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Press releases are definitely passé in some sectors: Sonali Sokhal

As part of our 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.

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Sonali Sokhal, Founder & CEO, Intelliquo PR and Co-Founder PRPOI, has over a decade and a half of experience in Public Relations and Marketing ranging from luxury, lifestyle, media and entertainment, education, health, FMCG and consumer durables. In conversation with Adgully, Sokhal speaks about setting up her own PR agency in 2012, creating communication strategy for clients during the pandemic times and more.

You started your career in PR working with good organisations. How and when did the entrepreneurial bug bite you? And what inspired you to take the entrepreneurial route by starting your own PR consultancy?

I started my own company in 2012, and by then I think I was more than ready for it. At the time, I was working in a large agency and a bit of disillusionment had set in, as I felt that there was very little space to maneuver into ‘out of the box’ solutions. Things were done in a very set way and processes were not upgraded. Another reason why I was keen to set up my own agency was because I realised that a lot of smaller clients get lost in larger agencies. I wanted to create an agency that was truly boutique and where we could work like partners for clients. It just felt right, and I decided to give it a shot when an old client asked me if I could take on their mandate.

Your strength has primarily been in verticals like Luxury, Lifestyle, Consumer durables and FMCG. What are some of the challenges faced during the pandemic as there no live events have been taking place? How did you help your clients engage with their audiences?

Initially in the pandemic, everything came to a hard stop in March 2020, but by end July there was a rally as all brands realised that they still needed to maintain their visibility and outreach. In fact, FMCG and wellness sectors did really well despite the lockdown. Translating a launch to online formats took some planning, but was soon do-able and easier to actually pull off than a virtual event. Imagine how much brands have saved on ROIs in such a case! It makes a very strong case for keeping a phygital format even as we go forward. We did many interesting Instagram contests/ Zoom Lives and work actually has been busier than before. We have done exciting launches for beauty brands online, Zoom parties, and even a pizza making contest for a national pizza brand. It’s just about thinking across mediums and seeing how we can reach out to consumers and media on these.

In your early days as a start-up, hunting for business was a challenge. How did you go about acquiring new clients and what was the kind of differentiation you infused in your PR strategy to win new businesses?

I think I just got very lucky. I have always had a robust network across the industry and I found that people actually trusted me enough to give me the account. Many began with a ‘let’s see’ three-month contract, which, of course, got extended into yearly contracts. In terms of strategy, we worked very hard to deliver best results for clients. We pushed a beauty brand to have its first ever blogger meet, when bloggers were still a new thing. We helped clients put together end to end events, many times going beyond our mandate to create exciting propositions for them to tell their store. I think the best strategy is always to work hard and think smart and on your feet all the time.

Winning new business is part of every agency as one has to grow. At the same time, you need to guard your existing businesses, so how did you go about managing client expectations with your strong systems and processes?

My strategy has been that of a mountain climber. Get a win, settle the account, get the right people to follow through, and then go in for the next. Many times the biggest mistake an agency makes is to try and win too many new accounts without ensuring proper resource allocation. It makes a difference in servicing for clients and it is also what loses you clients as well. In terms of setting expectations, I feel over time, we all have learnt to create adequate deliverables and mutually agree on the same with clients. Things have become much more professional now and we actually welcome this new way of working with clients. One thing we have also ensured is to get our senior team to have a stake in the wins. That keeps them on their toes and very keen for revenue flows not to be impacted.

Press releases are passé. You to need keep bringing in some new innovations in the categories in which you specialise. Could you illustrate any interesting example that your agency has created and executed a memorable PR campaign resulting in good mileage?

Press releases are definitely passé in some sectors, and the game has changed a lot now. One of our most memorable PR campaigns was to execute ‘Delhi’s Longest Peanut Butter Sandwich’ with a peanut butter brand in a popular mall in Delhi. It had participation from media and bloggers alike. It was such a fun event, media actually called us to ask for the release. Similarly with a beauty brand, we did an online pajama party on Zoom, which got many takers and participants and every beauty writer was keen to be a part of it. The secret is to always try and tap into current trends and make the communication exciting, immersive and engaging. We are also finding interesting and new ways to do PR, and learn from the community with our work in Public Relations Professionals of India (PRPOI). This is a constantly evolving learning process.

As a PR consultant, what kind of advice have you been giving your clients on the communications strategy? Did you revisit your strategy and change the tone and style of your messaging for your clients? 

I think tonality depends on the current focus in the country. For instance, we have postponed many new launches recently as we felt it was not the right time. We have pushed many clients to change the focus from consumer outreach to social impact currently, given the mood of the nation. We always try and help brands modify their PR strategy in terms of not just speaking up, but listening in. PR is a two-way tool, and we encourage clients to look in the mirror, and then create a communication strategy per se.

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