She is considered as one of the few woman of substance in the public relations industry. A veteran with over two decades of experience in the field, her finance background has given her an inherent understanding of financial PR issues. A seasoned communications professional, Kavita Lakhani has honed her skills in marketing, healthcare and social media through extensive work on leading FMCG, Lifestyle and Pharma multinationals.
Since the past decade or so she has been busy leading LinOpinion's India operation guiding a team of 100 professionals across the country. Just when the Indian PR industry was ready for takeoff in India, Kavita started her career with Ogilvy & Mather. She moved up to become Head of Corporate Practice and Senior Consultant at Ogilvy PR. Over a seven-year period, she worked on brands like Philips, Britannia-Danone, Kodak, Cadbury’s and World Gold Council, among others. Kavita joined Corporate Voice Weber Shandwick as Account Director supervising the Bombay office, with staff strength of fifteen people. She has worked actively to build and protect the reputation of global brands like McDonald’s, Unilever (Domex) and Emirates Airline.
Kavita is a skilled writer with acknowledged strategy and consulting skills. She is visiting faculty at leading communication institutes (XIC, Symbiosis, EMDI, Jai Hind College, Mumbai, MET & ISBM Pune, and crisis trainer for leading corporates. She has been named as ‘Leading Woman in Media’ by the Women in Leadership Forum India.
To know what is in the mind of this extremely talented head honcho, Adgully spoke with Kavita Lakhani on varied aspects and came back highly impressed. Present below is the transcript of the talk.
Adgully (AG): What is your comment on the status of the PR industry in India today?
Kavita Lakhani (KL): Public relations in India is fast evolving as a key strategic - and creative - discipline. The changes over recent decades, started by television and more recently driven by the internet, mean communication and dialogue have to be at the heart of every organization’s strategy. One of the effects of this is that traditional marketing techniques are struggling to engage audiences. Advertising, particularly, is suffering. It has to use interruption to grab attention, and the audience doesn't like it.
Public opinion is complex, layered and sub sected. Your ‘public’ could be your employees, a handful of political decision makers, a group of tech bloggers, or the whole voting age public of a country. Real audience insights - the strategic planning discipline common in advertising - and research are more important than ever in modern PR.
In the face of increasingly blurring boundaries between communication channels, the role of PR agencies in helping brands gain and sustain share-of-mind, is further accentuated.
AG: What are the main concerns of the PR industry in India?
KL: Well there are several common issues that have beleaguered the industry.
Our industry is forgetting that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. A key role of the PR and communications industry is to promote ideas and markets and shift perceptions of products, people or politics. Yet as an industry we face a perception deficit.
I do a monthly finger on the pulse for each of our 6 offices across the country and I ask my leadership team what’s tough, what are you worried about? The reply is talent - finding quality professionals and retaining them. On the one hand, talent is in short supply. On the other hand, good talent is rapidly snapped up by corporate communications departments.
Lastly, the fee structure is difficult to address. Like any service industry, and especially one that is easy to set up, we too have to constantly face pricing pressure. When people promise too much for too little money, it will fail. It is a fiercely competitive market out there and price undercutting is rampant. Unfortunately, there is no policing system in place.
AG: What is the growth forecast for the industry going ahead?
KL: There are no official figures to my knowledge. According to guesstimates, the market is currently worth around $200 million. Given the global PR market is several billion dollars, and the Indian economy still continues to grow, one should expect this market to reflect that growth in the next 3-5 years. The Indian PR industry is expected to deliver double digit growth until 2020. The industry will continue to grow both in stature and in size as a mainstream part of the management process.
AG: With a lot of MNC agencies now present in India, what do you feel is the road ahead for Indian PR agencies and their prospects in a competitive scenario?
KL: At a macro level India is going to continue to grow and there is enough room for many of us to survive, and survive well. I think we are just at the front end of huge growth that you will see in public relations in India over the next decade.
The future holds many challenges for Indian players. They have so far been limited their service to media relations using traditional media. They will need to evolve fast. Indian PR agencies will need to morph and take on a consultative, strategic role. Another challenge for them will be to find relevance in the age of digital media and to have the ability to constantly benchmark results through ongoing research.
The entry of global players is good for the industry - it will help raise the bar for how PR is practiced in India. Overall the industry will gain through stronger strategic thinking, better tailored tools and tactics for each client, impact measurability and enhanced training of new talent joining agencies. It is not unimaginable that PR agencies in India will have dynamic remuneration models that will be directly linked to client growth and success.
AG: What according to you are the ingredients for success as a firm in the industry? How do you measure success?
