Onward and upwards at SPECTRA

SPECTRA, which is the digital avatar of PRAXIS, is probably the single most attended PR event on the planet. Over the last eight years, the annual event has become a pilgrimage of sorts for PR practitioners, where the young and the old, the small and the big, the consultant and the client and other stakeholders of our professional ecosystem come together to get a glimpse of what is new and what is shaping our world of public relations. 

I hope the digital format allows a lot more people to benefit from the wisdom of the formidable line-up of 70+ outstanding speakers representing business, public relations, public affairs, and the media from around the world. It will be a privilege to hear Mr. Suresh Narayanan, Chairman and Managing Director of Nestle India, Rama Bijapurkar, Economist & Thought Leader, Amish Tripathi, Columnist & Author, and some global giants from the PR community such as Margery Kraus, Founder & Executive Chairman of APCO Worldwide and Gail Heimann, President of Weber Shandwick. We will also get to hear the wisdom of Chief Communication Officers of some of the world’s largest corporations representing a diverse range of businesses. If we are attentive, the collective wisdom of all the speakers at SPECTRA will match the value of any Master’s degree course in public relations from any great university in the world. 

The perspectives of so many experts will be immensely enriching, particularly at a time when our whole world has gone topsy-turvy under the massive global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Humanity has not witnessed an event of such magnitude in terms of its health and socio-economic impact. 

The pandemic has revealed so many of our vulnerabilities – as individuals, as businesses, and as a society. With all the advances in science, medicine and predictive analytics, we were caught completely off-guard by this black swan event. We have seen a monumental unpreparedness at a government level, and the crisis of leadership across governments and institutions, and the shameful inability of those in power to come together to solve the problem. 

There are some reasons for satisfaction too. The crisis has demonstrated our strength of character and resilience at multiple levels. It gives me immense satisfaction to see how the average Indian showed resilience to deal with the crisis. I have not seen even the deprived sections of Indian society break-down in their confidence. In part, it has to do with the Indian value system. In part, the strength of our family ecosystem. In part, perhaps due to our innate spirituality and tolerance to bear with difficulty. 

I am very happy with the conduct of our community too. We stood tall and we stood by each other. As consultancy professionals, we stood with our clients 24X7; as comms teams, we worked relentlessly to mitigate the business and reputation impact of the crisis. Our relevance as a profession has been demonstrated in a glorious way. We exhibited the same kind of character and responsiveness that Healthcare and other essential services did. I have no hesitation in saying that we have conducted ourselves as heroines, as heroes and that I regard my profession as a hero profession. I am sure that the pandemic experience has strengthened our resolve to be more relevant than ever before. 

The story is equally satisfactory in material terms. Compared to media and other marcomm disciplines, we had the least job losses, the least salary cuts and nobody crumbled. Most of us are on the way to substantial or full recovery – and if my information is right – most of the salary cuts across the community have been restored or are being restored. This is a solid testimony of our strength and usefulness as well as the value of our intermediation between business and society. We could justifiably call ourselves an essential service. 

There is light at the end of the tunnel – rather, the end of the tunnel is in plain sight. The vaccine is around the corner – it’s a matter of months. The economic recovery has been very rapid in the last few months; in many sectors it is like a v-shaped recovery. The stock market – BSE Sensex and the Nifty are at an all-time high. Policy reforms to encourage investments in manufacturing, opening banking to the corporate sector, land and labour reforms will boost the economic activity in times to come. The future of work – with ideas like work from home or work from anywhere will unleash significant efficiencies and productivity of resources. A tsunami of youthful entrepreneurship is sweeping the land creating new forces of wealth and economic power. Lastly, the power of a billion aspirations will provide the tailwind for sustained growth. 

While FY21 may show a small contraction in GDP, we should expect growth picking up in the years ahead. 

Now let’s shift our gaze to the future and see the imminent changes in the business that will impact our organisations and consequently us as public relations practitioners. 

A cursory reading of the media commentary suggests that the post-pandemic environment will be full of existential challenges to business. Accelerated change and disruption will be a way of life. There is nothing called a new normal – everything will be in dynamic motion, causing instability and uncertainty. 

The forces of disruption are well known – Information Technology, Biotechnology, climate change, multi-dimensional polarisation in society, demographic shifts, increased regulation, geopolitics of the neighbourhood, hyper-nationalisation and a new cold-war. There are structural shifts happening in the political/business dynamic in India which will create a new layer of complexity. 

Activism is not new to PR practitioners, but it is showing a new intensity and spread from across constituencies. It is safe to say that business, as a powerful constituent of society, will be under unprecedented scrutiny and finding itself positioned at the cross-roads of conflict. 

There is all-round evidence of retribution and stakeholders demanding accountability and responsible corporate conduct. The chorus comes from multiple constituencies including investors, lenders, social activists, millennial employees, consumers, and communities around manufacturing plants alike. The Chairman of Goldman Sachs, David Solomon recently said that he won’t work with companies with all-white, all-male Corporate Boards. The Blackrock Chairman, Larry Fink said that they must place sustainability at the center of their investment approach. The New York Times recently published a letter issued by three members of the Rockefeller family urging banks not to invest in companies using fossil fuels. The Harvard Business Review in its 2019 survey of the world’s best CEOs, assigned a 30% weightage to Environment, Social & Governance (ESG) track record of the company in ranking the CEOs. In a landmark decision, in 2020, the HBR has scrapped the top 100 CEOs list altogether, citing inadequate diversity as the principal reason. Similarly, policymakers across the world are pushing back on the conduct of the Big Tech.

