‘We have now reached PR 2.0’

Mahindra Group Corp Comm Head Roma Balwani and Prof Janice Neil stress on a human face for corporates to navigate today’s complex business scenario

e4m by Shanta Saikia
Published: Feb 27, 2012 8:14 AM  | 6 min read
‘We have now reached PR 2.0’

In a complex business scenario and an interconnected world, it has become imperative for corporate to have a human face. Emphasising this point, Janice Neil, Associate Professor, School of Journalism, Ryerson University, cited the Blackberry crisis.

She remarked that Blackberry had been built up by two men, who were sort of away from the media hub, but certainly counted on international media coverage to help propel the Blackberry to at one point of time being the biggest and first kind of its kind smart phone. At that point in time, both seemed to be accessible to business reporters, until things kind of started going wrong. “So, in the last couple of years, it is my observation that they have pretty much retreated. It seemed to me among all the strategies they had to launch the product, that they had no communication strategy whatsoever. It was very difficult for journalists on the beat to contact them to build relations and I think this was particularly striking last year when for almost three and a half days Blackberry just disappeared – the blackout. It is astounding to me and something out of Public Relations 101 that when there is a public crisis, you have to present your human face, you have to show up and be accountable even if you say nothing other than ‘we have no idea why it is happening and we are sorry’,” Neil said.

But the two founders remained unavailable and a lot of people around the world remarked how they were not out there, and there were even suggestions that they were working 24 hours a day trying to figure out what the problem was along with their staff. “Of course, that’s important, but building relations with your consumers through the media is also important,” stressed Neil, adding, “Now the company is sort of heading for some rocky times, and a few weeks ago they announced that they both were stepping down and they both made short statements to the media, but they still didn’t really sit down for interviews.”

Hence, Neil found it surprising when she found a long feature report on one of Blackberry founders, Mike Lazaridis, appearing in a Saturday edition of The Globe and Mail. She expected to put the profile to put a human face to Blackberry and reflect on what they were doing now, but instead what she found was an article on the house that Lazaridis was building. “So, as the share prices of RIM catapulted, as people around the world did not have access to their Blackberrys and as this cutting edge product lost a bit of its luster, he has been building this house. But what is interesting to note here is that he did take a reporter around this house,” she remarked.

According to Neil, in terms of not having a strategy and trying to put a public face on the company had been very difficult. “The faces that have been associated with Blackberry have been those of the consumers, and for a number of years it is these consumers around the world who have been thrilled with Blackberry,” she added.

On the other end of this scale has been Group. As Roma Balwani, Head of Corporate Communications, Mahindra Group, elucidated, business communication had come of age today and “we as an organisation believe in that and we have a proper laid out communication strategy within the organisation. And this strategy has been talked about that the board level, in our strategy meetings that we have and that is how all our divergent businesses get a coherent voice”.

She further shared that three years back when Mahindra started its journey to kind of rebrand itself and the organisation undertook the whole Mahindra Rise rebranding, “the basic need to do it was because we felt that within the environment there was a whole lot of trust deficient, we felt that the corporates today are not being viewed that they should have been viewed as a trusted brand”.

“When we were going global, we knew that we were a very ethical and reputed brand in India, but we had to take that brand global and who knows us globally? Some of the markets where we have our products know us, but in the markets where we do have our products and where we wish to be present we need to brand ourselves,” Balwani added.

With India being an emerging economy, everybody’s attention is on us. Today, we are in a global village. Balwani pointed out that social media was so quick and so real time that one had to be ready and proactive with them. “You should be anticipating what your peers across the world are going to be talking about you, what you are reported, and for us as an organisation we’ve got to be on our toes. So there’s a definite need to have a human face,” she added.

Balwani stressed that human face was not necessarily a spokesperson, but how one created that human face of the organisation. According to her, it could be at various levels. It was how one could create that connect, how one could have that conversation and how one was going to do that conversation within the organisation and externally. “So, it’s not just we talking to you, but it is also what we are talking internally, because all our 144,000 employees are our customers too and they have to feel to be part of the organisation, they have to buy into the product and services that they will themselves consume and produce. So, it is a complex situation in the world what we live in because everything is so interconnected, which is why we feel that business communication has really changed its face and it has taken leaps and bounds ahead of what we would have otherwise said in traditional PR. The complete definition has changed; we have now reached PR 2.0 for at least communicators like us,” Balwani concluded.

Roma Balwani and Janice Neil were speaking at the day-long work shop on ‘Reporting on Business in a Global World’ for business journalists, held in Delhi on February 23, 2012. The workshop was organised by the High Commission of Canada, in collaboration with exchange4media.

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