PR industry has demonstrated high resilience amid the pandemic: Sunayna Malik

As part of our latest series on ‘PR Conversation’, we at Adgully are speaking to some of the industry leaders from both PR agencies and the corporate communications world about how PR as a business and communication tool has evolved and grown over the years. In the last 10 years, PR has taken a different dimension, especially after the entry of social media in a big way. While the PR business has grown, some of the challenges that the industry is facing have also multiplied as clients are becoming more demanding and are expecting their consultants to be on their toes to manage their brand reputation, as news today travels fast and clients are expecting quick response and action in case of a crisis situation.

Also read: Immersive storytelling platforms are the future: Arpan Basu, Coca-Cola India

In an interaction with Adgully, Sunayna Malik, Managing Director, India & Senior Vice President, APAC, Archetype, talks about PR industry’s resilience amid the COVID-19 situation, increasing engagement across diverse channels, effectiveness of PR and PR measurement, and much more.

How has PR evolved in the last 10 years? Going forward how will the industry shape up as the dynamics of the PR is changing with the acceleration of digital?

PR has evolved immensely in the last 10 years, and there has been an explosion of digital, social, creative and integrated solutions. As an industry, our perspective has been shifting from a pure-play communications standpoint to that of a marketer’s. There has been disruption and transformation on so many fronts, entailing considerable unlearning and relearning to stay relevant and be a strong partner for business leaders. Today, communications has earned its seat at the table and is seen as a business enabler and partner. The pandemic has shifted the focus yet again towards digital and clearly iterated that digital is the future of all communications.

I believe the industry has demonstrated high resilience as it adapted to these sweeping changes overnight with the pandemic. More interestingly, we continued to support clients with creative campaigns so they could stay engaged with their audiences during these trying times. We expect to see increased relevance for communications as brands redefine their purpose in the new normal, to become more relevant and honest every day.

The pandemic has disrupted everyone. In these times how have you managed the client expectations and how did you manage to keep engaged with your clients?

The COVID-19 crisis is a first off – unanticipated and unplanned for, with no playbook, no earlier reference points and worst of all, we have no idea how long it will last. From employees to clients to media, everyone has been working remotely with different degrees of efficiency. Understanding client expectations became even more relevant in this scenario and to stay connected with our clients, I think our engagement levels across diverse channels all increased significantly. It has become even more important to devise creative ways of engaging relevant audiences and demonstrate honest purpose. For instance, one of our pharma clients reoriented their product communications led strategy to a broader disease awareness focussed outreach, with commensurate amendments having to be made in the execution strategy.

This crisis also provides an opportunity for brands to demonstrate their relevance – pivoted around helping the community and society navigate through the crisis; find new ways of reaching their consumers and wider stakeholders and be positive symbols of hope and promise, instead of simply continuing with their erstwhile brand-centred messaging. As the lockdown relaxations kick in, business strategies will need to factor in the restrictions and constraints within which the businesses are operating and deliver value despite them.

How different are you as an agency and what are some of the interesting tools that you deploy to give the best in terms of result to your clients?

Last year, we rebranded ourselves as Archetype with the global merger of Text100 and Bite, another Next Fifteen group agency with a strong play amongst new-age brands. By definition, Archetype means an original model or prototype that others imitate. We, therefore, want to set the standards for the next generation of global agencies – where marketing and communications converge seamlessly, with technology at the core, and being global for us means being finely tuned to local markets. Our strategy focuses on “best people, best work, best clients”, and we want to be the archetype for the reimagined global agency – a communications & marketing organisation where each office around the world is a pioneer in its local market, finely tuned to the region in which they operate, but supported by consistent client standards globally.

In a world where we see newer challenges coming to the forefront almost every day, business is changing drastically with digital technologies proliferating. As a new-age marketing communications consultancy, we are making significant investments in building up our capabilities across tools, software as well as a host of specialised offerings, which enable us to offer holistic solutions to our clients. Two years ago, we started our creative and content department, and today this team is delivering some amazing work – beyond PR to several of our clients. Likewise, our investments in building up our social, digital and Influencer advocacy lines of business help us provide composite, integrated solutions to meet the evolving needs of businesses of today.