The Indian investors, lenders and institutions will take cognizance of these issues in due time, but the netizens are a great barometer. Any corporate misdemeanour is punished swiftly and sometimes disproportionately, causing great impact to business and reputation. Businesses must understand and appreciate the dominant public sentiment in social media is one of grief, frustration, helplessness and anger. 

The combined impact of these powerful forces is enough to keep CEOs awake at night for a long time to come. When CEOs are awake at night, they keep the comms people awake at night. When communications folks are awake at night, they will by extension, keep the consultancy folks awake at night. 

Business leaders are rapidly waking up to the new reality. The new corporate vocabulary is getting enriched with words like purpose, empathy, compassion, social responsibility, diversity, equity, governance and inclusion. It’s good to hear these emotions being expressed and reiterated in interviews, meetings, webinars, conferences and a bulk of recent management literature. There is perhaps now an acute realisation that lip service won’t work – some real behavioural shifts are necessary. The business risks for not taking cognizance of these factors are existential in nature. The investors and the lenders are the first to recognise this risk to their portfolios and are therefore leading the chorus for change. I sincerely hope these financial institutions also practice what they preach. 

What does this unprecedented situation mean for the future of public relations – short-term, mid-term and long-term? The question is well worth some deep reflection. 

Is the profession ready for delivering on these challenges? How prepared are we to serve our firms and clients? What is the delta in our individual or collective competencies as communication consultants or comms teams? How do we change and evolve at the rate of stakeholder expectations? How do we get ready to help our clients or our businesses navigate through this turbulence?

The question is, are we putting in the required effort to deliver on our responsibilities and obligations? Our role as lookouts, as conscience-keepers and arbitrators of conflict demands a certain learning agility – which will be the key to our success. 

There is a powerful motivation for us to change and evolve – which is the massive opportunity embedded in the current challenges and complexities. To borrow a phrase from Mr. Anand Mahindra, this situation represents a rise moment for all of us. We should seize this opportunity to evolve and grow at the speed of stakeholder expectations. 

We must now take a hard look at some of the requirements for this transition. 

First, there is an urgent need for reskilling the entire community to conform to the new realities. This has to start at the grassroots, at the individual level. From the junior Executive in a PR consultancy or a corp-comm team to the head of the firm or the CCO. Continuous learning with a sense of urgency is the only solution. The common competencies for consultants will be strategic planning, management of resources, Issues & crisis management, research & analytics, and media relations. Digital literacy is a must. The specific learning menu for each person will depend on the role, specialisation and the seniority – it is beyond the scope of this address to go into the details.

In my humble opinion, an average individual needs to spend 200 hours per year in catch-up learning. Organisations – agencies or clients should budget Rs. 200,000 ($ 3,000) per employee per annum for learning and development as well as make the time available to each team member to pursue this goal. I am pleased to share that Adfactors PR is making a provision of Rs. 200,000 ($ 3,000) per annum for each of the 600 consultants for the next 3 years. The L&D opportunities must be democratised for all – not only for a chosen few hypos or favourites There is simply no other option to this investment. They will arguably some bad apples in any company who refuse to learn or grow. Let’s not worry about them. We have the choice of showing them the door. 

Second, there is a pervasive crisis of leadership in the PR community like it is in other segments of the economy, politics, media or many of our other institutions. As a community we need to address the situation with a long-range perspective. In part, the strategy should be to groom our younger and mid-level colleagues to create a strategic, long-range pipeline of leadership, even while we invest heavily in the transformation of senior leaders. We should look for new leaders beyond the incestuous confines of our community – where most of the people look alike, think alike, act alike and hire alike. Diversity of talent from media, legal, management consulting, social sector, research, and analytics will enrich our gene pool to deliver on strategic challenges facing our clients. 

Third, create a community-wide alliance involving consultancies, clients, PR academia, media, NGOs and perhaps policy influencers. A continuous dialog will help keep all the critical issues in focus, enabling various constituents to take desired corrective actions. I would recommend Reputation Today or The Promise Foundation to take the lead in hosting such dialogues on a bi-annual/annual basis. The trade and professional bodies should take the lead in helping their constituents address the issues. 

Fourth, there is an urgent need for a fresh look at the client-consultancy remuneration model. The demand side – which is the clients – have a responsibility in enabling us to rise up to the challenges. A fixed retainer amount allowing scope creep does not leave much room to the PR firm for investments in learning and development, technology, digital tools and specialist resources, constraining the PR firm’s ability to serve its clients well. India is a market with unmatched complexity and diversity of media, stakeholders and risks. The Indian community average of a $ 5,000 monthly retainer isn’t adequate to leverage the myriad opportunities or address the strategic challenges that most client organisations face. As clients, you are the larger partner in the relationship – your benign understanding and support will help the PR consulting business to deliver well on your challenges. 

Fifth, let’s universally embrace two words in our working model – clarity of program objectives as the client’s responsibility and diagnostics before prescription as the consultancy’s responsibility. This will channelise effort, reduce wastage and frustration, allowing us to focus more on outcomes.

I have taken the liberty of sharing my thoughts at a business forum such as SPECTRA so that we can initiate a dialog on some of these pertinent issues. 

In conclusion, I would call on everybody to join hands together in seizing the opportunities presented by a unique situation. The future outlook for PR is very favourable compared to advertising, media or many other consulting disciplines. As Winston Churchill said “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” It is our moment and we should do our best. 

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Madan Bahal
Madan Bahal is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of Adfactors PR, India's largest and most awarded public relations firm. Adfactors PR is also the youngest and the only independent firm in its peer group in India.
The firm, under his leadership, has been winning multiple accolades in Indian, Asian and global PR industry platforms.

2 Comments on "Onward and upwards at SPECTRA"

  1. So motivational…. very nice, great speech…

  2. Mr. Bahal’s views are very interesting and thought-provoking!

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