In an interview with exchange4media, Atul Ahluwalia, Founding Partner, First Partners Communications, spoke about changing rules of the PR industry, the blurred lines between paid and unpaid media, and the challenges that the PR industry faces today. Here are excerpts from the interview:
In less than a year, First Partners has bagged major accounts like Hyundai and Danone. What would you attribute this success to?
We take great pride in the fact that the First Partners core team comprises a dozen very senior team members, each with over 15 years of consulting experience. This team also has a strategic mix of capabilities spanning corporate reputation specialists, domain specialists, digital specialists, and content specialists. We believe that we have one of the highest senior talent to client ratio in the industry today, which is being appreciated by clients.
What is the shift you observe in the way PR as an industry functions today to what it did, say, about a decade ago?
I see a lot more creativity in the work today. I also believe that several prestigious PR awards that have been instituted in the last decade have given impetus to consultancies to devise more compelling campaigns, which are sharply directed at their primary stakeholders. Moreover, consultancies are devising impactful digital and social media campaigns, which they were not doing a decade ago. Further, a select set of PR consultancies have evolved to don the role of the lead communication consultancy on critical projects, a role that was earlier played by advertising firms.
With competition becoming more intense in the PR domain, how would you define the growth strategy for First Partners?
At the core of the First Partners philosophy is our ‘business outcome’ approach. We believe that the real test of communication is that it should be able to move the needle, not just on perception but also on business goals. Visibility is good, creative content is great, but unless they do not help drive business results, it’s a case of poor ROI. At First Partners, we are leveraging insights from our past experience of being at the forefront of some of the most successful PR campaigns for over two decades to evolve an advanced model for supporting business outcomes.
You have done extensive work in public affairs management. Tell us a bit about your experience in this area of PR. Additionally, how critical do you think public affairs management is for the communications business?
Many people use public affairs and government relations interchangeably, which is not correct. Public affairs campaigns are targeted at changing public opinion, which is done by addressing a diverse set of stakeholders. Socio-economic and psychographic classifications are passé. With the evolution of the consumer society, newer and finer audience segments are emerging. With rising cost of marketing, addressing numerous segments with fewer and simpler communication messages requires strategies similar to those used in public affairs programmes. Hence, public affairs is more relevant today than ever before.
How do you think PR can become more than mere press relations?
I have said this before—I believe companies should focus on the clients’ business outcome to be meaningful to them. Mere press coverage without aligning it very strongly to clients’ business outcomes is not impactful. I think as a profession unless this shift is made, PR will never be a core function. Also, if your singular goal is to drive business outcomes, you expand the horizon to break the paradigm and try new strategies to get results. This might make you adopt a media agnostic approach or go discipline agnostic. To me, this is the new PR way.
How do you think social media has impacted PR and its functioning?
There has been a lot of fervour around social media. It is indeed true that social media changed the fundamental dynamics of the media industry, and hence the practice of public relations. However, every new development has its next stage, and we are already witnessing this for social media. Because of boundless growth in online chatter, questions are being raised on the believability of social media and how seriously people take it. People are dividing themselves into sub-segments and focusing on what truly interests them, making social media less mass. Time is not far when the role of trusted sources will return. People will not consume any post but only posts from sources they trust. This is leading to creation of a new genre of social influencers. Going even further, there is a breed of smart audience who is able to differentiate between paid influence and unbiased opinion. PR practitioners would need to devise strategies to engage with this class of unpaid influencers.
Where do you think is the PR industry in India is headed for in the next five years?
The rules of the PR industry will undergo a profound change with the lines between paid and unpaid media getting blurred, and PR consultancies assuming larger roles as the lead communication consultancy owning a brand’s content strategy. The conventional communication approach of arriving at a central message and repeating it over a period of time to drive saliency is being replaced by ‘everyday storytelling’. PR firms are best equipped to drive this. Towards this end, I see a lot more specialists entering our profession, which will improve the overall quality of our offerings.
What are some of the biggest challenges that PR practitioners are facing currently?
According to me, there are two primary challenges that the industry faces today. First, there is a dearth of specialist talent: domain specialists, research specialists, content specialists. Second, there is a lot of talent out there, which is not able to move up the ladder. Many practitioners are not able to break their moulds to equip themselves for the new environment. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation because unless clients unlock larger budgets, consultancies would not be able to invest in and attract the kind of talent needed to do justice to the practice of PR.