Counted amongst the pioneers of the organised Public Relations sector in India, Prema Sagar, Vice Chair, Burson-Marsteller Asia Pacific & Founder, Genesis Burson-Marsteller has been witness to the immense transformation that public relations has undergone in India.
From handling media relations to a complex role of managing brand identity in a world that is hyper-connected, Prema Sagar opens up about her two-decade-plus journey in the profession, her vision for Genesis BM and the future of PR in this exclusive interview. Edited excerpts:
How would you describe the shift in PR practice that has taken place over the last 25 years?
In the last 25 years, the industrial landscape of India has changed drastically. From the opening of the economy in 1991, to the rise of the knowledge economy to now, the thrust on Make in India, Startup India and Digital India, there have been sweeping changes in the way we do business. And PR and communications have kept pace with these changes. The universe of stakeholders we can impact with communications has become more complex, and therefore it isnât enough to just be good with media relations. Itâs important for the industry to have many different skill sets because the lines between marketing, advertising, PR, internal and external communications, and digital are all blurring. An agency may be called upon to do a new product launch or a consumer engagement campaign or an internal communications initiative. An integrated approach, across domains and service lines, is what works best and that is what we offer.
The number of communication mediums has gone up and with information coming at us from every direction, audio-visual communication and creative campaigns have a better impact than the same old ways of communicating. On the other hand, sifting through and analysing the information coming at us has also become extremely important. With the layers and complexity of media constantly increasing, the probability of crisis has gone up and so that is another area where agency have to put more focus today. It takes seconds for a crisis to flare up, so crisis preparedness and communication has become critical.
If you look at the contemporary approach to PR, it has moved from mere media relations to dealing with technologies like bots and AI, how have you embraced this transformation?
Bots and AI are the futureâand a not-so-distant one at that. We have to anticipate and embrace new technologies, especially when we know they will impact our clients in a big way. At the same time, the core tenets of communicationâmessaging, relationship management, insights-based campaignsâwill always remain important. For us, it is not an either-or choice. We have to move forward without letting go of the core. If we donât have expertise, we find it or develop it. And that is what we will be doing with any new technology that comes up.
You are among the pioneers of the organised PR sector in the country, can you tell us about the biggest challenges for PR practitioners in India today?
Identifying and developing talent will remain a critical concernâI wouldnât call it a challenge but a focus area. Continuously enhancing the skills of our people, helping them become experts in whatever they have an aptitude for and empowering them, in turn, to grow and nurture their teamsâthis is something we have to constantly work on. Another focus area is to anticipate and answer evolving client needs in the backdrop of dizzying changes in the media and industry.
What have been the three most defining moments for Genesis-BM since its inception?
There have been several significant milestones for us in the course of our 25 yearsâ journey. Whether it was the expansion of our footprint from Delhi to Bangalore, Mumbai and Kolkata between 1995 to 1997 or when the merger with Burson-Marsteller was finalised in December 2005. We have been part of iconic campaigns, like the launch of India Habitat Centre, Daewooâs Cielo, the era of reality television through Indian Idol, Bigg Boss, Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa and others and even the launch of Indian Premier League. We have also partnered our clients through some tumultuous times of crisis. Every time we have made an impact for our clients has been a defining moment for us. In the last few years, our focus on offering services integrated across our practices, centres of expertise and business divisions has helped us further push the boundaries of communicationsâand we will continue to do that.
Has the popularity and reach of social media ushered in a new era for dealing with crisis management?
Undeniably. What was earlier a 24-hour news cycle is now reduced to minutes and seconds. It literally takes the blink of an eye for a crisis to flare up. What people donât realise is that when a crisis hits any of the social media channels, it doesnât remain isolated. It becomes a shared experience or shared knowledge cutting across geographic and other boundaries, shared again and again. You have to make sure that your response to it gets similar traction and acceptance.
How would you describe the success of Genesis, what has worked in its favour to become such a formidable name in public relations?
It has to be the fact that we have never compromised on our values. If we didnât agree with the ethos or intent of a client, we have let go of them. If we have been faced with a dilemma on ethics and values, we have always chosen to do the right thing. And it is not just me. This is true of the firm. We have also always remained a start-up at heart, even though we are a part of a large global group. New ideas, new initiatives, new technologies, new ways of doing thingsâwe have been open to all, and that has led us to do good work and also empowered our people. Our specialised offering for start-ups, called Step Up, was a result of this agile and imaginative thinking.
How do you deal with competition? What are the three biggest factors that will define impactful PR practice in future?
We have always believed that unless the industry grows, we canât grow. And for the industry to grow, competition is important. But so is collaboration, sharing of best practices, and sharing of values. There is so much happening in our industry today in the way of events, discussion forums, awards. But so much more needs to be done in terms of regulating ourselves. The PR for the PR and communications industry needs to continue!
What is your vision for Genesis for the next five years?
We will continue pushing boundaries with our integrated approach to communications and with our emphasis on developing expertise in our people.
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