Today, artificial intelligence and data analytics are becoming very important in marketing and communication. How is your agency making use of this to help you clients on overall messaging and achieving the desired ROI?

As an industry, we are at a critical inflexion point today. Given the emerging trends around AR/ VR, AI/ML and their increasing play in communications, PR professionals need to have a strong understanding and passion for technology and be able to combine rich technology expertise, tools capability and creative thinking to deliver competently on their clients’ business goals. I see a solid demand for analytics, integrated brand strategists, strong creative & content specialists and specialised digital communicators, as some of the upcoming trends in this segment. Given the significance of creating a group of specialists, we are also focused on scaling up and upskilling our talent pool. It is crucial to be relevant in today’s digital age – therefore nurturing our talent to equip them with relevant skills that strengthen their understanding of the changing dynamics is an increasing priority.

PR measurement and effectiveness of PR has always been a subject of debate. As a PR professional, what steps the PR industry should take to bring in uniformity so that everyone speaks one language when it comes to PR measurement?

I’m glad you brought this up because the effectiveness of PR and PR measurement has been a long-debated and misrepresented topic. While AVEs as a measure of efficacy is a long-dead metric, there are still some clients who want to calculate the value with this outdated measure because we as an industry still face the issue of a uniform and universally accepted method of measurement. The sad part about our profession is that despite the changes that are transforming our sector, we often end up measuring results through coverage or number of clips that appear.

There is no gainsaying the fact that the value of PR has to be measured to understand its impact on the business objectives, and new evaluation metrics are now available. Influence, advocacy and reputation equity are parameters that are increasingly becoming yardsticks for campaign impact measurement. In that sense, not only quantitative but qualitative measurement and overall reputation index continue to be important criteria even while new age integrated measurement tools continue to evolve and emerge. The onus to educate our clients on these new metrics lies with us, so they embrace more meaningful methods of evaluation.

Getting the right skillset and training has always been a challenge in the PR profession. What is your view on the same and what would be the valuable tips that you would like to give to the budding young PR professionals?

I think we are at an interesting point, wherein we see an influx of post-millennial (Gen Z) into the workforce. They will bring in new cultural constructs with fresh ideas and another dimension of thinking. Workforce skilling and management is a dynamic and evolving area, and every generation brings with it innate skillsets. I do believe one of the most important aspects of the future of our business will be constant creativity, complemented with strong analytics. We are already embracing these changes and training our talent pools accordingly.

My piece of advice to budding PR professionals, most of whom are fairly tech-savvy, is to understand how technology can be harnessed for enhanced business value for our clients and to think creatively and imaginatively along those lines.

Second, they should enjoy reading and hopefully, if they are making a career in PR, that is the case. It’s such an enriching discipline and every day brings new learnings and ideas, so if you’re naturally curious and knowledge-hungry, it’s the best career option for you. Every brand teaches you something new, and the enormous wealth of information you thus gather is fantastic. Also, ask questions – lots of them. Don’t take things at face value - try and understand the logic behind. Be inquisitive; practice curiosity.

Last but not least, respect yourself, because then you’ll deliver work you are proud of. Our best comes from the passion to excel, to exceed – so treat every task with the respect it deserves.

Do you feel the traditional role of interpersonal communication which was so critical to the profession has somehow been put to the back burner because of too much virtual engagement? How are you experiencing that, is it bringing down the efficiency of the agency?

We are all into the new normal – the pandemic has flipped not only our working models but our everyday lives and through it all what has emerged is the adaptability and resilience of our people. We strongly believe that human connect at work is important for development, employee wellbeing and the overall cultural fabric of the organisation. The ability to connect and create instant chemistry, build a vibrant team and rally together around a campaign are the highs that become more palpable physically. The need for engagement is perhaps at an all-time high, as now people need to work harder to make up for the physical distance.

As a consultancy, we are actually laying greater emphasis on the need for interpersonal skills and higher EQ amongst our leaders and teams, both internally and for client connect.

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