'Creativity, Compassion & Collaboration should be at the centre of communications efforts'
Kickstarting the 2nd edition of 'Women Achievers Series', Prema Sagar, Chairperson of the BCW India Group, opens up about her professional journey
Counted among the pioneers of the Indian Public Relations industry, Prema Sagar is a name that tops the list when we discuss women in this space. An entrepreneur at heart, Prema has led Genesis BCW since she founded it in 1992. She has been at the forefront of the immense transformation that the public relations industry has undergone in India through the years.
Currently, Prema leads BCW in India as the Chairperson of the BCW India Group, which was recently formed by integrating Genesis BCW and Six Degrees BCW. Supported by the BCW India Board, she drives the India strategy for the Group, guiding the leadership in implementing it.
Prema hasn’t just spearheaded the firm, she has also given the Indian public relations and communications industry some of its firsts—first to develop proprietary tools for reputation management; the first to create and put into practice service quality measurement; first to use technology in our industry; and more recently, first to develop the one-of-its-kind Live! Newsroom. She leads the industry in fostering collaboration and has been awarded and appreciated for her efforts on many platforms.
On the occasion of International Women’s Day, Prema Sagar, Founding Chairperson, BCW India Group opens up about her professional journey, her inspiration, views on gender bias, pay gaps and more in the inaugural interview of exchange4media’s PR and Corporate Communications 2nd edition of ‘Women Achievers Series’.
How did you enter the comms industry? How has been your journey ever since?
My journey with public relations and Genesis began as a result of chance encounters and a series of coincidences while I was running my printing press. I met with Priya Paul of THE Park Hotels and we together created Evenings at THE Park. From there to someone gifting me a book by PR guru Frank Jefkins, to me going to London to study at the Frank Jefkins Institute of Public Relations, and then coming back to start Genesis PR, it’s all been quite serendipitous.
Back then, there was no understanding of what public relations was and what it could do. Starting a PR firm back in the 90s was like exploring the unknown. Genesis started its official operations on November 1, 1992, a landmark year in my life and in the life of India. The country had witnessed the most revolutionary economic reforms and business and trade had opened up. In came companies from all over the world and with them, the exposure and the expectations that would lead to the need for PR and communications.
The wonder and excitement with which we started our journey, is still there. From three clients in the early nineties to a 250-plus client base integrated communications firm today, it has been an immensely challenging as well as fulfilling journey.
What has been your biggest inspiration to serve the industry? Who has been your inspiration?
In my life, I take inspiration from Mother Teresa as she always served with empathy. In my mind and heart, it’s the only way to be. A constant reminder of how much we can achieve by being gentle, loving; showing care; and putting in consistent hard work.
In the industry, one of the biggest icons and an inspirational human was Harold Burson. Meeting him was a dream come true. Even at 90, I remember him coming to the New York office every day and being on top of everything going on. Such an inspiration! Genesis PR then was already a global firm in its character, with a strong value system and diligent, structured and extremely streamlined work environment. I was thrilled when Burson-Marsteller acquired us then, and grateful for the time I got to spend with Harold. Even though he is gone, I continually seek inspiration from his legacy of listening to people, nurturing talent and moving people for our clients.
What have been key learnings for you in the entire journey to work for the comms industry?
Over the years, in my opinion, there are three core elements that we should continue to keep at the centre of our communications efforts: the 3Cs—creativity, compassion and collaboration. This is not just a convenient acronym, but a filter to apply to any communication effort you plan.
These 3Cs, in my view, will continue to remain relevant for a long time. And with the rising complexities in the world of business as well as media, if you cut through the clutter and use the filters of these three—is your communications initiative creative, was it created with compassion, does it collaborate to deliver the best impact—you are quite likely to hit the right mark.
2020 was a different year. What major changes did it bring into your life both professionally and personally? What were the major challenges faced?
Most people felt challenged when it came to working from home. While we were challenged too, flexibility at work is something we do well at Genesis BCW, so that transition quite smooth for us. However, because of how long drawn out this has been, we wanted to make sure our people were okay, both in terms of mental and physical health.
This past year, everybody was in constant crisis mode. So, I’d say the major challenge for us was that the clients were comforted, which we also managed to do well.
How has the industry treated its women in the new normal? What paradigm shift have you noticed in the functioning with respect to women?
Given the way the last year panned out, women have been under immense pressure. Flexibility was always there, however, the workload also increased. All boundaries were blurred and support was not always there or not consistent. Be it for work, family or house help really. Being at it from morning to night, with no time for themselves.
This year has been exceptionally hard for women, and we are hoping that when things get to a semi-normal or new normal stage, women can get back to a more balanced life.
Why do we witness attrition in women leadership as we go high above the ladder?
We started as a women-led organization and are still going strong with women in leadership roles across the board. But I realize we are an exception rather than the rule. Lack of support at home, the disparity in opportunities for growth, need for visible role models and mentors are what holds women back. We need to make sure that we live up to our role as leaders and support and mentor other women professionals so that they can grow to their potential.
Has there been any instance of gender bias in your journey? Is the pay gap a major concern for the industry?
Well, I started my company almost 30 years ago at a time when PR almost didn’t exist. So, there were certainly challenges, expectations, perceptions and yes, even bias to manage over the years. Getting to a point where, as communications counsellors, we get a seat at the strategy table took time as well as effort. However, we are, after all, a women-strong industry. So,I don’t think gender pay gaps are that big a concern. There are other areas where we, as an industry, need to do better to help our women grow faster.
How did you convert a crisis into an opportunity for yourself, professionally?
From how I see it, it is not about opportunity, it is more about where we see ourselves making the biggest impact. Crisis is one area where we have had an impact to make. Not only are we there to mitigate a crisis but we are also there to help clients be better prepared for crisis. We have also seen that where we have supported a client for crisis preparedness, they are quicker to get back on their feet—even when faced with an ‘unprecedented’ crisis like the pandemic—due to the protocols we have helped them set in place.
What are the steps that you would take to support other women in the industry and large?
As I mentioned before, our role as women leaders is critical in giving other women professionals a leg up. When they see how far we have come, know about our journeys and look at the challenges we overcame, they see that the journey is possible. We have also created networks and communities like PRCAI and GWPR over the past few decades where women are also being supported. There are mentoring programs and other tools, like the WPP Stella and GWPR’s mentoring programme that give support where needed. We need to listen to our women more, hear about what they need and then support them in the best way possible. Ultimately, the choice has to be in her hands.
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