Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Why Blame PR?

2010. Toyota recalls cars. Its Chairman is chided for not handling media better. BP spills oil. People say PR did a bad job in handling it. Mark Hurd resigns as HP Board recommends it. Bad PR strategy, many cry. If he had stayed, it would also have been a bad PR.

Has PR lost it? 

2003. I was still in the early days of my PR career. I was working with 20:20 MEDIA, India's largest IT PR firm. In India, PR was emerging as a strong communication tool.

In addition to few other clients, I handled Dax Networks, a medium-sized Indian networking company. It had made a name for itself during the initial days of Internet in India through its modems. It was those days when Internet meant robotic sounds and snail speeds. As the world became networked with complicated networking technologies and products, Dax was stuck with its modem-company image. And, that was our brief.

Modem is at the lower end in the value chain while Routers and Switches are technologically more advanced. Arunav Sinha, my boss, suggested that, to move away from the image of a modem company, Dax should focus on the emerging networking technologies. And at that time, Wi Fi was the in-thing. So, our PR campaign focused on Dax' plan to tap Wi Fi opportunity.

It was during this period that I, inspired by a program on Discovery, suggested to the client that they should Wi Fi-enable the Dal Lake. Now, for those who don't know Dal Lake is situated in the troubled Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. Clients, who also hail from that state, agreed and we went on to implement the project. Media across India lapped it up. As Jammu & Kashmir was in the focus of international media, we received lots of coverage outside the boundaries, too.

And finally, Dax shed its modem-company image to become a leading Wi Fi company in India. It was a PR success.

Now, thanks for patiently reading on, if you actually did. No, this wasn't entirely a 'blowing-my-own-trumpet' exercise.

Now, coming back to the present, it is quite disheartening to note that every failure seems to be have some link to PR. While, I am happy to note that PR certainly has arrived, I am quite astonished that nobody is talking about operations failure but driving attention to how a corporate could have done better PR.

This indicates two things:

  1. Media has assumed the role of arbiter. And companies have come to think that if they win the battle with media they win the war in the market. 
  2. Image has become far more important to organizations than reality. And hence due to misplaced priorities, they take poor decisions. 
Media, whether it intended to be so or not, has become like the bully who decides the image. Actually, it does. But then media can never be an alternate to Operations.

Let me explain. Soon after the Dal Lake success, I was on a high. And it came to me as a shock when Dax decided to move away from Wi Fi image. It rather wanted to focus on Routers and Switches. I was very upset, but being an agency we created a new PR plan to usher in the change. In the hindsight, I think I was wrong. Though milking Wi Fi would have been an easier option, the technology had fast become a commodity. The company would have shifted from being a B2B to B2C. It would not have been an area of strength.

Mirzas knew their business well and chose the harder but intelligent route. Today, despite being a small company, they have become one of the top three networking companies in India. Remember the market has players like Cisco, Nortel, 3COM, Juniper...

The point is that when PR starts to drive the business goals, then there is certainly some problem. Read this post by Mr. Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar, CSR can cloak irresponsibility.

There are some pointers for every corporate:

  1. Let Operations Strategy decide the PR plan. Too much of a gap between perception and reality is always dangerous. More so, if there is too much perception and little reality.
  2. Media is important but not all-important. Leverage it, but don't let media lever you. This doesn't mean you can ignore it. Create an inclusive strategy. But as I said absence of operations and trying PR means you are lying.
  3. Media or for that matter all of us have become too impatient. We are in the world where we have become unforgiving. This is especially more true for the Social Media tribe. Just because social media is visible and writing negative, don't stumble. Difficult things do take longer to achieve.
I remember a hypothetical case study of an airline that a client of mine once shared. Unfortunately, an aircraft crashes and no passenger survives. The CEO has to address different audiences - customers, employees, agencies, investors and media. What should be the order of his priority? Whom should he address first and whom the last?

What will you do? Whatever you do, don't blame PR!

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