across institutions, businesses and brands. Even more critical is to contain the crisis of trust in what has been a fact of life – as people, we are unsure about how we will collectively manage significant challenges such as climate change and population.
RT: What is your advice for the new generation of PR professionals starting their career?
My advice to them would be this: Invest in your career; don’t be in a rush. And by that, I mean take the time to learn what you get into and do it well.
My second sincere advice to them would be to stay curious – if they allow curiosity to drive their daily educational cycle, the dividends they will reap will be robust.
RT: How do you spend your leisure time?
Apart from reading (and I favour current affairs and fiction), I love listening to music of all kinds. And also make sure I spend as much time as I can with my family. I love travel and have deep interest in environment, elder care, health and water as topics of importance.