KL: One thing PR firms must have, is creativity. Because it is creativity that separates firms in the changing ideas of communication. Ideas cannot become a commodity. Ideas have to be unique. Also, ideas come from and reside in people. So an ‘always learning’, ‘always sharing’ people-centric culture is critical for success.
At Lin Opinion, we measure success in a simple manner. How happy are our clients? Have we been able to deliver outstanding creative value and measurable results to them? And how happy are our people? Do we offer them unparalleled opportunities for professional growth and personal success? Do they love coming to work? Our raison d’etre are our people and our clients.
AG: Where do we stand vis-a-vis PR agencies in the west?
KL: In the west, PR agencies are consultative and strategic. They offer clients integrated communications, backed up with serious measurement of output and outcomes. In comparison, the business in India is fairly young. Most firms trace their origin to the years following economic reforms. Public relations until recently has largely been equated to media relations. Thanks to the entry of international PR firms, there is a clear and deliberate shift to bring in a more professional, data-driven approach to everything that was earlier in the fuzzy space.
AG: The issue of poor delivery versus promises is one main problems of the industry and clients have little faith/trust in PR companies. How do you feel this problem can be resolved?
KL: The language of business has always been about the evaluation of payback of actions, which directly or indirectly affect profits and growth. Evaluation is a vital part of the marketing communication process. In fact, 84% of our clients say evaluation is as important to them as getting good creative work in the first place. Clients who evaluate are the ones who generally stay. The irony of the situation is that neither client nor agency feels they have sufficient expertise in evaluation. This goes some way to explain why business leaders often see communications as a cost not an investment- even when on the face of it a campaign seems very successful. This is unlikely to change until we have an effectiveness culture and an understanding of what is required to answer the killer boardroom question; “what has the campaign done for the business?”
AG: Can you tell us about your journey so far and the five factors responsible for your success?
KL: I am a post graduate in Finance and alumni of IIM Calcutta. I entered into communications more by accident than by design. Nearly 2 decades down (half of it at LinOpinion) and I have not had a single boring moment. I love what I do…it is my success mantra. The communications industry is incredibly fast-paced and dynamic. It completely resonates with me. LinOpinion is a highly creative PR firm where exceptionally talented people do the best work of their lives.
AG: What advice will you give to youngsters planning to enter the profession?
KL: Think about what sort of PR you want to specialize in. PR is now a very specialized business. LinOpinion includes everything from lifestyle PR, to healthcare PR, to financial PR, to leadership profiling, crisis management, digital and social media, strategic planning, and mainstream consumer PR. Secondly, be prepared to demonstrate a real interest in the media and the world around you. Thirdly, live the digital lifestyle. Fourthly, be prepared to work hard. Be honest with yourself and those around you. Open yourself up to challenging situations. Showing that you are quietly and efficiently effective will take you a long way. The rest will follow.
AG: Where is Lin Opinion placed today as an agency and where do you see the road ahead. What are your plans in entering new practice areas?
KL: LinOpinion was established in 1996 and has grown successfully year on year to become one of India’s most respected PR agencies. It is today a significant contributor to Lowe Lintas India’s overall revenue. Over the years we have chosen steady, profitable growth and invested considerably in best practices and training, as the industry has evolved.
LinOpinion is focused on the future. We study the trends that are impacting our clients and we structure our business to address them. We recognize the world is changing at an unprecedented pace, and we intend to stay ahead of the curve for at least the next decade. We have identified five critical areas…this is where we are investing our resources and our imagination.
Message Training: Our emphasis on the creation of brand message architecture and the delivery of those messages throughout all communication and across all channels is that sets the LinOpinion message training model apart from our competitors. Our training professionals equip clients with the tools necessary to deliver messages that resonate with target audiences and drive business results. We coach participants on the disciplined delivery of key messages for media interviews, customer and investor outreach, speeches and all other types of communication. We help ensure that each set of messages ladders back up to the organization’s brand positioning and overall message architecture.
Social Media Engagement: LinOpinion utilizes a multi-channel approach to delivering messages and establishing conversations. We aggregate the most effective communications vehicles - including interactive, print, broadcast and social - to ensure maximum impact.
Issues and Crisis Management: In response to the growing influence of NGOs, LinOpinion has formalized its approach to leverage and deflect the influence of activists on issues ranging from the environment to animal welfare.
Corporate Social Responsibility: As more corporations focus on the “triple bottom line,” LinOpinion has evolved a sophisticated methodology for developing and evaluating CSR programs to help organizations chart a course to build trust with their diverse stakeholders.
Internal Communications: Our team of dedicated specialists combines the rigor of management consulting, the science of research and the art of marketing into a strategic package to motivate and mobilize a client’s internal audience.
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