PR is integral to the business strategy from the beginning: Vandana Sandhir
In the last 10 years, PR has taken a different dimension, especially after the entry of social media and the rapid shift to digital, especially in the pandemic period. At the same time the industry has been facing stiff challenges, moreover client expectations have also increased, with more emphasis being given to digital and online reputation management. The industry has undergone a radical shift and the current times have pushed the industry to change gears.
In conversation with Adgully, Vandana Sandhir, India Lead Six Degrees BCW and Chief Client Strategy Officer, BCW India Group, speaks about the changing face of PR, building corporate reputation, meeting client expectations, and more.
PR has evolved in the last 10 to 12 years and today forms an important tool in the marketing plan of every brand. What are some of the changes that you have noticed in the PR business and how are brands leveraging PR today?
In the last decade or so, there have been two major changes that I have seen in the industry. One, that PR is no longer something that comes after the fact. It is integral to the business strategy from the beginning. That also means that the outcome of PR is seen not just in terms of reputation, but also in terms of tangible measurable business impact.
The second big change that I have seen is in the very nature of PR. It is no longer just about media relations, but has a wider footprint across multiple stakeholders, including consumers, employees, government, community, and other opinion leaders. To engage with all of them we need to go beyond traditional PR and deliver integrated communications programmes that span media relations, digital, creative content, crisis communications, data analytics and more.
Digital has transformed the world. How has your agency adapted to this transformation and how are you leveraging digital in the new scheme of things for all your PR activities with respect to your clients?
Long before it became a buzzword, we set up our Digital centre of expertise, with specialised strategists who help our clients with building and nurturing their reputation on digital platforms. What the pandemic has done is to accelerate this process. For those who had only taken the first few steps, they had to re-think their communications strategy with a digital-first approach. And for those who had already made a journey, it was about taking their digital communications to the next level with emerging technologies like AR/VR and Web3. We are partnering our clients at both ends of the spectrum.
Your area of expertise and practice is corporate. As a professional PR practitioner, what are some of the challenges that you come across while managing a corporate brand and what is your mantra in helping and suggesting the right PR approach for corporate brands?
To build corporate reputation, you need to build the right narrative to drive behaviour change across stakeholders. Our overall approach is to engage the full range of client stakeholders and align them with the strategic objective of the organisation. That happens most effectively when you build a narrative based on the organisation’s purpose – it’s reason for existence. Through our recently launched service CSP+ we help companies align their purpose with their strategy to create long-term values and profitability through engagement with all stakeholders (employees, customers, communities, government, and civil society). While purpose guides the messaging, we are also aware that each of the stakeholders needs a customised approach in terms of how that messaging is delivered to them. We do that through an earned-plus offer that goes across earned and paid media, creative content, tech and data analytics.
One of the everyday realities of corporate reputation today is also crisis communication. Operating in an increasingly complex and charged environment, companies can get hit by a crisis at any moment and from any direction. As brand custodians, we advise companies on not just how to mitigate the crisis but also how to prepare for it in the future.
Today, artificial intelligence and data analytics are becoming very important in marketing and communication. How are you leveraging technology to draw insights and create sharp messaging for your PR campaigns?
As you know, we have the Live! Newsroom as part of The Hub at BCW India Group. The Newsroom helps our client teams with spotting actionable trends and curating new and innovative distribution channels that go beyond the press release, with creative and compelling content. Using technology and automation, the Newsroom combines human and data intelligence to help our teams and our clients with insights. We use these data-based insights to build the big idea for our campaigns and are then able to deliver sharper outcomes and real-time feedback – on a regular PR day, or during a crisis. In a nutshell, The Newsroom is our nerve centre, and it uses data for better, sharper storytelling for our clients.
Getting the right talent and managing attrition has been a huge challenge for PR companies. How is the industry coping with this and what are some of the best practices you follow to retain and groom talent?
The pandemic made many people reassess their priorities and look at what they wanted to do. And it is true that as a people-centric industry, this had a huge impact on us. Sessions on mental health, time-offs, employee engagement initiatives are some of the ways the industry dealt with it. While we did all that, we also realised that for many, this time was about reskilling and upskilling. As a firm, this is something BCW India Group has always been known for. Through our School of Learning, we upped the ante on learning, going to first online, then hybrid and now back to in-person sessions. From business skills to professional, soft skills to mindfulness sessions, the sessions have had a positive effect on both, those attending the trainings as well as those conducting them. Within the organization and through our BCW and WPP networks, our people also have several opportunities to be mentored.
At BCW, we promote a growth mindset – a mindset where we are curious, creative, and open to learning. And through the focus on learning, we have been able to facilitate a growth mindset.
Setting client expectations is the best way to begin a client relationship. But invariably this does not always work. So, how do you manage expectations and ensure that the quality of messaging across channels is consistently delivered?
Setting client expectations starts from understanding the client brief and co-creating the messaging and campaign plan with them. At every stage, we work in close collaboration with the clients and have well-established SOPs that include weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual reviews across individual and integrated programmes. We also have a robust feedback mechanism called the Service Quality Index (SQI), where clients rate us, and it gets reflected in the teams’ appraisal scores as well. So, through a mix of transparent conversations and well-developed processes, we ensure that we consistently meet clients’ expectations.