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How PR agencies can reinvent to fully leverage digital

The scope as well as the challenges for the Public Relations industry has increased manifold in today’s digital era. With consumers becoming increasingly vocal about their experiences with brands and not hesitating to voice any bad experiences they might have had, along with real-time brand conversations, managing corporate and brand reputation has become a onerous task for PR firms. 

A panel comprising some of India’s leading lights in the communications industry presented their insights and experiences on the topic – ‘PR in the Day and Age of Digital’ – at the first-ever Digi Media Summit 2019 by Adgully, held on March 29, 2019 in Delhi. The speakers included: Archana Jain, Founder & MD, PR Pundit; Ashwani Singhla, Founding Managing Partner, Astrom; Himanshu Manglik, Global Head – Marketing & Communication, BLS International; Nikhil Dey, Vice-Chairperson, Weber Shandwick; and Rajat Chandihok, Associate Partner, Ketchum Sampark. Dilip Cherian, Founding Partner & Group Chairman, Perfect Relations, moderated the panel. 

At the outset, Dilip Cherian asked each speaker to narrate how their company had dealt with a major issue recently which required thinking digitally. 

Archana Jain started off by explaining that her firm, PR Pundit, worked in the consumer lifestyle domain, therefore the digital world had empowered them and at the same time also challenged them in the recent times to work increasingly with influencers. Elaborating further, Jain said that working with influencers was no longer about looking for Miss Malini or Sherry or Vaibhav as they had become quite old school. “The challenge here is – are these real influencers? Who are following them? Are they going to go beyond that? That’s something that we are faced with everyday,” she said. 

Cherian then asked Ketchum Sampark’s Rajat Chandihok about his experience shifting to influencers and social media, then moving to traditional media and returning to social media. 

Recounting his experience, Chandihok noted, “In today’s world, every user is a blogger and they are influencers amongst their peers. The perfect example was when we were doing PR for a client for whom we put up a story in The Times of India, which we further put up on the web, where it generated a tremendous amount of conversations, and they were none of them were known bloggers. They were all young teenagers who had consumed the product and had enjoyed it, basis which they had tweeted and written about it. The push that we gave was by clicking pictures of the product and placing them on social media, which, with the help of the users, became viral. We started off with traditional media, but the conversations took a life of their own on digital media. Looking at that trend and because of the story, other traditional publications came back to us, saying that they wanted us to do similar stories for them – so that was basically how from traditional it went to digital, became viral and then went back to traditional.” 

When asked by Cherian what choices he had to make as an agency – whether to stick to a standard patter of pushing the news or first watch out for reactions and then push the news, Nikhil Dey replied, “We would have to go back to simple demand and supply as an agency, as most of the times when you are slotted in the Public Relations box there is an expectation that you play in the earned media space.” 

According to Dey, the smart play would be to serve the customer or the client what they asked and also show them what more could be done. He added that it is in times of crisis when the real worth of PR firms go up, as a number of digital agencies, boutique shops, content shops, who are otherwise doing a fantastic work on marketing communications or even reputation building, put their hands up when a crisis hits and say that ‘this is not my playground, it is actually the playground of a PR practitioner. 

“So, why not get really good at that and build one’s capabilities. I think that’s what every firm and agency is doing. But we also have a life during peace time – we are there not only during times of war. Therefore, when you build that muscle and capability or organisational strength to add to that narrative, then you can serve the customer even beyond their crisis,” Dey opined. 

Agreeing with Dey, Himanshu Manglik pointed out, “Crisis situation is where today’s agencies are jumping in with some kind of leverage.” He cited the example of Nestle Maggie, which had faced a serious crisis a few years back when it was banned for about 6 months. “There was nothing that could have possibly been done through advertising. Yet the brand had to stay connected to the people with its memories. That’s where we thought of leveraging the digital medium via short stories and emotional stories which went viral on digital platforms and helped us bring the brand back into the market so that when Maggi hit the market after 6 months, it zoomed back,” Manglik recalled.

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