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We were the first agency to use technology as a disruptor: Atul Sharma, Ruder Finn India

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: “Data analytics should be a fundamental part of any communications function”

In conversation with Adgully, Atul Sharma, Managing Director Ruder Finn India, speaks about how PR has become more holistic today, the strong focus on technology, cutting through the clutter with a good story and 3C’s – Curiosity, Creativity and Communication.

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?

For any industry to grow, it’s important to evolve with time and the public relations industry has kept up with the pace of changing times. A decade ago, the public relations business was heavily dependent on earned media; that has, over the years, evolved into integrated communication offerings across platforms and mediums making way for the paid, owned, earned and shared model. Similarly, the PR of yester years revolved around just media management, but today it’s more holistic, it’s an entire new ecosystem with digital being firmly positioned in the driver’s seat. Influencers and bloggers, who were considered a niche only a while ago, have taken center stage. One of the most dramatic shifts that I’ve been a witness to is how technology has stood the test of time. Being an early proponent of technology and in the Internet of things, I think the last couple of months have cemented the role of technology. Leading an agency that’s deeply rooted in technology, we’ve always believed that technology will be the catalyst that will shape the future course of the communications business. In my view, this is just the beginning. We will see a variety of new offerings centred around futuristic technologies like artificial intelligence, voice-based offerings, predictive analytics and AR/VR.

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?

At the very onset of the pandemic when India was headed into the lockdown, we were categoric about our priorities – Our people and clients. One of the biggest advantages of a mid-sized agency is its agility and the ability to adapt to evolving situations. We reacted to the situation fast and with purpose, immediately declaringwork from home (WFH), a week prior to the official lockdown. We understood that our strength lies in our workforce and put immense trust in our people and when one does that the results follow automatically. The transition, barring the initial glitches was smooth, which shifted our focus entirely to our clients. Keeping our clients engaged, the first call of action was to open all lines of communications, handholding them every step of the way through the process. These were also uncharted waters that none of us had experienced earlier but we managed the balance well. In doing so, we not only instilled confidence in our clients but also ensured that we continue to build long-lasting relationships with them.

As President, PRCAI, I would also like to share that even as an industry, our response was well coordinated and timely. All our member firms engaged on weekly calls to discuss our challenges and find mutual solutions to our problems. It was a tough time, but the fact that we took on the challenge together, really made the journey worthwhile.

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?

We are uniquely positioned as one of the largest independent agencies which is known for its ideas, people and relationships. Our independence gives us the freedom of thought, execution and the liberty to think and create out-of-the-box campaigns for our clients. Much of this freedom is reflected in the work we do. Adding to this luxury, is our DNA that’s deeply rooted in chasing What’s Next in technology. Since the tools of engagement have changed, at Ruder Finn, we’ve always rooted for technology; in fact, we were the first agency to use technology as a disruptor. Be it through our latest offerings in voice, data, predictive analytics or media training for crisis management, we understand that technology is fundamental to what we do and who we are. Taking it a step further, this is even reflected in the mandates we manage for our clients.

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 the popular economist and writer Yuval Noah Harari said, “disruption through technology is inevitable”. In line with this, we have not only been building our own capabilities and staying abreast of industry developments, but also acquiring companies which are far ahead in this realisation. From RLA Collective, which is a unique marketing services firm for Health & Wellness Brand to SPI Group, which is bolstering the agency’s offerings in areas like employee experience, corporate branding and corporate reputation to Osmosis Films, which is expanding the firm’s video, animation and interactive media capabilities, we have always recognised that this is the future and we’re driven to strengthen our offerings intelligently, customising them for our clients. Whether it’s through our proprietary tool for crisis management like SONAR, or through voice, predictive analytics or intelligent websites, we’re acutely aware of the power that technology yields for current and prospective clients.

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?

In the past, due to the lack of adequate measurement tools, PR had to rely to archaic methods to assess impact, but with the advent of the digital medium and new-age sophisticated tools, the measurement process has become far simpler. Now, we can not only track the messaging and its outreach, but also measure the influence of purchasing behaviour, which is an ultimate dream of a marketeer. We can build brand narratives catering to specific target audiences, build and strengthen corporate reputation of the brand and do lot more. In many ways, the controls are back in the hands of agencies and brands and it’s up to them how to engage with audiences to build narratives that everybody relates to. This helps track not only whether the message has been delivered, but also the call to action and its impact on people at large, not to forget the fact that this is a story which your target audience has curated, directed and listened to as well. As for uniformity, I think it’s a matter of time, when agencies across the board will gravitate towards the most reliable tools available in the market for measurement.

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’d say, 3C’s (Curiosity, Creativity and Communication) and a good story cuts through the clutter.

First and foremost, it’s curiosity. One must have a sense of desire for the hows and whys. Then there’s a creative bent that you can either have or inculcate through practice. Having industry related skills like good communication and storytelling are an obvious bonus for making the journey less bumpy, but overall, one should be driven by knowledge, and eager to understand why some campaigns work while others don’t. As an agency, for us values like meritocracy and individuality are deeply ingrained in our system; these serve as constant reminders for our associates to break the glass ceiling, which inevitably strengthens the culture of the organisation. The beauty about the business of comms is that the canvas is large enough to accommodate people from multiple backgrounds and that certainly adds diversity to the mix.

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?

Like everything else in life, the virtual world has its pros and cons. The answer, however, lies in balance. Even as we return to the new normal post the discovery of vaccines, we’ll see that WFH is here to stay. Virtual bubbles can be extremely comforting yet at the same time be very isolating as well. The virtual space can never replace the sense of touch and feel that we humans thrive on. No matter what the technology, it’ll rarely replace an experience with emotions. The lockdown has resulted in some amount of virtual fatigue, but we encourage our teams to take regular time off or me time. There will always be relationships that need nurturing and rekindling – be it with journalists, bloggers or influencers, who are couched in remote corners of the country. But we like to look at the positives and hope that we’ll get to meet our friends sooner rather than later. Like the calamities of the past, this too shall pass, and we will come out stronger and hopefully wiser.

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